Hitler shot himself before capture, Stalin received a grand state funeral, and Pol Pot died while under house arrest. In late December, the brutal leader of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, died of natural causes. In fact, when the noose tightened around his neck early Saturday morning, Saddam Hussein became one of a surprisingly small number of modern dictators actually executed by their own people: Benito Mussolini, Nicolae Ceausescu—and now the man who once called himself Iraq’s president for life. Of those three, Saddam is the only one who had anything resembling a trial.
Other than that, though, there is no reason to view Saddam as an exceptional or unusual heir to the 20th-century totalitarian tradition. He saw himself as part of the pantheon of modern dictators. Allegedly, he boasted to KGB agents in Baghdad of his personal admiration for Stalin. Certainly, he took their advice: Historians who have worked on Iraqi documents captured during the first Gulf War have told me that they show how Saddam’s secret police force was clearly organized along Soviet lines.
More to the point, Saddam kept his people in a state of constant terror, as did Hitler and Stalin at the height of their powers. Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya, whose book Republic of Fear remains the definitive account of Saddam’s Iraq, estimates that in 1980, one-fifth of the economically active Iraqi labor force was a member of the army, the political militias, the secret police, or the police. One in five people, in other words, was employed to carry out institutional violence. The result was a country in which the families of political victims received their body parts in the mail; in which tens of thousands of Kurds could be murdered with chemical weapons; and in which, as Saddam’s truncated trial demonstrated, the dictator could sign a document randomly condemning 148 people to death—among them an 11-year-old boy—and feel no remorse or regret whatsoever. As his defense team argued, he believed this was his prerogative as head of state.
Yet if Saddam’s life and death prove anything, it is that in the 90-odd years since modern totalitarianism first emerged in Europe, neither the United States nor anyone else has ever learned to understand such regimes or even to recognize them for what they are. When Hitler first emerged, the outside world’s first instinct was to appease him. When Stalin first emerged, Americans and Europeans admired his economic planning. When Saddam first emerged, our initial impulse was to ignore him—and then, since he seemed a useful counterweight to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, to support him. During his horrific and unnecessary war with Iran, millions of Iraqis and Iranians died—and the United States, reckoning Iran the greater threat, backed Saddam with weapons and intelligence. Germany, France, Russia, and others also saw Saddam as a useful trading partner and, later, as a source of corrupt profits.
Only after his invasion of Poland was Hitler truly reckoned to be a threat to the rest of Europe; only after his occupation of central Europe was Stalin’s internal terror taken seriously. Twentieth-century history proved, again and again, that the ambitions of revolutionary totalitarian leaders are rarely confined to their own countries. Yet only after his invasion of Kuwait was Saddam, long a threat to his own people, perceived as anything worse than a local nuisance. Belatedly, we identified him as a totalitarian dictator, but by then it was too late for our discovery to have much of an impact, in Iraq or anywhere else. In the Arab world, most assumed that America’s belated criticism of Saddam represented yet another political calculation on the part of self-interested Americans, whose memories could not possibly be so short as they pretended.
Even now, in the wake of his execution, our instincts are to argue about what Saddam meant to us, not what he meant to the Iraqis. His death is being analyzed for its impact on Iraq’s civil war and therefore for its impact on our troops. The chaos of his trial and execution are another excuse to attack the White House. Write that Saddam really was an evil man, and you’ll be thought an apologist for George Bush. Write that Saddam’s regime resembled Stalin’s, and you’ll be called a right-wing ideologue.
Someday, perhaps, when Iraq’s civil war is over, and when Iraqis have achieved a measure of personal safety—an even more basic human requirement than political freedom—it may be possible for Iraqis, at least, to think objectively about the physical and the psychological damage that Saddam’s regime did to their country and about the ways in which that damage helped feed the insurgency. The human rights record compiled by the Iraqi human rights tribunal will help, particularly if Iraq’s judges now continue to prosecute other defendants. Maybe someday Americans or Europeans will also find ways to discuss Saddam as something other than a pawn in their own games or as a figure in their own political debates. But I doubt it.