Book Review: Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime

Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012. 314pp.Index.ISBN 978 0 521 14915 0.

Georgetown professor Joseph Sassoon’s book, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, is a compelling, substantive account of the history of Saddam Hussein’s regime. As someone who was born and lived in Iraq, I witnessed much of what Dr. Sassoon describes and believe that his analysis is profound and accurate. Using documents and records captured by coalition forces following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sassoon is able to draw insights about the regime’s durability. He discusses the regime’s ability to survive major conflicts and setbacks including the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War(s), the domestic uprising of 1991, and certainly the dire consequences of economic sanctions.

Throughout the book, Sassoon compares Saddam’s regime to other one-party authoritarian regimes such as Mao Zedong’s China, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Hafez and Bashar al Assad’s Syria. The first two chapters describe the rise and fall of the Ba’th Party. Sassoon emphasizes that Saddam’s previous experiences, including as vice president (1973-1979) to Iraq’s fourth president, Ahmed Hassan al Bakr, taught him “to weaken the military to prevent a coup d’état” (p.24). Not only did he reduce the standards of living for soldiers, dismissed professional military personnel replacing them with unqualified family members and loyalists, but also openly disrespected the few left military tacticians and strategists. This strategy likely increased the regime’s longevity. In addition, Saddam ensured his survival with a sophisticated bureaucracy that issued rules and regulations covering almost every aspect of life. They “ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous” (p.43).

Chapters three and four discuss the regime’s security apparatus and the ways in which its various arms overlapped. Saddam’s paranoia was evident throughout his reign but was intensified in the aftermath of the defection of his son-in-law and cousin, Hussein Kamel, to Jordon in 1995. After this embarrassment, Saddam created a multi- layer security system designed to ensure that citizens fear each other, and no one dared to criticize the regime lest he or she be reported. Growing up in Iraq, I learned not to pass judgment against Saddam even when no one else was around for, as we were told, the “walls have ears.”

The second half of the book, chapters five through eight, is its essence. Sassoon argues that the far-reaching system of rewards and punishments is what really “allowed Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party to stay in power for such a long time” (p.2). He rejects the notion that it was merely fear and violence that kept Saddam in power, as the Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya indicated in his book Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. Fear and repression, Makiya argued, transformed the way(s) in which Iraqis thought and linked themselves to the regime. Sassoon goes beyond fear and punishment in explaining the regime’s prolonged existence. He focuses his attention, therefore, not only on the financial rewards but also on non-financial incentives such as acceptance into military academies and institutions of higher education for the holder and children of ‘Friends of the President’ card, often regardless of qualifications.

Sassoon’s regional expertise and depth of research is impressive. He has a strong knowledge of important authoritarian regimes and is able to draw interesting comparisons between them and Saddam’s regime without making false connections. Nonetheless, there are instances in which the book does not adequately defend its arguments. For instance, this reader is not convinced by the assertion that “[while] the regime publically launched a faith campaign, [it] simultaneously, behind the scenes, continued to be anti-religious and to repress any sign of real religiosity” (p.3). I believe Saddam was opposed not to religion(s), but to political forms of religion(s). He did not dismiss Islam, or any other religion for that matter, but he brutally crushed Islamists (political Islam) because he saw them as a threat to his power. The fate of two major religious figures in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani and Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al Sadr, father of Muqtada al Sadr, exemplifies Saddam’s attitude toward religion. Ayatollah al Sistani, who is one of the most respected Shiite clerics in the world and is currently the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq, survived the Ba’th’s reign because he ignored the regime and was wholly focused on Islamic studies. By contrast, Ayatollah al Sadr, who was more vocal in criticizing the regime, was brutally murdered. In short, Saddam could not tolerate anyone’s criticism, religious or otherwise.

Furthermore, Sassoon argues that Saddam’s faith campaign in 1993, in which the Iraqi government printed and distributed millions of Qurans, was launched to counter the influence of Khomeinism on Iraqi society. While this is a plausible conclusion given Saddam’s obsession with Iran, I believe that Saddam’s faith campaign was initiated for another reason. Namely, Saddam thought that those who properly understood the Quran would be less likely to radicalize, and thus would be less of a threat to his regime. In essence, the Quran would overrule the pronouncements of clerics who were trying to incite rebellion. Most importantly, it would give the commoners a raison d’être and make them less materialistic and less focused on the need to modernize Iraqi society. It is no secret that the implications of Saddam’s successive wars drastically reduced Iraq’s economic activities and left the country with a mounting debt of more than 40 billion dollars.

This is a significant, must-read book for anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of Saddam’s Ba’th Party, and more broadly, for anyone who wishes to expand his or her knowledge of authoritarian regimes. Dr. Sassoon’s use of audiotapes from the Conflict Records Research Center, Iraqi documents from the Hoover Institution, and interviews that he conducted with former Iraqi officials provide him with information that earlier studies did not have at their disposal. For this reason, it will certainly be useful to policy makers as well as academics.

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Comments

Iraq's war in 1980 is a lot like Germany's in 1939: in both cases we can only ponder on how much better life would have been for their citizenry had they not launched wars of aggression.

You are absolutely right, Mark. We can never know how things would have been had Iraq and Iran avoided the 1980s War. However, from the Iraqi side, one thing we can be certain of is that almost 90% of Iraq’s major infrastructure was built in the period just before the Iraq-Iran War. Around the same period, Iraq also managed to build one of the best, if not the best, education and health care systems in the region. Local currency, the Dinar, was almost four times the value of the dollar, and citizens enjoyed very comfortable standards of living. Much like their western counterparts, most Iraqis enjoyed annual vocations in Europe and the Americas. So, we can conclude that things were looking good and had the potential and the momentum to be better. Also and most importantly, the Iraq-Iran War should not be isolated from the Gulf War and its dire consequences. The main reason for Saddam ‘s invasion of Kuwait was to pay for his mounting debt from the 1980s war with Iran. We can ponder here too and say that probably there would not be a Gulf War without the Iran War.