Uncovering Saddam's Secrets / Joseph Sasson

January 26, 2012
Joseph Sassoon, a native of Baghdad and a seasoned commentator on Arab affairs, is an adjunct professor of Middle East studies at Georgetown University and a former public scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

He has published extensively on Iraqi history and politics, and is the author of Economic Policy in Iraq, 1932–1950 (1987) and The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East (2009). On January 26, Sassoon spoke to the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia, on "Uncovering Saddam's Secrets," in which he drew on his latest book, Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge, 2012).

Joseph Sassoon's new book attempts to "understand the inner workings of a modern Arab state from its own meticulous records, rather than journalistic or secondary sources." Making extensive use of official Iraqi archives retrieved after the 2003 Iraq war, Sassoon studied the functioning of a "one party Arab state in the grip of an authoritarian theology" by focusing on three aspects of the regime: durability; intelligence gathering; its collapse and the rise of sectarianism.

The Baath Party, along with the bureaucracy and military, formed the three pillars of the state that maintained a tight grip on every facet of Iraqi life. This structure explains the regime's durability, aided by Saddam's deliberate weakening of the armed forces as a means of "coup-proofing" his rule.

Baathist power was further centralized within its secretariat, which served as a "board of directors" of sorts, and its ability to recruit and retain millions of followers. From a population of 25 million, some four million—sixteen percent of the population—were card-carrying Baath affiliates, each of them charged with gathering and reporting information to the government. The resulting volume of information was so huge that it was often inaccurate, whether by design or error, by the time it reached Saddam.

Party members and others were subjected to a system of punishments and rewards that further secured Saddam's rule. While the tortures were well known, the reward system underscored, in Sassoon's words, "the necessity and importance for every individual to support [the party]," which reciprocated by conferring symbols of status and privilege on tens of thousands of members, and through them—jobs, financial compensation, admission to institutions, and appointments. Such rewards were presented as gifts from the supreme leader himself rather than the State, thus confirming that "Saddam was Iraq."

Sassoon concluded that Saddam's hubris led to his downfall and eventual execution. Isolated from international opinion, and surrounded by a docile flock of lackeys too terrified to tell him the full truth, he adamantly opposed America's interests rather than recognize a common enemy in militant Islam. Absent the U.S. invasion, with no internal opposition and a domestic economy and infrastructure that by late 2000 had rebounded to pre-Gulf War strength, Saddam's rule could have lasted for many more years.

Summary account by Alex Berman.

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