Strange are the ways of evil. So many of history’s evil despots have bordered on insanity that it makes one wonder if a major part of evil is not lunacy. When documenting the strangeness of evil rulers, Saddam Hussein will surely go down as one of history’s most perplexing.
Here was a man who rose from humble origins to become one of the most talked about men in the world. He achieved this with an extraordinary mixture of ruthlessness, intelligence and political astuteness. It is not easy to rule even a small group of men and leadership in the Arab world, torn as it is by ferocious rivalries and bitter intrigue, is by far the most difficult. And yet this man, a ruler from a minority community which is barely one third of the majority, held Iraq and its twenty five million people in a stranglehold of power and brutality for over a quarter of a century.
The exercise of evil too requires imagination, foresight and organization, perhaps even more so than the dispensation of benevolence. It is oftentimes more difficult to survive the stratagems of your supporters than to suppress the aspirations of your opponents. Even though he had the Baathist party with him, it was him and him alone who was always the undisputed leader of the country. Usually these regimes are fraught with plots and counterplots but such was the organization of his power that not one credible coup could be staged against him.
On the international stage, the man was a master at playing western powers against each other and profiting from the weaknesses of both. Seizing on the American naivety in Arabian polities, he used the war against Iran to gain access to weaponry and technology that he later dangled on their own heads. He managed to postpone the inevitable American invasion for almost a decade by playing the brinkmanship game with the UN inspection team, while adroitly doling out oil contracts to Europe and Russia to checkmate his arch enemy’s moves on the Security Council. America is still chasing his claims to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons all over the desert.
During the height of the sanctions when the international spotlight was trained on his country, he managed to siphon off millions from the oil-for-food program. His personal wealth was once estimated to be around six billion dollars, much of which had been skimmed off right under the noses of observers. With the dexterous use of doubles, he managed to keep American’s satellite technology guessing as to his location and Israel’s single-minded pursuit stymied. He played to the Arabian gallery by keeping up his colorful rhetoric against Israel and even startling them with his Scud attack during the Gulf war, shrewdly seeking to provoke them into regionalizing the war.
One has to concede that these are not the capabilities of an unintelligent man. Survival in the face of odds such as he faced requires cunning and calculation far beyond the gamut of common sense.
And yet, for no reason, with spluttering inexplicability, he refused the offer of exile. All this man had to do was to take a few of his billions and, with the help of the French or the Russians, to negotiate safe passage and a comfortable life in a friendly country like Syria with his family. For all practical purposes, an exile would have meant a tacit international forgiveness for his sins. There is no dearth of exiled leaders to prove that the process works. He could have had it all. Instead, like a moth drawn to a flame, he drew the Americans to his own doom.
Did he seriously think he could challenge the world’s most powerful military to a war and not pay the price? And when the time comes, he puts up a whimpering semblance of a fight, his much-vaunted elite troops disappear into the countryside while he and sons vanish for months. Even, as it has been alleged, considering the possibility that the guerilla war was being masterminded according to a master plan drawn up by him before the war, was this great strategy comparable to an exile?
Today, cornered like a rat in a hole, he hardly looks as if he could have been running his own life, leave alone the war. To cap it all, despite knowing fully well his fate at the hands of eager interrogators, he surrenders meekly, proving that all thugs are cowards in the final analysis. It took just that one minute for his painstakingly cultivated stature as an Arabian hero to implode, his loyalists stunned by his abject appearance and shamed and dishonored by his betrayal.
If all he was going to do was surrender, he could have done that a few thousand needless deaths ago. Instead, he is going to have his darkest secrets prized out of him, be paraded like an animal in a zoo, the billions that he had spent a lifetime accumulating of no use to his family or his friends, and shot to death like a mad dog while his enemies gloat over his humiliation. Was this the Mother of all Battles, after all? Or was it just the whim of a mad dictator, the grand self-delusion of a sick human being? There will no doubt be a million books exploring his reign and the brain that engineered it. But I wonder whether any of them will prove beyond doubt how much of his butchery was madness and how much method.
As of today, thousands of soldiers and civilians have been injured or killed in Saddam’s pointless war. Many more will die in the ongoing conflict before peace comes to the region, if it ever does. It seems even after death, the Butcher of Baghdad will force innocents to make a payment that should have been only his.