The Saddam I have come to know
By David Palkki Best Defense department of dictatorial archives I’m grateful to Tom for inviting me to present a few highlights from The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001, which Cambridge University Press just published. I had the good fortune to co-edit this study, with Kevin Woods and Mark Stout, at ...
By David Palkki
By David Palkki
Best Defense department of dictatorial archives
I’m grateful to Tom for inviting me to present a few highlights from The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime, 1978-2001, which Cambridge University Press just published. I had the good fortune to co-edit this study, with Kevin Woods and Mark Stout, at the Institute for Defense Analyses for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy). Our book is based on a review of several thousand audio files (and a smaller number of video files) that U.S.-led forces captured from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The recordings cover several decades’ worth of Saddam’s meetings with his cabinet, Revolutionary Command Council, generals, tribal sheikhs, visiting dignitaries and others.
The book is intended more as an invitation to scholars to conduct research using digital copies of the original records (and translations) at the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) than as an effort to compile definitive conclusions or policy recommendations, yet certain patterns and insights have surfaced as a result of our efforts. In this blog I’ll touch on three.
–First, Saddam was not in America’s hip pocket during the 1980s. In fact, he was far more antagonistic toward and skeptical of the United States, even at the height of U.S. support for Iraq during the 1980s, than scholars have acknowledged. The United States was behind the Iranian Revolution, Saddam privately asserted, "to scare the Gulf people so they can have a [military] presence and arrange the situation in the region." After Iran-Contra revelations made clear that the United States had clandestinely armed Iran and provided it with military intelligence on Iraq, Saddam complained to his inner circle that the Americans were still "conspiring bastards." From Saddam’s perspective, the entire episode was intended to harm Iraq (not to help the Contras or free U.S. hostages). He referred to the incident as "Irangate," held at least seven meetings to analyze the significance of the revelations, and described U.S. behavior as a "stab in the back." In May 1988, Saddam instructed his advisors, "We have to be aware of America more than the Iranians" because "they are now the police for Iran, they will turn anything they find over to Iran." In September 1988, just after the war had ended, Saddam expressed conviction to his advisers that the United States was behind a recent attempt on his life.
–Second, when it came to his worldview, what Saddam said in public was very similar to what he said in private. Though Americans often discount what dictators say in public, Saddam was generally sincere in his public rhetoric. Saddam’s conspiratorial outlook, specifically his anti-Semitism, provides a case in point. Some scholars have presented his anti-Semitic public speeches as insincere rhetoric designed to solidify his domestic base or accrue Iraq support from the Arab street, and deemed it unreflective of his actual thinking. The frequency of Saddam’s anti-Semitic comments in his private meetings suggests otherwise. In multiple recordings, Saddam spoke of the need for the Iraqi leadership to read and study The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an infamous anti-Semitic tract forged by the Tsar’s secret police. He explained in a meeting from the early 1990s, "I do not believe that there was any falsification with regard to those Zionist objectives, specifically with regard to the Zionist desire to usurping-usurping the economies of people." "The Jews are greedy," he explained to his advisers on a separate occasion. Saddam’s anti-Semitism was tempered by respect for his formidable adversary and by his famous pragmatism, and he certainly had legitimate reasons to fear Israeli intrigues, yet his anti-Semitic hate speech still stands in need of greater recognition and analysis by scholars as an important aspect of his belief system.
–Third, Saddam believed that Iraqi acquisition of a nuclear weapon would enable it to liberate Israeli-held Palestinian territories. Iraq did not seek nuclear weapons to initiate a nuclear first strike against Israel; rather, Saddam explained, he wanted a nuclear weapon to deter Israeli nuclear weapon use so Iraq could wage a bloody war of attrition:
The most important requirement is that we be present in Iraq and Syria and will have planned ahead that the enemy, the air force, that the enemy will come and attack and destroy, etc. We should bear it and keep going – and go put pressure on our Soviet friends and make them understand our need for one weapon – we only want one weapon. We want, when the Israeli enemy attacks our civilian establishments, to have weapons to attack the Israeli civilian establishments. We are willing to sit and refrain from using it, except when the enemy attacks civilian establishments in Iraq or Syria, so that we can guarantee the long war that is destructive to our enemy, and take at our leisure each meter of land and drown the enemy with rivers of blood. We have no vision for a war that is any less than this.
Of course there are many other insights and really cool transcripts, but for those you’ll need to read the book.
David Palkki is the Deputy Director of the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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