Explaining Saddam Hussein: a Psychological Profile
by Dr. Jerrold M. Post
presented to the House Armed Services Committee
This is one of those unique moments in history when the personality and political behavior of one key political actor are of determinative significance. The answers to many of the key questions with which this committee is grappling depend upon a clear understanding of the motivations, perceptions and decisionmaking of Saddam Hussein. To provide a framework for this complex political leader, a comprehensive political psychology profile has been developed.
Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, has been characterized as "the madman of the Middle East." This pejorative diagnosis is not only inaccurate but is also dangerous. Consigning Saddam to the realm of madness can mislead decisionmakers into believing he is unpredictable when in fact he is not. An examination of the record of Saddam Hussein's leadership of Iraq for the past twenty two years reveals a judicious political calculator, who is by no means irrational, but is dangerous to the extreme.
Saddam Hussein, "the great struggler," has explained the extremity of his actions as President of Iraq as necessary to achieve "subjective immunity" against foreign plots and influences. All actions of the revolution are justified by the "exceptionalism of revolutionary needs." In fact, an examination of Saddam Hussein's life and career reveals this is but the ideological rationalization for a lifelong pattern: all actions are justified if they are in the service of furthering Saddam Hussein's needs and ambitions.
Saddam Hussein was born in 1937 to a poor peasant family near Tikrit in central Iraq. His father died before he was born, and in keeping with tradition, a paternal uncle married his mother. From early years on, Saddam, whose name means "the fighter who stands steadfast," charted his own course and would not accept limits. When Saddam was only 10, he was impressed by a visit from his cousin who knew how to read and write. He confronted his family with his wish to become educated, and when they turned him down, he left his home in the middle of the night, making his way to the home of his maternal uncle Kairallah in Tikrit.
Kairallah was to become not only Saddam's father figure but his political mentor as well. Kairallah had fought against Great Britain in the Iraqi uprising of 1941 and had spent five years in prison for his nationalist agitation. He filled the impressionable young boy's head with tales of his heroic relatives -- his great grandfather and two great uncles -- who gave their lives for the cause of Iraqi nationalism while fighting foreign invaders. Kairallah, who was later to become governor of Baghdad, shaped young Hussein's world view, imbuing him with a hatred of foreigners. In 1981, Saddam republished a pamphlet written by his uncle entitled "Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies."
Kairallah tutored his young charge in his view of Arab history and the ideology of nationalism and the Ba'th party. Founded in 1940, the Ba'th party envisaged the creation of a new Arab nation defeating the colonialist and imperialist powers and achieving Arab independence, unity and socialism. Ba'th ideology, as conceptualized by its intellectual founding father Michel Aflaq, focused on the history of oppression and division of the Arab world, first at the hands of the Ottomans, then the Western mandates, then the monarchies ruled by Western interests, and finally the establishment of the Zionist entity.
Inspired by his uncle's tales of heroism in the service of the Arab nation, Saddam has been consumed by dreams of glory since his earliest days. He identifies himself with Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylonia who conquered Jerusalem (586 B.C.) and Saladin who regained Jerusalem in 1187 by defeating the Crusaders.
Saddam was steeped in Arab history and Ba'thist ideology when he traveled with his uncle to Baghdad to pursue his secondary education. The schools were a hotbed of Arab nationalism which confirmed his political leanings. In 1952, when he was 15, Nasser led the Free officer's revolution in Egypt and became a hero to young Saddam and his peers. Nasser, as the activist leader of Pan-Arabism, became an idealized model for Saddam. From Nasser's model he learned that only by outrageously confronting imperialist powers could Arab nationalism be freed from Western shackles.
At age 20, inspired by Nasser, Saddam joined the Arab Ba'th socialist Party in Iraq and quickly impressed party officials with his dedication. Two years later, in 1956, apparently emulating Nasser, Iraqi Army General Qassem led a coup which ousted the monarchy. But unlike Nasser, Qassem did not pursue the path of socialism and turned against the Ba'th party. The 22 year old Saddam was called to Ba'th party headquarters and given the mission to lead a five man team to assassinate Qassem. The mission failed, reportedly because of a crucial error in judgment by Saddam. Saddam's escape to Syria, first by horseback and then by swimming a river, has achieved mythic status in Iraqi history. Saddam went to Egypt during this period of exile to study law, rising to leadership ranks in the Egyptian Ba'th Party. He returned to Iraq after 1963 when Qassem was ousted by the Ba'ths and was elected to the National Command. Michel Aflaq, the ideological father of the Ba'th party, admired young Hussein, declaring the Iraqi Ba'th party the finest in the world and designating Saddam Hussein as his successor.
Envious of his fellow Ba'thist Hafez al-Assad's success in taking control of Syria, Hussein confronted the new Syrian Ba'th leadership in a party meeting in Iraq in 1966. The split and rivalry persists to this day, for there can be only one supreme Arab nationalist leader, and destiny has inscribed his name as Saddam Hussein.
Hussein mounted a successful coup in 1968 with the crucial secret assistance of military intelligence chief Abdul Rassaz al Nayef. In gratitude for services rendered, within two weeks Hussein had arranged for the capture and exile of Nayef, and subsequently ordered his assassination.
This act was a paradigm for the manner in which Saddam has rewarded loyalty and adhered to commitments throughout his career. Commitments and loyalty are matter of circumstance, and circumstances change. If an individual, or a nation, is perceived as an impediment or a threat, no matter how loyal in the past, that individual or nation will be eliminated violently without a backward glance, and the action will be justified by "the exceptionalism of revolutionary needs."
Nothing must be permitted to stand in "the great struggler's" messianic path as he pursues his (and Iraq's) revolutionary destiny, as exemplified by this extract from Saddam Hussein's remarkable "Victory Day" message of 6 August 
This is the only way to deal with these despicable Croesuses who relished possession to destroy devotion...who were guided by the foreigner instead of being guided by virtuous standards, principles of pan-Arabism, and the creed of humanitarianism....The second of August...is the legitimate newborn child of the struggle, patience and perseverance of the Kuwaiti people, which was crowned by revolutionary action on that immortal day. The newborn child was born of a legitimate father and an immaculate mother. Greetings to the makers of the second of August whose efforts God has blessed. They have achieved one of the brightest, most promising and most principled national and pan-Arab acts.
Two August has come as a very violent response to the harm that the foreigner had wanted to perpetrate against Iraq and the nation. The Croesus of Kuwait and his aides became the obedient, humiliated and treacherous dependents of that foreigner...What took place on 2 August was inevitable so that death might not prevail over life, so that those who were capable of ascending to the peak would not be brought down to the abysmal precipice, so that corruption and remoteness from God would not spread to the majority...Honor will be kept in Mesopotamia so that Iraq will be the pride of the Arabs, their protector, and their model of noble values.
Hussein's practice of revolutionary opportunism has another important characteristic. Just as previous commitments must not be permitted to stand in the way of Saddam's messianic path, neither should one persist in a particular course of action if it proves to be counter-productive for him and his nation. When he pursues a course of action, he pursues it fully, and if he meets initial resistance, he will struggle all the harder, convinced of the correctness of his judgments. But if circumstances demonstrated that he miscalculated, he is capable of reversing his course. In these circumstances he does not acknowledge he has erred, but rather views himself as adapting flexibly to a dynamic situation...
The labels "madman of the Middle East" and "megalomaniac" are often affixed to Saddam, but in fact there is no evidence that he is suffering from a psychotic disorder. He is not impulsive, only acts after judicious consideration, and can be extremely patient, indeed uses time as a weapon.
While he is psychologically in touch with reality, he is often politically out of touch with reality. Saddam's world view is narrow and distorted, and he has scant experience out of the Arab world. His only sustained experience with non-Arabs was with his Soviet military advisors and he reportedly had one brief trip to France in 1976. Moreover, he is surrounded by sycophants, who are cowed by Saddam's well founded reputation for brutality and are afraid to contradict him. He has ruthlessly eliminated perceived threats to his power and equates criticism with disloyalty. At one time early in his presidency, he identified 500 Communist party members for execution and had his senior officials form the execution squads. In 1979, when he fully assumed the reins of Iraqi leadership, one of his first acts was to execute twenty-one senior officials whose loyalty he questioned. In 1982, when the war with Iran was going very badly for Iraq and Saddam wished to terminate hostilities, Khomeini, who was personally fixated on Saddam, insisted there could be no peace until Saddam was removed from power. At a cabinet meeting, Saddam asked his ministers to candidly give their advice, and the Minister of Health suggested Saddam temporarily step down, to resume the presidency after peace had been established. Saddam reportedly thanked him for his candor and ordered his arrest. His wife pled for her husband's return. The next day, Saddam returned her husband's body to her in a black canvas bag, chopped into pieces. This powerfully concentrated the attention of the other ministers who were unanimous in their insistence that Saddam remain in power. Thus he is deprived of the check of wise counsel from his leadership circle. This combination of limited international perspective and a sycophantic leadership circle has led him to miscalculate in the past.
Saddam's pursuit of power for himself and Iraq is boundless. In fact, in his mind, the destiny of Saddam and Iraq are one and indistinguishable. His exalted self concept is fused with his Ba'thist political ideology. Ba'thist dreams will be realized when the Arab nation is unified under one strong leader. In Saddam's mind, he is destined for that role.
In pursuit of his messianic dreams, there is no evidence he is constrained by conscience; his only loyalty is to Saddam Hussein. In pursuing his goals, Saddam uses aggression instrumentally. He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction. His unconstrained aggression is instrumental in pursuing his goals, but it is at the same time defensive aggression, for his grandiose façade masks underlying insecurity. While Hussein is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation. He is ready for retaliation and, not without reason, sees himself as surrounded by enemies. But he ignores his role in creating those enemies, and righteously threatens his targets. The conspiracy theories he spins are not merely for popular consumption in the Arab world, but genuinely reflect his paranoid mindset. He is convinced that the United States, Israel and Iran have been in league for the purpose of eliminating him, and finds a persuasive chain of evidence for this conclusion. His minister of information, Latif Hassif Jasin, who is responsible for propaganda and public statements, probably helps reinforce Saddam's paranoid disposition and in a sense is the implementer of his paranoia.
It is this political personality constellation--messianic ambition for unlimited power, absence of conscience, unconstrained aggression, and a paranoid outlook--which make Saddam so dangerous. Conceptualized as malignant narcissism, this is the personality configuration of the destructive charismatic who unifies and rallies his downtrodden supporters by blaming outside enemies. While Saddam is not charismatic, this psychological stance is the basis of Saddam's particular appeal to the Palestinians who see him as a strongman who shares their intense anti-Zionism and will champion their cause.
Saddam Hussein genuinely sees himself as one of the great leaders of history, ranking himself with Nasser, Castro, Tito, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Zedong, each of whom he admires for adapting socialism to his environment, free of foreign domination. Saddam sees himself as transforming his society. He believes youth must be "fashioned" to "safeguard the future" and that Iraqi children must be transformed into a "radiating light that will expel" traditional family backwardness. Like Mao, Saddam has encouraged youth to inform on their parents' anti-revolutionary activity. As God-like status was ascribed to Mao, and giant pictures and statues of him were placed throughout China, so too giant pictures and statues of Saddam abound in Iraq. Asked about this cult of personality, Saddam shrugs and says he "cannot help it if that is what they want to do."
Saddam Hussein is so consumed with his messianic mission that he probably overreads the degree of his support in the rest of the Arab world. He psychologically assumes that many in the Arab world, especially the downtrodden, share his views and see him as their hero. He was probably genuinely surprised at the nearly unanimous condemnation of his invasion of Kuwait. He probably has to a degree persuaded himself of his oft repeated assertion that the United Nations is controlled by the United States, denying the degree of international disapproval.
It is not by accident that Saddam Hussein has survived for more than two decades as his nation's preeminent leader in this tumultuous part of the world. While he is driven by dreams of glory, and his political perspective is narrow and distorted, he is a shrewd tactician who has a sense of patience. Able to justify extremes of aggression on the basis of revolutionary needs, if the aggression is counterproductive, he has shown a pattern of reversing his course when he has miscalculated, waiting until a later day to achieve his revolutionary destiny. His drive for power is not diminished by these reversals, but only deflected.
Saddam Hussein is a ruthless political calculator who will go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve his goals. But his survival in power-with his dignity intact-is his highest priority. Saddam has recently been characterized by Soviet Foreign Minister Primakov and others as suffering from a "Masada complex", preferring a martyr's death to yielding. This is assuredly not the case, for Saddam has no wish to be a martyr, and survival is his number one priority. A self-proclaimed revolutionary pragmatist, he does not wish a conflict in which Iraq will be grievously damaged and his stature as a leader destroyed...
Now that he is at the very center of international attention, his appetite for glory has been stimulated all the more. The glory-seeking Saddam will not easily yield the spotlight of international attention. He wants to remain on center stage, but not at the expense of his power and his prestige. Saddam will only withdraw if he calculates that he can do so with his power and his honor intact and that the drama in which he is starring will continue.
Honor and reputation must be interpreted in an Arab context. Saddam has already achieved considerable honor in the eyes of the Arab masses for having the courage to stand up to the West. It should be remembered that even though Egypt militarily lost the 1973 war with Israel, Sadat became a hero to the Arab world for his willingness to attack--and initially force back--the previously invincible forces of Israel. Qadhafi mounted an air attack when the United States crossed the so-called "line of death." Even though his jets were destroyed in the ensuing conflict, Qadhafi's status was raised in the Arab world. Indeed, he thanked the United States for making him a hero. Thus Saddam can find honor in the present situation. His past history reveals a remarkable capacity to find face saving justification when reversing his course in very difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, it is important not to insist on total capitulation and humiliation, for this could drive Saddam into a corner and make it impossible for him to reverse his course. He will only withdraw from Kuwait if he believes he can survive with his power and his dignity intact.
By the same token, he will only reverse his present course if his power and reputation are threatened. This requires a posture of strength, firmness and clarity of purpose by a unified civilized world, demonstrably willing to use force if necessary. The only language Saddam Hussein understands is the language of power. Without this demonstrable willingness to use force, even if the sanctions are biting deeply, Saddam is quite capable of putting his population through a sustained period of hardship, as he has in the past. It is crucial to demonstrate unequivocally to Saddam Hussein that unless he withdraws, his career as a world class political actor will be ended. The recent announcement of a major escalation of the force level was presumably designed to drive the message home. The UN resolution authorizing the use of force unless Iraq withdraws by January 15 is a particularly powerful message because of the large majority supporting the resolution.
The message almost certainly has been received. In the wake of the announcement of the increase of force level, Saddam intensified his request for "deep negations", seeking a way out in which he can preserve his power and his reputation. That President Bush has signaled his willingness to send Secretary Baker to meet one-on-one with Saddam is an extremely important step. In the interim, the shrewdly manipulative Saddam will continue to attempt to divide the international coalition and to exploit the foreign hostages.
Considering himself a revolutionary pragmatist, Saddam is at heart a survivor. If in response to the unified demonstration of strength and resolve he does retreat and reverse his course, this will only be a temporary deflection of his unbounded drive for power. It is a certainty that he will return at a later date, stronger than ever, unless firm measures are taken to contain him. This underlines the importance of strategic planning beyond the immediate crisis, especially considering his progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. If blocked in his overt aggression, he can be expected to pursue his goals covertly through intensified support of terrorism.
Saddam will not go down to the last flaming bunker if he has a way out, but he can be extremely dangerous and will stop at nothing if he is backed into a corner. If he believes his very survival as a world class political actor is threatened, Saddam can respond with unrestrained aggression, using whatever weapons and resources are out his disposal, in what would surely be a tragic and bloody final act.