The violence and aggression that have marked Saddam Hussein’s career have led him to be characterized--mostly in the West--as a madman. In fact, there is no evidence that Saddam is suffering from a psychotic disorder. He is a shrewd and ruthless political calculator, by no means irrational, but dangerous to the extreme, a man consumed with messianic dreams who will go to any lengths to achieve them.
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 Baathist political ideology: Baathist dreams will be realized when the Arab nation is unified under one strong leader, and destiny has inscribed his name as that leader.
There is no evidence Saddam is constrained by conscience; 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. He has explained that all actions are justified, no matter how extreme, by “the exceptionalism of revolutionary needs.”
While Saddam is not psychotic, he has a strong paranoid orientation; not without reason, he sees himself as surrounded by enemies and ignores any part he may have had in creating those enemies. The conspiracy theories he spins are not merely for popular consumption in the Arab world but genuinely reflect his paranoid mind-set. He is convinced that the United States, Israel and Iran have been in league for the purpose of eliminating him, and he finds a persuasive chain of evidence for this conclusion.
It is this personality constellation, called malignant narcissism, that makes Saddam so dangerous: messianic ambition for unlimited power, absence of conscience, unconstrained aggression and a paranoid outlook. In the political sphere, this is the personality of the destructive charismatic who rallies and unifies his downtrodden supporters by blaming outside enemies.
While he is psychologically in touch with reality, he is often politically out of touch with reality. His world view is narrow and distorted. He has scant experience outside the Arab world; reportedly he has traveled to the West on only one occasion--a brief trip to Paris in 1976. He is surrounded by sycophants who are cowed by his reputation for brutality and afraid to criticize him. This combination of limited international perspective and the absence of wise counsel has led him to miscalculate on a number of critical occasions.
The key to Saddam Hussein’s surviving in power for 22 years has been his capacity to reverse course when he recognizes that he has miscalculated and overreached himself. By no means a martyr, he is the quintessential survivor.
How can it be, then, that this self-described revolutionary pragmatist, faced by an overwhelming array of military power that would surely deal a mortal blow to his nation, entered into and persists on this current violent confrontational course?
What began as an act of naked aggression toward Kuwait has been transformed into the culminant act of the drama of his life. Although he had previously shown little concern for the Palestinian people, the shrewdly manipulative Saddam wrapped himself and his rape of Kuwait in the Palestinian flag.
The response of the Palestinians was overwhelming. They saw Saddam as their hope and their salvation, fighting the United States defiantly and courageously to force a just settlement of their cause. This caught the imagination of the masses throughout the Arab world, and their shouts of approval fed his swollen ego.
His psychology and his policy options have now become captives of his rhetoric. His heroic self-image is engaged as never before. He is fulfilling the messianic goal that has obsessed him--and eluded him--throughout his life. He is actualizing his self-concept as leader of all the Arab peoples, the legitimate heir of Nebuchadnezzar, Saladin and Nasser.
As he promises that “Jerusalem will be liberated,” he is attempting with significant success to appeal to radical sentiment in the Arab world and in the world of Islam. His latest rhetoric of “holy war” and the American “Satan” is vintage Khomeini.
Now we see that under Saddam’s opulent palace is a mammoth bunker. The architecture of the complex is Saddam’s psychological architecture: a grandiose facade resting on the well-fortified foundation of a siege mentality.
Intoxicated by the elixir of power and the acclaim of the Arab masses, Saddam will not yield. He is willing to shed the last drop of the Iraqi people’s blood in pursuit of his revolutionary destiny. The question is, how much more are they willing to sacrifice to further Saddam’s dreams of glory?