Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).Since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the difficulties of writing about the exercise of power inside authoritarian Arab regimes have been well known. The regimes’ inner workings existed, and to some extent continue to exist, in a black box, with few clues as to what records they kept, if indeed they kept very many at all. Hence we are doubly fortunate in Joseph Sassoon’s new volume — first, in the treasure trove of Baath Party documents “liberated” from Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and second, in Sassoon’s careful and judicious review.
The problems he faced in reading these documents were enormous. It was not just their sheer bulk — some 6 million pages of the Baath Regional Command Collection are housed at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute and the University of Colorado at Boulder, with separate audiotapes of cabinet meetings stored at the National Defense University in Washington — but also the fact that about a third of them were written by hand.
Then there is the problem of how to form a coherent picture of party operations without proper knowledge of its filing system. And the fact that stated policies were often undermined by the regime’s own practices, as when the religious faith campaign launched in the 1990s coexisted with continued repression of “any sign of real religiosity,” which, in Sassoon’s account, remained highly suspect. It is greatly to Sassoon’s credit that he remains fully alert to such inconsistencies while trying to fill in some of the gaps with a series of interviews with former members of the regime, often men very close to Saddam Hussein himself.
What is crystal clear is the central role played by the Baath Party apparatus in the management of Iraqi society, a role which mutated sufficiently during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to allow the regime to maintain its authority in spite of intra-party struggle, two devastating wars, a period of severe sanctions and major battles against the Kurds and the Shi‘a during the 1991 intifadas. As in the Soviet Union, power was highly centralized, with the party’s Regional Command placed atop a hierarchical system of branches, sections and cells that reached down to the bottom of society permitting control and surveillance of almost everyone and everything.
As the book’s title suggests, the party was very much Saddam’s personal creation, a process about which neither Sassoon nor, I would imagine, the records have much to say. This lacuna can only be accounted for by Saddam’s exceptional organizational abilities. He painstakingly built up the cadre of trusted members necessary to subject the country’s powerful army to civilian oversight in the interest of preventing further military coups.
Two other features come as more of a surprise. The first is evidence of a system of highly calibrated rewards — cars, pieces of land, subsidized rents, bonuses and remuneration of families of “martyrs” killed in war. These carrots offset the occasional use of the stick. The second surprise is the largely non-sectarian nature of Saddam’s rule, with distrust extended to Iraqis of Persian origin much more than to local Shi‘a, even after the 1991 uprising. As Sassoon observes, the standard form filled in by party members inquired whether the applicant was a Muslim, but not to which of the two main sects he or she belonged.
Sassoon’s close reading of the party material does much to replace the notion of an all-pervasive “republic of fear” with a more accurate picture. In his rendering, many citizens were able to lead quite ordinary, if apolitical, lives, including valuable service to the state itself. Witness the engineers who repaired the electricity grid so quickly after the allied bombing in the early 1990s. Yet, as Sassoon reports, many others simply gave up and fled, either unable to stand life in Iraq or, I suspect, fearful that Saddam’s rule and then, quite possibly, his son’s, might continue long enough to damage not just their lives but those of their children and their children’s children as well.
If I have a small quarrel with this splendid text it is that it verges on the matter-of-fact, with insufficient attention to the horrific drama of arbitrary rule by a capricious dictator, a harder-working, desk-bound version of the macho Mussolini. Explanation is one thing, judgment another. What we seem to have here is something akin to Hannah Arendt’s bureaucratic “banality of evil.” And a case in which Saddam’s crimes, like those of his fellow Arab dictators Asad, Mubarak and Ben Ali, included not just torture and murder but also the blight his rule imposed on the hopes and aspirations, not to mention the personal dignity, of at least two generations of Iraqis.