Via the Volokh Conspiracy comes this follow-up to Mark Bowden’s now famous Atlantic profile of Saddam Hussein (well, famous as far as the blogosphere goes).

Like everyone else, I found Bowden’s original Saddam piece incredibly enlightening and valuable for its deep look at Saddam the man, rather than Saddam the specter, but still I have to disagree with much of Bowden’s conclusions about the man’s inherent character. Bowden claims that Saddam started out as virtually any other self-interested politician: selfish and with a will to power, but reasonable and able to be dealt with.

So is it your sense that the eventual emergence of Saddam’s tyranny and masochism wasn’t inevitable? That if he hadn’t managed to gain a certain amount of power, he would have remained a reasonable person, and no one would ever have known that he was capable of such atrocities? 

I think so. In order to be able to become the sort of exaggeratedly cruel and tyrannical figure he is now, he needed to amass a huge amount of power .


I don’t doubt that Saddam’s recklessness and arrogance has been enlarged by his grip on power, but I totally disagree that it was somehow simply power that turned what seemed like a Clinton into a Stalin. It is instructive to remember that one of the reasons that Saddam rose to prominence in his early association with the Ba’ath party was his particular skill at (and affinity for) torture, a trait he has passed onto his two sons. I’m much more inclined to agree with analyses of Saddam by people like Saad al-Bazzaz, who claims that Saddam’s actions are merely the violence and power-grabbing of Iraqi local village politics writ large. The same impulse towards domination at any cost was always there, the only thing lacking was the means. Saddam seems to have simply been particularly adept at masking those impulses and looking like the good Ba’ath socialist reformer for as long as was necessary .

Bowden further describes what distinguishes Saddam from other tyrants throughout history.

In modern times tyrants have tended to be motivated primarily by ideology. So you have Pol Pot and Mao and Stalin and Hitler and Castro, all of whom were driven by fantasies of creating a higher social order. And then you have tyrants like Mobutu Sese-Sekou and Idi Amin and Papa Doc Duvalier, who were primarily motivated by greed?who were just trying to amass as much power, and have sex with as many women, and eat as much food as they could. Saddam is different in that he appears to be motivated primarily by vanity . And by this romantic fascination with Arabian history?the glory of Arabia.


Sounds to me like a strong echo of Den Beste’s notorious, oft-cited, sometimes infamous description of Arab Traditionalism.

The Iraqi National Congress, which is the group of expatriates that the United States has been supporting, claims that the ground there is fertile for democracy and that getting rid of Saddam will enable the creation of a secular democratic society. I think, frankly, that that’s a long shot. But I don’t claim to know enough about Iraq to predict with any certainty what would be likely to happen. One of the problems about going after Saddam is the uncertainty about what would follow.


I don’t think anyone serious is saying that democracy is going to just spring fully-formed from the dead forehead of Saddam, but I do believe that the possibilities for a pro-US government and society, and thus one that could very well lead to something of a liberal democracy, are much more fertile in Iraq rather than, say Saudi Arabia.

last update : 26-5-2018

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