The Most Savage Player

This is Martin Kramer’s review of Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. It appeared under the headline “The Most Savage Player,” in New York Newsday, April 14, 1991.

The armies of biographers arrayed against Saddam Hussein face a daunting line of trenches filled with misinformation and myth. Behind them, in bunkers both mental and real, Iraq’s ruler makes his (last?) choices in utmost secrecy. In what sense is Iraq’s President, even after 20 years in power, a “public man”? Shielded by the cult of his personality, Saddam is Iraq’s only “private citizen.” The public men and women of Iraq are its people, relentlessly pursued by the spotlights of state security. Until Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, his only biographers had been sycophants; the fog was too thick, the subject too obscure, for serious biography.

Now two Mideast specialists, Efraim Karsh of King’s College, London, and. Inari Rautsi of the University of Helsinki, have produced the first critical political biography of Saddam Hussein. They carry the story right through to the end of the recent war. This is no exercise in pop psychologizing, no work of quick exploitation: Karsh and Rautsi have set a standard for evidence and analytical rigor that other biographers will be hard-pressed to match.

Not only do the full documentation and precise style reflect a long investment in research and writing, but the authors have produced a subtle interpretation of Saddam, which casts him as a man forged by his society even as he sought to reforge it. Saddam, they emphasize repeatedly, did not initiate Iraq’s cycle of plot and purge, “did not set the rules of the game in this cruel system.” The artificiality of the Iraqi state–a discordant jumble of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds–invited domestic subversion and foreign intervention. The very survival of Iraq required a strongman. Saddam won the game only because he was the “most savage and able player, bringing its brutal methods to awesome perfection.”

Yet the brutality was never wanton or reckless. Paradoxically, Saddam emerges from these pages a supremely cautious man. He carefully prepared every step in his rise from petty conspirator to “efficient apparatchik” and finally to dictator. He did make the rare mistake. An assassination attempt that he botched forced him into exile, and a later decision not to flee left him a political prisoner for two years. But his opponents neglected to kill him, assuming they had nothing to fear. Saddam did not repeat their mistakes. The grueling tests he passed on the road to power convinced him that survival meant the cunning combination of caution and ruthlessness.

But this was not the sum of Saddam’s strategy for political survival. Karsh and Rautsi demonstrate that Saddam was not above making humiliating concessions if his grip on power depended on it. In 1975, Saddam made major border concessions to Iran, to end the Shah’s backing of a dangerous Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq. And despite Saddam’s uncompromising rhetoric against Israel, the authors detail how he sought a dialogue with the Jewish state when he stood to lose his war with Iran. (Israel did not bite.) There was ample precedent for Saddam’s “readiness to lose face whenever his survival so required.” He would never martyr himself.

Why then did Saddam throw caution to the wind? According to Karsh and Rautsi, he never did. Another recent book on Iraq, by Samir al-Khalil, bears the evocative title Republic of Fear. Karsh and Rautsi seek to prove that the fear extended even to Saddam himself, and drove his every move. They do not deny his ambition, for which they provide telling evidence. But they attribute his greatest gambles–the invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990–to his visceral fear for his survival.

Iran had waged war against him by inciting Iraq’s Shiites; Kuwait had threatened him by keeping oil prices down, preventing him from providing both guns and butter to his people. Saddam believed that the policies of both neighbors might topple him. But in both instances Saddam invaded as a “last resort,” and in neither case did he capitalize on his initial military advantage. In the most controversial chapter of their book, Karsh and Rautsi argue that Saddam did everything within his personal repertoire to warn the Kuwaitis, and then to clear the invasion with the United States. He thought he had a green light.

These issues will long be debated. In the meantime, while Saddam’s fate hangs in the balance, the Hobbesian system that produced him seems unassailable. In the midst of civil war, Iraq still yearns for the perfect strongman–Sunni, Shiite or Kurd. Whoever Saddam’s successor will be, the authors expect “he will continue to confront dissent and disaster at every turn, and will be constantly preoccupied with his personal survival.” As the grim process of selection grinds smaller, one must dread the man who will prove cunning and fearful enough to destroy Saddam Hussein.