The Jackal in Winter

27 February 2003

The Jackal in Winter

By Gwynne Dyer

He’s had such a strange life that it’s as hard as imagining what it’s like to be Michael Jackson, but it’s a good deal more important. What is going through the mind of Saddam Hussein as he waits for the American avalanche to bury him?

Like any doomed man, he must entertain occasional fantasies of a miraculous last-minute reprieve, but nobody who has spent thirty-five years at the centre of power in a country where the losers usually die can have many illusions. Saddam knows that he and his sons will almost certainly be dead by April, and his thoughts now are probably divided between wondering where it all went wrong, and figuring out how to play the end-game in a way that enshrines him as an Arab hero.

Being an Arab hero was always important to the abused boy who grew up on tales of Saladin defeating the Crusaders and who dreamed of emulating the great pan-Arab leader of the 50s and 60s, Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser. Iraq was definitely the wrong place to be born if Arab unity was your dream, for three-quarters of its people are Kurds or Shia Arabs who don’t give a damn for pan-Arab nationalism, but among his own Sunni Arab people it is the dream.

That is why Saddam has always been Israel’s most vocal enemy among Arab leaders: hostility to Israel is the one topic that might unite the Arabs under his leadership. His nuclear weapons programme, when he still had one, was always about breaking Israel’s nuclear monopoly. A few nuclear weapons would not give him the ability to attack Israel, which has hundreds of the things, but it would constitute an Arab deterrent to Israeli first use of nuclear weapons — and catapult him into a position of pan-Arab leadership. But those dreams are gone now.

So is his dream of a rich, powerful Iraq whose people are healthy and well-educated. Remnants of it remain, like a 97 percent literacy rate and a higher status for women than in almost any other Arab country, but the generous welfare state that Saddam built with the help of abundant oil revenues between 1968 and 1979 has long since been swept away by his post-1980 blunders. Iraq today is just another impoverished Arab police state like Egypt or Syria or Algeria, except even more brutal.

Does Saddam understand that his own savage methods made this outcome inevitable? Probably not, for his real role model, Stalin, got away with it. (Visitors report that his personal quarters are furnished with numerous Arabic-language translations of biographies of Stalin.) Like Stalin, he has ruthlessly killed anyone who challenged his power. Like Stalin, too, paranoia has served him well: most of the people he had killed were no real threat, but the slaughter did sweep away most of his genuine enemies along with all the harmless victims.

The real difference between the two men is that Stalin knew the international rules: you can do what you like to your own people, but never attack your neighbours without some legal cover and never attack anyone stronger than you. Saddam, a poorly educated man with little knowledge of the world beyond Iraq, broke the rules twice by attacking Iran and Kuwait.

His attack on Iran in 1980, though not unprovoked (Ayatollah Khomeini tore up the 1975 treaty defining the border and urged Iraq’s Shias to revolt), but it was an act of folly which he only narrowly survived thanks to lavish US aid. His 1990 invasion of Kuwait, for which he mistakenly believed that he had clearance from his American ally, turned Washington into his enemy, destroyed his army, and led to the UN-imposed sanctions that have had him on the ropes for the past eleven years. Everything he built is wrecked, Iraq’s power has never been less — and now the US government is going to kill him.

Saddam must hate the irony that Washington has decided to destroy him as a sort of displacement activity after a terrorist attack against the United States by radical Islamists who also wanted him dead — and that those same Islamists will probably be the main beneficiaries of the chaos that follows. But as a man who is about to die, his main concern will bewith his own legacy. How will Arabs see him a generation from now?

The Arabs are one of the last romantic cultures, where people really still believe in heroes and martyrs for the cause. Saddam Hussein is quintessentially Arab in this respect, and he will try to contrive a heroic death amid the ruins that will put his reputation as an Arab nationalist hero on a firm foundation. That means he will strive very hard to get Israel involved in the war (for his death at Israel’s hands would give the issue moral clarity in Arab eyes), and he will aim for a last stand in Baghdad that will serve as the centre-piece of the legend.

If the Islamists actually win as a result of all this, then it will all have been for naught: they will despise and execrate Saddam even as they condemn the United States for invading Iraq. But they don’t run the Arab world yet, and despite Mr Bush’s unwitting efforts on their behalf they may never do so. Besides, what other goal can Saddam have in his last few weeks of life than a hero’s death?