Where Did Saddam Come From?
Part I

Jude Wanniski
February 18, 1998


Memo To: Chairman Jesse Helms, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Where did Saddam Hussein come from?

Thanks for your nice note of February 2, in response to my last memo. I know I'm giving you a lot to mull over, Senator, but there is a lot at stake. We are already spending dollars into the billions as we prepare for another carpet bombing of Iraq. Unless you get behind Jack Kemp's initiative, which is the only way I can visualize a peaceful and reasonable way out of the swamp we are in, we will start measuring the cost in bodies, foreign and domestic. In the Gulf War, we lost 148 lives, a significant percentage by "friendly fire," but it still counts that as many as 300,000 Iraqi lives were lost before we decided to end the slaughter. It also counts that another 1.4 million Iraqi civilians died since the war ended as a result of the destruction of water and sanitary facilities, which could not be repaired because we will not permit Iraq to sell goods or buy what is needed for their repair. Remember that even before Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, we were keeping such a tight hold on what he could buy that he complained to April Glaspie, our ambassador, that they are only permitted to buy wheat, and pretty soon you will argue that gunpowder can be made out of wheat. We do tend to bury the past, especially when it becomes inconvenient to our present and future intentions. Here is a thumbnail account, my own analysis, of how we have arrived at this pretty pass. Please bear with me, Jesse.

First of all, Saddam came to full power as president of Iraq in 1979, a very important year, as I will explain, in that it was also the year of the Iranian revolution. He had been vice president since 1974, when he was 37, and essentially ran the government under a titular leader. The biggest influence on his life was that of his stepfather, a man who despised Persians and Jews, who became mayor of Baghdad, and who inspired Saddam to became an Arab nationalist in the new Ba'ath (or Renaissance) Party. The Ba'ath Party grew out of the Great Depression, the way the New Deal surfaced in the Democratic party here. Its three component parts were (Arab) unity, liberation (from colonialism) and (economic) socialism. Saddam's various biographers more or less agree that his central core has been the acquisition of personal power and the retention of personal power. He has no moral or spiritual compass, no particular ideology. There is actually no evidence that he despises Persians or Jews as a class, but assesses them at different times according to whether they will add or detract from his secure political position. His biographers agree he is not megalomaniacal or irrational, but is certainly cold-blooded when it comes to dealing with any direct threat to his station.

When he came to power in this pre-Reagan era, capitalism was not held in high regard throughout the world. It is not surprising that Saddam attempted to manage the Iraqi economy with socialist schemes mixed in with capitalist markets. He began his leadership of Iraq in the Jimmy Carter years, which saw the price of gold rise from $140 to as high as $850, settling to $625 in 1980 going through election day. These were marvelous days for the oil-producing states of the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq, as the price of oil rose to as high as $35 a barrel, more than ten times the price before President Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971. There were great differences, though, in the way Iran and Iraq managed this new wealth.

in Teheran, the Shah assumed the dramatic rise in the oil price was due to energy shortages that would continue indefinitely. He decided to spend not only the cash coming in, but also borrowed heavily against future receipts, with a dream of building a modern Iran as his legacy. He did not anticipate the fact that the general price level would soon be catching up with gold and oil, and that the Iranian business community would have to catch up with wages and prices too. When the inflation rate soared as he pumped up the economy on top of the monetary inflation, the Shah decided to crack down on profiteers who violated his decrees of price controls. His ignorance of macroeconomics was not unusual at the time, and he never did make the connection of why ordinary people began to demonstrate against him in early 1978. The inflation was not only wrecking the creditor class and strangling the business community, it also was causing a breakdown in morality, as the linkages broke between effort and reward. Opposition to the Shah developed though an amalgam of business and religious leaders.

The religious leader who came to power when the Shah was finally kicked out was the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had spent a good part of the 1970s watching the economic expansion and moral degradation of his country from exile, in Baghdad. As in Iran, these were exciting years for the Iraqi economy, but instead of building an expensive memorial to himself, Saddam Hussein directed the cascade of oil wealth into the improvement of the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens. Our ambassador to Iraq in these years, Edward Peck, tells me there is no question that as much as ordinary people in Iran came to hate the Shah, the ordinary people of Iraq came to love Saddam. The wealth went into free education, K through university, modern hospitals, water and sewer facilities, and the greatest expansion of living standards in the history of modern Iraq. His biographers agree he was conscious of the need to share the benefits of the oil wealth as widely as possible in order to keep the support of the masses. There had been anti-Israel episodes in the earlier period, but in this period under Saddam, Israel saw a man who clearly had no wish to disturb a nation that could cause him trouble. He recognized the state of Israel and generally showed respect for its ability to cause him trouble.

Trouble commenced when the Shah of Iran began to see his regime crumble, and understood the source of his trouble was sitting in Baghdad. Saddam bowed to the pressure from Teheran and invited the Ayatollah to take up residence in Kuwait. When Kuwait turned him down, Saddam assisted him in finding exile quarters in Paris, but the Ayatollah was not a happy camper. Remember, Iraq is dominated by Shi'ite Muslims, who account for 60% of the population, Sunni Muslims counting for 20%. The Ayatollah is also Shi'ite, as are the great majority of Iranians. When the Ayatollah replaced the Shah, Saddam Hussein immediately began courting his own Sh'ia population, donning their traditional religious garb at ceremonies up and down Iraq, and spending lavishly from state coffers on construction of places of worship. There was plenty of money. Oil revenues were up forty times their level of the 1960s.

As the Ayatollah began to call for an uprising of Sh'ia fundamentalists all over the Middle East, including his old neighbors in Iraq, Saddam also spent lavishly on a military buildup. The United States, Israel, and the NATO powers were happy to sell him anything it wanted. When we hear the President remind us that Saddam invaded Iran, we should remember that he did so "out of fear, not out of greed," which is how one of his biographers puts it. The historians also agree that he believed the war would be a quick one, because he was not interested in gobbling up Iran, a country with three times the population and land mass of Iraq. His military machine quickly knocked down the Iranian army in the western province, and instead of advancing toward Teheran, Saddam stopped when he had incorporated only the segment of the population that was pro-Iraq, anti-Ayatollah. He later saw the mistake in not increasing his hold until his forces had run out of steam. The Iranian forces turned out to be stronger than he had been led to believe by Israeli intelligence. They struck back, and the war dragged on for eight years. Each side suffered several hundred thousand dead, with most reports indicating Iran losing more. The total cost of the war was easily $1 trillion. The war ended when Iraq began to win back territory it had lost to the Iranian forces and the Iranians finally accepted a UN resolution of truce.

In that period, his biographers agree that Iraq used poison gas several times that we can be sure of. From my readings, I've gotten the impression that except in one instance, they were used as a last resort, when his forces were about to be overwhelmed by Iranian forces. In those cases where he used poison gas against his own people, the most egregious example was in 1988, when the city of Halabja was gas bombed in the Kurdish area. The UN estimates that 5,000 Iraqis were killed and 10,000 wounded, the bombing occurring after the city had surrendered to the Iranians. There were other Iraqi villages gassed in the Kurdish region, but my impression is that they were given warnings of several weeks to evacuate as Baghdad was relocating some significant portion of the Iraqi Kurds for reasons not clear to me. Even those historians clearly hostile to Saddam will point out that the western powers kept him supplied with the materials needed for chemical weapons right up to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, including material cleared by the U.K.

Part n of this thumbnail history will continue tomorrow, Senator. We'll begin with an April 1990 meeting in Baghdad between Saddam and five United States Senators.