What We've Learned: Saddam Hussein

November 5, 2012

Before arriving at Duke in July 2010 as an assistant professor of public policy, Hal Brands had been sifting through documents captured after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq for the Institute for Defense Analyses. The institute opened the papers to researchers in 2010, and several papers by Brands’ team have been published recently, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the authoritarian regime.

1. Everything was a conspiracy. Hussein’s papers reveal a regime-wide obsession with conspiracy theories, with the most off-thewall centering on Israel. One highlight: a belief that the Japanese Pokémon cartoons were a secret Mossad plot to spread pro-Jewish messages to Iraqi youth.

2. There’s no “fun” in “dysfunctional.” As with many dictatorships, Hussein’s regime was messier and more prone to pathology than it appeared from afar. “From the outside, it seems like a finely oiled machine. But when you look inside the machine, you realize it’s not the case,” says Brands.

3. Baghdad was no place for a naysayer. When disagreeing with the boss can get you executed, disagreements tend to disappear. Only Hussein’s deputy prime minister and close ally Tariq Aziz, a Christian who had spent time in the West, was able to push back against Hussein, and even he knew his limits, Brands says.

4. The enemy of an enemy is not always a friend. Hussein’s wariness toward the U.S. was remarkably consistent. Even in the 1980s, when the U.S. tacitly supported Iraq’s war with Iran, Hussein believed U.S. operatives were trying to assassinate him. Brands has written that Hussein’s distrust of the U.S. may have influenced his decision to invade Kuwait in 1990, which precipitated the first Gulf War.