He’s an egomaniacal demagogue reviled by most of his country’s population. He presents himself as a strongman and a military expert despite having little to no experience in international politics or service in the armed forces. He engages in nepotism, is part of a corrupt government, and preaches to the choirs of nationalism based on racial chauvinism. And he loves to rally the nation against a dangerous, possibly historic enemy to distract from his internal issues.
Yes, the current US President, Donald Trump, comes to mind when saying all of this. But there is another figure of history who shares all of these characteristics–one who was the most demonized figure by Trump’s own party until his death 11 years ago: Saddam Hussein.
Both of these despotic leaders came to power at an age of division and a sense of brokenness in their countries. Iraq had been humiliated by Israel in both the 1948 War of Independence and the 1967 Six-Day War. Its government was oppressive and riddled with corruption, and increasingly unstable. Saddam Hussein came to power largely by jailing, expelling, or executing his rivals and many of his predecessors. His Ba’athist Party then rallied his country around the idea of Arab Nationalism–one with the goal of Arab unity from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf; driving the “hated Zionists out of Palestine”; and destroy anything Shiite or Persian that influenced Iraq throughout the centuries.
In modern times halfway across the world, the image of the United States was tarnished, to many. The US economy had still not recovered from the crash of 2008, then-president Barack Obama made a controversial nuclear deal with Iran that resulted not in a better age of relations between the two rivals, but in humiliation of the US and increased funding for terror and missile programs. And for many conservatives in the United States, the fight for equality for women, the LGBT community, and minorities was coming too soon and too rapidly, seemingly at their expense. Enter Donald Trump, a political outsider and wealthy businessman who railed against the corrupt and ineffective members of Congress, lamented the state of the economy, and called for looking inward after years of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To certain circles among the American public, this resonated with the overall decline of quality of life and their perceived loss of status. The media and political opponents of Trump only played into the hands of The Donald and were quickly sidelined and defeated. Trump’s charisma and ultra-nationalist message unified his base around him, making them ignore or overlook his shortcomings and rally to his defense. Trump apologized for racists, used dog-whistle rhetoric, and dismissed political correctness, while using pointed and hawkish rhetoric in regards to China, Iran, North Korea, and others who had been deemed as entities that humiliated the US.
After Saddam Hussein had been ushered into power in Baghdad, it quickly became clear that the repression Iraqis suffered under previous regimes was not coming to an end. His mukhabarat (secret police) terrorized those who uttered even a word against his rule. He incited against the Shiite majority, mainly concentrated in the south of the country, as well as against the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. When Kurds and Shiites rose up against Ba’athist rule, they were brutally put down, culminating in the genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign against the Kurdish north, when poison gas was dropped on the town of Halabja. Kurds were demonized as “Iranian agents” (Iran had funded their uprising when it was at war with Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s). Hussein lashed out at Jews & Israel (even attacking Israel with scud missiles in 1991) and later, at the United States, countries and groups he had perceived as isolating and degrading Iraq.
Hussein also used incendiary and racist rhetoric in his 1980-88 war with the new Islamic Republic government in Iran. Saddam wanted to become a great power in the Middle East and the undisputed leader of the Gulf region and Arab World. He believed that annexing the Khuzestan province of Iran–which had a significant Arab population–would show him as a liberator of Arab peoples from humiliating rule by the hated Persians. He was also concerned about the possibility of Iran trying to dominate the region and spread its Shiite revolution (as it ultimately did by way of Syria and Lebanon) in the Middle East, which could incite the Shiite majority of Iraq against him and lead to his overthrow. In the end, Saddam succeeded in garnering the support of most of the Arab World around him (as well as the West and the Soviet Union, for other reasons) by painting this upcoming war as a new Battle of Qadisiyyah, referring to the war when Arab Muslim armies faced off against the mainly-Zoroastrian Persian armed forces and defeated them. This allowed Saddam to portray the current conflict as a resumption of an ancient race war, grow his cult of personality, and paint a vision of of another Arab success against Iran. In the end, the war ended in stalemate that killed 1 million Iranians and Iraqis and devastated the economies of both countries.
Of course, Donald Trump is (so far) not a brutal thug who is murdering people left and right. That said, he is engaging in and encouraging racism and supremacist rhetoric within America. He has supported those who target religious minorities, despite members of his family being Jewish. He dismisses race-and-gender-based violence and previously engaged in housing practices discriminatory to African-Americans. While under investigation from apparent collusion with a foreign power during the 2016 election, and to try and unite the country around him when his approval ratings sink, he controversially drums up warlike rhetoric towards North Korea. Trump also enacts policy that marginalizes and discriminates against LGBT citizens, women and minorities. The amount of people that believe like him, and vote for him, is a minority in the country. However, the indifference held by some Americans towards the bigotry he has reignited allows this festering wound to continue leaking. So, too, does the division between various factions in the Democratic Party, and the desire of the GOP to remain in power (and in solidarity with each other) at all costs.
To distract from the internal troubles Saddam faced–failure to win a decisive victory over Tehran, uprisings in the north and south of the country, and a failing economy–he decided to invade and annex Kuwait and use its oil fields to replenish Iraq’s economy. This ended in the destruction of the Iraqi military by its former allies in the Arab World and the West, and a no-fly zone in the north that liberated the Kurdish people from his brutal and supremacist regime. Just twelve years later, he was overthrown, and ultimately executed in 2006. Since, Iraq has been thrown into chaos. Over the decades, Saddam had incited the minority Sunni community–of which he was a part–against its neighbors. Now, the Kurds wish to cleanse their hands of what they view as Arab backwardness that is a hindrance on their mission to statehood, while the Shiite majority has sought vengeance against Sunnis after years of oppression and domination–leading to the creation of ISIS.
Now, in light of the Charlottesville terror incident by White supremacists, Trump is finding himself increasingly isolated by mainstream Republicans, and even more so by his traditional critics on the Left. There have been talks of impeachment and his replacement by his own vice-president, Mike Pence. Much as the sanctions of the 1990s after his Gulf War defeat fatally crippled the Saddam Hussein regime, the abandonment of Trump by those who dismissed or ignored his shortcomings, as well as his constant dismissal of members of his own governing circle, have hampered him and left him looking vulnerable. In some ways, the leftward drift of the Democratic Party has slowed in response, possibly to bring more moderate voters to the party in 2020. And while nobody knows just how the Trump regime will come to an end, it’s definitely a bad sign that things are falling apart so soon into his presidency. However, it’s also ironic (though not surprising, given the many hypocrisies that come with politics) that the US political party that so championed and advocated for the fall of Saddam has now embraced, or at least refused to challenge, his kindred spirit in Donald Trump.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…:
Donald Trump and Saddam Hussein share many commonalities, from their strongman image despite their many vulnerabilities and lack of experience, to their incitement against minorities and disregard for equal and human rights. Maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising, given that Trump, after saying that Hussein was “terrible”, later praised him for killing terrorists and looking strong. In any case, the instability of the Trump regime right now should be looked at with caution for many reasons. No doubt, many around the world, including Iraqis, celebrated the fall of Saddam. However, others look back on his rule as an era of stability. Iraq now is a haven for religious extremism and foreign militias sent in by Tehran to persecute Sunnis, harass Kurds, and control territory rich in oil. And the Sunnis, now a minority group subject to harsh criticism (often rightly so) by many in the world as well as persecution by Shiites, lash out and increasingly embrace terrorist ideology.
In the United States, the ridiculed (again, often rightly so) and increasingly isolated groups who embraced Trump and agree with his rhetoric have become more and more violent, as we’ve seen in Charlottesville. But what of Trump and impeachment? He could be replaced by someone even more extreme in Pence. We have seen this story before, in a country that we invaded ourselves. It’s a no brainer that, given what we now know, Saddam is preferable to ISIS, al-Qaeda, or religious forms of government like Iranian ayatollahs or the Taliban. For all of his shortcomings, he was a relatively secular person who, indeed, murdered religious extremists, seeing them as a threat to his rule. And yet the catastrophe of the Iraq War was not that Saddam was toppled, but that there was no preparation for what would come after. Similarly, Donald Trump is a far from ideal president who caves into the desires of the radical evangelical right on abortion rights and LGBT equality. That said, someone who refers to communion as “my little wine and little cracker” and talks of “two Corinthians” being “the whole ballgame right there” is obviously not as dedicated to religious extremism as people such as Ted Cruz or Mike Pence. The Left in this country often takes pride in being against the Iraq War due to the instability it unleashed in Iraq, especially in regards to religious extremism. It would do well to prepare for the possibility or eventuality of a Trump impeachment by not just celebrating it or ushering it in, but preparing for the greater need to resist against the possibility of the very first American Ayatollah: Mike Pence.