Washington A MADMAN HE is not, say those familiar with the character and career of Saddam Hussein.
Aggressive, yes. Power-hungry, yes. Ruthless, yes.
But it is a mistake, say Middle East scholars and others who've examined the personality of the Iraqi president, to think he is an irrational and unpredictable fanatic who cannot be stopped.
"Saddam Hussein is a judicious, political calculator who is by no means irrational," says Dr. Jerrold M. Post, a George Washington University professor of psychiatry and founder of the U.S. Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior. "But he is dangerous to the extreme."
Dr. Post, who has developed pychological profiles of foreign leaders for U.S. presidents, believes this is "one of those unique moments in history when the personality and political behavior of one key political actor" are significant.
Much of that behavior can be explained by President Hussein's background, his upbringing and participation in what Marvin Feuerwerger, senior strategic fellow at the Institute for Near East Policy, calls a "culture of violence." But against that backdrop has emerged a personality described by observers as pragmatic, paranoid, unconstained by conscience and, most of all, in pursuit of power.
"All actions are justified if they are in the service of furthering Saddam Hussein's needs and messianic ambitions," Dr. Post told the House Armed Services Committee in early December.
Mr. Feuerwerger believes, "You have a great megalomaniac here. He identifies the state with his person."
But Salim Y. Mansoor, an Iraqi-born physician at the Southern Maryland Hospital Center who met with Mr. Hussein last fall and helped secure the release of 14 hostages, disagrees with the the power-related descriptions. "Here, we call him a megalomaniac. There, he's a leader of Arab masses. He's done a lot for the Iraqi people in the last 30 years. If he wanted to have power, he would have continued to fight Iran."
Laurie Mylroie, a professor at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, sees Mr. Hussein's actions in the context of his journey from poverty to power. "This is a poor boy done good in a perverse sort of way. It's related to how he rules."
Saddam Hussein was born to a poor, illiterate peasant family in central Iraq and was influenced greatly by an uncle, a nationalist agitator, who taught the young boy to hate foreigners and regaled him with heroic tales of relatives who gave their lives for the cause of Iraqi nationalism.
"Saddam has been consumed by dreams of glory since his earliest days," says Dr. Post.
At the age of 20, he joined the somewhat socialist Baath Party, and rose to power through coups, assassinations, torture and mass executions. "He eliminated anyone who posed a threat to him," says Mr. Feuerwerger, "particularly anybody with the lack of wisdom to try to build their own reputation and who was popular."
Ms. Mylroie, citing Mr. Hussein's unabashed social climbing in earlier years, believes the rags to riches ascension relates to the ruler's brutal, often murderous behavior "when others don't treat him with the kind of deference he thinks is appropriate."
Similarly, Dr. Post believes Mr. Hussein's "grandiose facade" underlies a sense of insecurity. He suggests the Iraqi leader, while "not psychotic," has a deeply "paranoid" personality.
"He is ready for retaliation and, not without reason, sees himself as surrounded by enemies," Dr. Post wrote in a psychological xTC profile of Mr. Hussein he developed for the House committee. "But he ignores his role in creating those enemies, and righteously threatens his targets. The conspiracy theories he spins are not merely for popular consumption in the Arab world, but genuinely reflect his paranoid mindset."
Dr. Post describes Mr. Hussein's personality as that of a "destructive charismatic who unifies and rallies his downtrodden supporters by blaming outside enemies. While Saddam is not charismatic, this psychological stance is the basis of Saddam's particular appeal to the Palestinians, who see him as a strongman who shares their intense anti-Zionism and will
champion their cause."
But unlike some who believe Mr. Hussein suffers from a "Masada complex," preferring to die a martyr rather than relent or retrench at all, many observers argue that, to the contrary, the president's top priority is survival -- survival of his power and dignity.
"He's the quintessential survivor," says Dr. Post. "If he concludes that his power and reputation will be destroyed unless he leaves [Kuwait], at the 11th hour, he will leave -- but only if his honor is preserved."
Because of this, he adds, "The more inevitable war seems, the less likely it is to occur."
Mr. Feuerwerger, too, says Mr. Hussein has "shown the ability to back down" or reverse himself when it's been expedient to do so. "He has delusions of grandeur, but not other delusions. He lives in the real world and can be persuaded."