Sunday, January 28, 2007

Things Saddam Should Have Done as an Evil Overlord

This post is even more belated, since it deals with an article published in June, 2006, but it is never too late to have a little fun. Foreign Affairs magazine published an article in its May and June, 2006 issue discussing the general pathology of Saddam Hussein's regime, as discovered from reading captured documents and interviewing goverment officials. At times it seems almost like reading Thing I Would Do as an Evil Overlord.

Things I Would Do As An Evil Overlord, of course, was written to make fun of evil overlords in B-grade movies. Some of the proposals deal with the cheesy costumes and sets and the improbable gimmicks that allow the hero to escape. In other cases, though, after reading about the actual workings of Saddam's government one is left with the impression that B movies may have considerable insight into how evil overlords think. Consider the following:

I will not hold lavish banquets in the middle of a famine. The good PR amoung guests doesn't make up for the bad PR among the masses.

Give Saddam credit here. The one part of his government that really did work well was his food rationing system. That was because he knew that if famine broke out in urban areas, even his Legions of Doom might not be sufficient to protect him. But he did continue building lavish palaces amid the sanctions.

Before spending available funds on giant gargoyles, gothic arches, or other cosmetically intimidting pieces of architecture, I will see if there are any valid military expenditures that could use the extra budget.

See again the palaces Saddam built as his army crumbled amid sanctions.

I will be an equal-opportunity despot and make sure that terror and oppression is distributed fairly, not just against one particular group that will form the core of a rebellion.

Saddam defeated the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions against him, but they were powerful enough to menace him. His unequal distribution of terror and oppression continues to menace the survival of Iraq to this day.

I will funnel some of my ill-gotten gains into urban renewal projects. Although slums add a quaint and picturesque quality to any city, they too often contain unexpected allies for heroes.
Two words: Sadr City, which formed a major core of opposition, and developed a hostile organization under the noses of his Legions of Terror.

I will remember that any vulnerabilities I have are to be revealed strictly on a need-to-know basis. I will also remember that no one needs to know.

Actually, Saddam did that as well. His main vulnerablity was his lack of weapons of mass destruction, which he simultaneously wanted known and not known:


When it came to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them. Coming clean about WMD and using full compliance with inspections to escape from sanctions would have been his best course of action for the long run. Saddam, however, found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world.
Hm. Maybe B movies give Evil Overlords better advice than their critics.

When I employ people as advisors, I will occasionally listen to their advice.


A close associate once described Saddam as a deep thinker who lay awake at night pondering problems at length before inspiration came to him in dreams. These dreams became dictates the next morning, and invariably all those around Saddam would praise his great intuition. Questioning his dictates brought great personal risk. Often, the dictator would make a show of consulting small groups of family members and longtime advisers, although his record even here is erratic. All of the evidence demonstrates that he made his most fateful decisions in isolation.
I will not fly into a rage and kill a messenger who brings me bad news just to illustrate how evil I really am. Good messengers are had to come by.

I will not ignore the messenger that stumbles in exhausted an obviously agitated until my personal grooming or current entertainment is finished. It might actually be important.


These are closely related, and endemic to Evil Overlords; they react badly when told what they do not want to hear:

At one low point during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam asked his ministers for candid advice. With some temerity, the minister of health, Riyadh Ibrahim, suggested that Saddam temporarily step down and resume the presidency after peace was established. Saddam had him carted away immediately. The next day, pieces of the minister's chopped-up body were delivered to his wife. . . . Officers remembered the story of the brigadier general who once spent over a year in prison for daring to suggest that U.S. tanks might be superior to those of the Iraqi army.

Few things are quite as effective as chopping an advisor into pieces to isolate one's self from unwelcome news.

If my advisors ask, "Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme", I will not proceed until I have a response that satisfies them.

Saddam might still be in power today if he had followed this advice. But when you cut off people's heads for asking impertinent questions, critical ones like this tend to go unasked. Besides, Saddam rarely gave advisors the opportunity to ask such questions, "He decided to invade Iran . . . without any consultation with his advisers and while he was visiting a vacation resort. He made the equally fateful decision to invade Kuwait after discussing it with only his son-in-law."

If my trusted lieutenant tells me my Legions of Terror are losing a battle, I will believe him. After all, he's my trusted lieutenant.

Saddam never really coped with the fact that his Legions of Terror lost the last war.
In the aftermath of the 1991 war, the Iraqi military made extensive efforts to "learn" from its experiences during Desert Storm. These attempts were hampered by Saddam's conviction that his ground forces had performed well in the fighting. This certainty forced officers compiling Iraqi lessons-learned analyses to avoid issues that might involve Saddam's prestige or question the Iraqi forces' fighting abilities. Instead, they focused on peripheral issues that were almost totally irrelevant to winning wars.

He certainly isolated himself from any real news about the American invasion, by trusted lieutenants or not:

As late as the end of March 2003, Saddam apparently still believed that the war was going the way he had expected. If Iraq was not actually winning it, neither was it losing -- or at least so it seemed to the dictator. Americans may have listened with amusement to the seemingly obvious fabrications of Muhammad Said al-Sahaf, Iraq's information minister (nicknamed "Baghdad Bob" by the media). But the evidence now clearly shows that Saddam and those around him believed virtually every word issued by their own propaganda machine.
One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

An exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. Saddam's plans were never that bad, but with no questioning allowed, some his his plans were spectacularly bad. Preparing for American invasion, he prepared a map showing concentric, color-coded circles around Bagdad:

When the Americans arrived at the first ring, on the order from Saddam, the forces would conduct a simultaneous withdrawal. The units would then repeat this 'procedure' until reaching the red circle. Once in the red circle, the remaining units would fight to the death. . . . Compared to previous defense arrangements drawn up by professional military staffs, this new plan was amateurish. It paid no attention to basic military factors, such as geography, nor did it explain how all the units would be able to retreat simultaneously from one ring to the next while being engaged on the ground and assaulted from the air.
So a five year old child could not have spotted the problem. Any soldier of five years experience could.

I will have a staff of competent detectives handy. If I learn that someone in a certain village is plotting against me, I wil have them find out who rather than wipe our the entire village in a preemptive strike.

It is now clear that Saddam created the Fedayeen in October 1994 in reaction to the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings of March 1991. Those revolts had revealed the potentially fatal flaws in Saddam's internal security apparatus: the local Baath Party organs were not capable of putting down uprisings without external support, the Iraqi armed forces were unable or unwilling to suppress rebellions with sufficient speed and ruthlessness, and the tribes of Iraq still represented a significant threat to Baghdad's control, even after more than 25 years of pan-Arabic socialist indoctrination.

I reserve the right to execute any henchmen who appear to be a little to intelligent, powerful, or devious. However if I do this, I will not at some subsequent point shout "Why am I surrounded by these incompetent fools?!"

Saddam saw capable subordinates as potential rivals and deliberately surrounded himself with incompetent fools who would pose no threat:

Saddam used a remarkable set of hiring criteria. As one senior Iraqi leader noted, Saddam selected the "uneducated, untalented, and those who posed no threat to his leadership for key roles." Always wary of a potential coup, Saddam remained reluctant to entrust military authority to anyone too far removed from his family or tribe.
Generally speaking, the higher ranking a military officer, the less capable.

If my supreme command center comes under attack, I will immediately flee to safety in my prepared escape pod and direct the defenses from there. I will not wait until the troops break into my inner sanctum to attempt this.

Saddam might still be alive (though not in power) today if he had taken this advice.

I will maintain a realistic assessment of my strengths and weaknesses. Even though this takes some of the fun out of the job, at least I will never utter the line, "No, this cannot be! I AM INVINCIBLE!!!" (After that, death is usually instantaneous).

This is an abbreviated but fairly accurate description of Saddam's downfall.

Even though I don't really care because I plan on living forever, I will hire engineers who are able to build me a fortress sturdy enough that, if I am slain, it won't tumble to the ground for no good structural reason.

Not literally true, of course; Saddam's palaces are still standing, but the falling fortress is a metaphor. But with the Evil Overlord's downfall, the entire edifice of the Iraqi state that he had built collapsed.

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