Saddam’s Last Act

An odious leader, discredited even before capture, is gradually restored to health and strength while awaiting trial for war crimes. Finally in court, he conducts a vigorous defense and thus retrieves some dignity before his inevitable conviction and condemnation. That was Herman Goering, once Adolf Hitler’s right hand man but an obese drug addict by war’s end, who ultimately put up a forceful defense at the Nuremberg trial of the nazi leadership.

The Saddam Hussein captured at the weekend was reminiscent of Goering at his nadir–blinking, disoriented and so divorced from reality that he asked his G.I. captor if he was open to negotiation. This was a far cry from the frightening leader who once conferred on equal terms with fellow world leaders. Can he emulate the old nazi and rally before taking the stage in the courtroom?

Putting up a good account of himself in the last act of his public career will be an important priority for Saddam. This is a man who has brooded long and deeply on his place in history, famously reconstructing remnants of ancient Babylon, for example, using bricks inscribed with grandiose references to “the era of Saddam Hussein.” Iraqi billboards were papered with posters depicting Saddam standing alongside what he regarded as his historical peers legendary rulers such as Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin, the conqueror of the crusaders. This former village bully saw himself as the true successor to these giants of the past, and worked hard to convince others to think the same way.

To some degree he was successful. Soon after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a respected and eminently cultured Arab intellectual described the Iraqi leader to me as a “kick-ass Arab,” willing and able to defy the arrogant Americans and their Israeli allies. Even his opponents were wary of his alleged strength and toughness. I recall a senior CIA official respectfully quoting Saddam’s observation that “Assad (at that time the dictator of Syria) may be the smartest leader in the Middle East, but I am the toughest.” More recently, George Bush was able to sell Americans on the inherently unlikely notion that Saddam Hussein actually posed a threat to the security of the United States.

Saddam’s emergence from his burrow, looking more like an addled street person than a fearsome dictator, obviously put an enormous dent in the assiduously cultivated legend. To surrender without a shot being fired, let alone without saving the last bullet for himself, was deeply humiliating. Over the years he has repeatedly stressed how he, personally, would fight to the end. Sometimes he would repeat a tale of how, during the Iran Iraq war, he found himself in the Iraqi front line as it was being overrun by advancing Iranians, and had snatched a gun from an Iraqi soldier. “With a gun in my hand,” he would conclude the anecdote, “I was ready to face the world.”

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. Saddam may now wish reestablish his aura as a formidable figure, respected on the world stage. One means toward restoring his credentials as a respected statesman that may have occurred to him would be frequent evocation of the decade during which he was a close ally of the United States. “Black List One” as the US troops have been calling him, may, or at least should, be contemplating the subpoena he can issue to summon Donald Rumsfeld to testify about the defense secretary’s trip to Baghdad in 1983.

Cross questioning would elicit details of how Rumsfeld arrived as a special Presidential envoy, offering full support to Saddam in his war with Iran while simultaneously touting for the Bechtel Corporation in connection with a proposed pipeline deal. Rumsfeld also callied a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Itzak Shamir offering to sell arms in any quantity to Saddam.

The deposed Iraqi leader may also have visions of summoning the American executives who sold him the wherewithal for biological weapons manufacture, or the U.S admirals who commanded the fleet to fight by his side against Iranian gunboats and airliners in the Arabian Gulf in 1988, or the Saudi officials who subsidized his nuclear weapons program. Closer to home, he can remind leading members of the so-called Iraqi Governing Council of close cooperation in the past –especiallly the Kurdish leader who once disposed of a large number of Iraqi communist refugees at Saddam’s behest in exchange for a lavish reward.

Such crafty defiance would certainly embarrass the prosecutors. But it will take more than that to restore Saddam’s stature as a larger than life figure–for, despite all the carefully fostered legend, Saddam’s submissive surrender was absolutely in character. Forty years ago, he was a hunted fugitive on the run from the security forces of the regime that drove his Baath party from power in a November 1963 coup. Finally cornered in a safe house with two companions, Saddam rejected the exhortation of one comrade to fight to the death, opting instead for surrender and a comfortable jail cell.

This pattern of retreat persisted in later years. He repeatedly tried to throw in his hand once his ill considered 1980 attack on Iran went awry, only to have his offers rejected by Ayatollah Khomeini, a genuinely hard nosed in dividual. In the 1991 Gulf War he effectively surrendered by ordering a precipitous and disastrous retreat by his armies from Kuwait. Credible reports indicate that prior to this year’s invasion of Iraq he was offering abject concessions, including an invitation to US troops to come and search for the weapons of mass destruction.

Despite this record, much of the world has been prepared to believe the fantasy–even through its latest manifestation in which Saddam was depicted by the Americans as an organiser and mainspring of the Iraqi resistance. Now, assuming he gets anything approaching a fair and open trial, he has the opportunity to re-assemble the legend that fell apart at the bottom of a muddy pit.


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Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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