It's Not Easy Being Mean

Mark Bowden, the author of The Atlantic's May cover story, talks about the strange life of Saddam Hussein and why his downfall is inevitable.

Though many Americans are at a loss to name even the most powerful of world leaders, nearly all are familiar with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Saddam is so frequently the instigator of trouble both in his own region and—thanks to his influence over the international oil market—worldwide, that his pompadoured, moustachioed, military-clad image has become a commonplace sight in American newpapers and television broadcasts. (Just this week we saw him urging Arab countries to curtail oil production in protest against Israel's military offensive.)

But as Mark Bowden makes clear in his May cover story, "Tales of the Tyrant," there is far more to Saddam than the belligerent caricature with which most of us are familiar. By conducting extensive interviews with a number of expatriate Iraqis who have had personal dealings with him, and by digging through the extensive literature on Saddam, Bowden has pieced together a comprehensive portrait of this enigmatic despot—shedding light on how he developed into the monstrous figure he is today.

Not so long ago, Saddam was admired as a thoughtful, articulate, intelligent politician who was an asset to Iraq's reform-minded socialist-revolutionary party. Some of those who knew him in the sixties and seventies recall enjoying idealistic bull-sessions with him about Iraq's future. And as he gained power within the party, he began to implement a number of reforms to Iraq's health-care and educational systems that both seemed to fulfill his early promise and earned him praise in the West.

But in 1979, just when he may have been poised for election to the party's top position, he seized the party leadership in an abrupt and violent manner—accusing a number of influential party leaders of treason, and then having them publicly executed. "Everyone now understood exactly how things would work from that day forward" Bowden writes. Saddam now wielded absolute power, and those who crossed or challenged him would be eliminated.

This dramatic change in Saddam perplexed many outside observers, but several Iraqis with whom Bowden spoke suggested that Saddam's sudden ruthlessness may have represented not so much a transformation of his character as the emergence of an impulse that had been hidden within him all along. Saddam, they pointed out, had grown up in a primitive village where subsistence was difficult and competition and violence among family clans was the rule. Saad al-Bazzaz, a former newspaper editor and television producer in Baghdad, described Iraqi village life thus:

There is no real law enforcement or civil society. Each family is frightened of each other, and all of them are frightened of outsiders. This is the tribal mind. The only loyalty they know is to their own family, or to their own village. Each of the families is ruled by a patriarch, and the village is ruled by the strongest of them. This loyalty to tribe comes before everything. There are no values beyond power. You can lie, cheat, steal, even kill, and it is okay so long as you are a loyal son of the village or the tribe. Politics for these people is a bloody game, and it is all about getting or holding power.

Perhaps, al-Bazzaz suggested, Saddam had long been planning to become "the ultimate Iraqi patriarch, the village leader who has seized a nation." If so, Saddam may have been interested in reform only insofar as it could further his own power.

A pathological sense of vanity, Bowden explains, has also played an important role in Saddam's quest for absolute power. He seems to want more than anything to go down in history as a great man—a glorious champion of the Arab people. With a view to this, he has had giant statues erected in his honor, poems lauding him presented on television, and a nineteen-part biography written about his accomplishments. He has even had his lineage traced to the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and—in honor of that alleged divine connection—had a 600-page copy of the Koran hand-written in his own donated blood. "Can ego alone explain such displays?" Bowden asks. "Might it be the opposite? What colossal insecurity and self-loathing would demand such compensation?"

His utter conviction that Allah has appointed him the avenger of his people has rendered him impervious to reason when it comes to making foreign-policy decisions. Thus, believing that he cannot but prevail, he frequently takes foolish, hubristic military and political action that ends up getting many of his citizens needlessly killed or injured. His people despise him both for this and for the atrocities he regularly commits, seemingly at whim, against those he perceives as his enemies.

"Ultimately," Bowden writes, "Saddam will fail," because nearly every move he makes creates new enemies who may one day turn on him. In the meantime, Saddam works hard to elude that fate by hiding behind the high walls of his palaces, sleeping as little as possible (and never in the same place for more than one night at a time), and scrupulously concealing from the public such signs of aging and vulnerability as his graying hair, his bad back, and his worsening eyesight. "Survival [has become] his one overriding passion. So he regulates his diet, tests his food for poison, exercises behind well-patrolled walls, trusts no one." Despite Saddam's extensive wealth and power, then, the life of the tyrant is hardly enviable. "One might think that the most powerful man has the most choices," Bowden writes, "but in reality he has the fewest."

Mark Bowden, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of Black Hawk Down (1999) and Killing Pablo (2001). He spoke with me by phone on April 15.

—Sage Stossel

You emphasize that Saddam Hussein scrupulously hides the intimate details of his life from the general public, but you've managed to paint a fairly full picture of his background, his personal habits, and his daily routines. Was it difficult to figure out how to access that kind of information?

Obviously I wasn't going to get to hang around with Saddam Hussein himself—although I did try! I sent a letter and phoned the Iraqi consulate in New York, asking if I could interview him. But they never responded. So I didn't get anywhere with that.

The hardest thing was to try to sort out the truth from fantasy. There have been a number of books written about Saddam, several of them by Iraqi expatriates, and one by the British journalists Alexander and Leslie Cockburn. But the problem with those books is that they repeat a lot of rumors about him. Given that he is such a despised figure in his own country and around the world, anything bad that's said about Saddam is repeated and written down as though it were definitely true. My hunch going in was that if I were trying to write about the intimate details of his personal life, it was going to be difficult to sort out the tall tales from the truth. The only way to try to get at the truth was by finding people who had personal relationships with him and getting them to talk about their experiences. In my reporting, I try to get first-hand stories because I have the best shot at getting reliable information that way.

And they had to be people who aren't under his influence anymore, right?

Yes. These are people who fled Iraq, so they aren't friends of Saddam's—at least not any longer.

I tried to weigh the credibility of the people I interviewed on the basis of my own judgment: In meeting them did they appear to be the kind of people who make up stuff? Or did they try to stick pretty much to the facts. I was particularly pleased that someone like General Wafic Samarai, who was an important source for me, and whom I quoted somewhat extensively, defended Saddam in a number of ways, and debunked some of the more outrageous rumors about him. That enhanced his credibility in my eyes. Because here is someone who is politically opposed to Saddam—who thinks he's wrong and misguided—but who has a certain amount of respect for him as a person. Not that I was thrilled that he liked Saddam, but I appreciated that he wasn't just out to get him. That's what I look for.

Many of the people you interviewed talked about having been impressed with how articulate and open-minded Saddam was in his younger, socialist-revolutionary days: he seemed to enjoy engaging in genuine give-and-take discussions with others, and he took many significant steps to improve the quality of life for the Iraqi people. Is it your impression that, as some of the people you interviewed suggest, his period of reasonableness was just a carefully calculated charade, masking an underlying ruthlessness that has stayed with him since his rural upbringing? Or do you think it's more a matter of his somehow changing over time as he grew older and gained power?

My guess is that it's the latter—that he was corrupted by power. As they say, Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think Saddam was a good politician back when he needed support from other people in order to become more powerful. At the time that he was being more open-minded and more human, I suspect that was somewhat genuine. But I think there was never anything selfless about Saddam. There's no question that his ultimate goal was always to gather power to himself—to advance himself and his family and his own village and their interests. The people who knew him earlier feel very betrayed. And in their sense of betrayal, they tend to ascribe to Saddam a kind of all-knowingness—as if he knew exactly where he was heading and exactly what he intended to do right from the beginning. But I think that, like most people, he couldn't foresee where he would be ten, twenty years down the road; what kind of power he would wield and what he would do with it. I suspect the truth is that he has somewhat surprised even himself.

So is it your sense that the eventual emergence of Saddam's tyranny and sadism 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. And one of the things that I tried to point out in the article is that other people have to collaborate in making a tyrant. What happened was that a lot of people hitched their wagons to Saddam and used him to further their own interests. And he turned on them at some point. He became so powerful that he got rid of everybody who disagreed with him or tried to influence him in ways that he didn't like. So the people who bet on Saddam were right in the sense that he was going to become a very powerful leader, but they were wrong in assuming that he had any ambitions beyond his own, or any larger social ambitions for his country.

I thought it was interesting that you began the article with a description not, as one might expect, of Saddam's shocking atrocities, but of the pathetically constrained and lonely life he leads. I have to admit I was surprised to find myself almost feeling sorry for him at first. Was that an intended effect?

What I began with was a description of his person—of his body. You know, what he looks like. At age sixty-six how's he holding up? I wanted to give a sense of him as a man. The whole point of the article is to penetrate the myths and the legend and write about him as a human being. Saying that makes it sound like my goal was to try and write about him sympathetically, but really it was just to try to understand him as a person. So I began the story by demonstrating to the reader that this is not a typical piece about Saddam Hussein; this is a story that's going to try and tell you something personal about him. And if you were struck by his isolation, and felt a little sorry for him because of it, that's because it is sad. That is the natural state of the tyrant—to live in fear, to live in isolation.

I'm curious about the presentation of the article, with its division into sections titled "Shakhsuh (His Person)," Tumooh (Ambition)," "Hadafuh (His Goal)," and so on, with each heading followed by a quote from one of Saddam's speeches. Is that format modeled after anything in particular? Or is it just something you came up with to help organize the piece?

It was kind of influenced by Ryszard Kapuscinski. He's a Polish journalist whom I admire greatly. He wrote a book some years ago called the Shah of Shahs about the Shah of Iran. It wasn't exactly like what I did in this story, because he began by actually assembling artifacts as though he were a detective—a photograph, a passport, a newspaper clipping, whatever. And he would use these items to inspire long passages in which he would tell stories and analyze the Shah in various ways. That impressed me as a useful way of organizing a piece that, by necessity—because obviously you can't get close this person—is both speculation and fact.

You write that "The sheer scale of the tyrant's deeds mocks psychoanalysis. What begins with ego and ambition becomes a political movement." In the course of informing yourself about Saddam, did you look into the lives of any other tyrants and dictators as a means of comparison?

I've read a lot of books about tyrants, including some by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He's written several times about tyrannical figures—in Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in His Labyrinth. I've read about Mao; I've read about Stalin; I've read about Hitler. I read Jon Lee Anderson's book Che, which has some really interesting insights into Castro. So I had a kind of familiarity with the subject. And one of the things that interested me about doing the piece on Saddam is that it was an opportunity for me to think about and reflect on the nature of the tyrant—how someone becomes a tyrant, what that means to their lives, what their motivations are. It's a recurring theme in modern world history

Does he conform to some kind of typical pattern? Are there aspects of his personality or situation that stand out as unusual?

Some things about him are different. 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.

You talk about how he's despised by his own people and by the people of neighboring countries. Does his devotion to the glory of Arabia earn him any respect?

I've never had an opportunity to travel widely in Iraq. But my impression from people whom I've interviewed and from what I've read is that his fantasies no longer resonate very much anywhere in that world. Not in his own country, and not in the region.

What about Saddam's decision yesterday to stop oil exports to the West in solidarity with the Palestinians? Does that win him any points with the Arab world?

Yes. This is probably the first thing that he's done in recent years that has enhanced his prestige in that part of the world. To people in the street, and also to the leadership, Saddam is an exceedingly unpopular person. Even though the leaders of that region would publicly oppose a United States invasion of Iraq, or an effort to rid Iraq of Saddam, privately they would support it—or at the very least, be happy if it was successful. But I do think he's gained points for himself with the oil embargo, without a doubt. It's one of the ways that this crisis in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine has serious implications for the United States and the rest of the world.

You emphasize that Saddam is very out of touch with the world beyond his palace walls, both because he can't safely venture outside to learn what's going on first-hand and because people are afraid to tell him anything he doesn't want to hear. You do mention, though, that he watches international television stations like al-Jazeera, CNN, and the BBC. How attuned is he to the Western media, and what are the chances that he would become aware of the existence of an article like this detailing all the things about him that he doesn't want anyone to know?

I think he almost certainly will become aware of this article. But I think of all the things that are written and said about him, this is hardly the most terrible. I'd be curious to know his reponse to it. And, you know, if he complained to me, I'd say, Well, I asked to spend some time with you and interview you, but you wouldn't let me, so I did the best I could!

You explain that Saddam has washed his hands of his dissolute and deranged elder son Uday, and currently seems to be grooming his quieter, more responsible son Qusay to be his successor. What do you know about Qusay? Might he make for a more reasonable and judicious leader than his father?

I sincerely doubt the regime of Saddam Hussein will survive Saddam. Even if he does live out his normal life span, it's very doubtful that his sons would carry on. They would have to be formidably powerful in the way that he is, which I think is unlikely. It follows the pattern of tyrants worldwide: it's a rare tyrannical figure whose regime survives death.

What end do you foresee for him? Are there circumstances under which his own people would overthrow him without outside help? And how receptive would the Iraqi people be to assistance from the U.S. in eliminating Saddam and/or in setting up a successor government?

My guess would be that Saddam will fall, probably fairly soon. He'll probably be killed by somebody in his inner circle. But it will be connected in some way to an American effort—in conjunction with American military strikes. That's just pure conjecture on my part, but that would be my guess.

If the military people around Saddam were convinced that the United States was definitely going to invade, they would know they were going to be defeated. And since I doubt that there's really any intense personal loyalty to Saddam, I suspect that the people around him would not fight to the death to protect him, but rather would begin to maneuver to try and head off an American invasion and defeat by getting rid of Saddam themselves.

So you don't think the United States will end up having to go after him?

I don't think so. But we have to be ready to do it, and that has to be apparent to Iraq. We may even have to launch some strikes into Iraq, just to demonstrate that we are serious about getting rid of him. If we do that, I think he will be gotten rid of.

Would eliminating just Saddam put a stop to Iraq's development of chemical and biological weapons?

It could. I think that any regime that followed Saddam and that wanted to avoid his fate would be wise to cooperate with the Western world in winning back Iraq's place among civilized nations.

The point of going in and getting rid of Saddam would be to create or support a regime there that would lead to democratization—an opening up of the society and a government that wasn't belligerent to the United States and the rest of the world.

You talked about some of the reforms Saddam made back before he evolved into a tyrant—building schools and hospitals, and improving health care and national literacy. You write that, earlier in his career, Saddam was considered "the best hope for secular modernization." Do you think Iraq might be relatively well primed to adopt a democratic style of government because of the groundwork that Saddam laid long ago?

I doubt it. But there are certainly people who argue that. 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.

Knowing what you know, how would you advise the decision-makers in Washington to deal with Saddam?

After working on this story, I really do think that Saddam poses a serious threat to the United States and the rest of the world—not that he will attack Israel or the United States directly, but if he possesses or develops nuclear weapons of mass destruction, I have no doubt that he will find a way to get those weapons into the hands of groups like al Qaeda and others who will use them. Saddam has been making a very serious effort for some years now to develop the kinds of weapons that really can only be developed by a state. So I think that in the interest of self-defense it's really important that we do something to end his regime. But as for how to go about it? I'm afraid that's, as they say in the military, "over my pay grade."