Saddam first caught the attention of the West on 7 October 1959, when he took part in a brazen assassination attempt on the Iraqi dictator Abdel Karim Qasim. The attack ended in failure, with Saddam firing off bullets in a haphazard fashion and managing only by pure luck to hit Qasim in the shoulder, which put him in the hospital for a number of weeks.
While there are persistent claims that the US was behind the plot, the body of evidence suggests otherwise. There is no question that US intelligence was aware of plotting against Qasim by the Ba’ath, but the CIA’s depth of knowledge on these plans was limited. For instance, less than a week before, Allen Dulles, the Director of Central Intelligence, assessed that an assassination attempt would occur “in the next two months”—not a matter of days. At the same time, a special inter-agency committee set up by the Eisenhower administration to oversee the implementation of US policy reaffirmed in late September 1959 that the US would maintain a policy of non-intervention in Iraq and feared that if Qasim were assassinated it could very well lead to a communist takeover, which was precisely what the US wanted to avoid.
The British, however, had long developed an interest in the Ba’ath Party, since it championed a pan-Arab ideology but was opposed to Nasser’s regional ambitions. To the British, any means of preventing Nasser’s domination of the region was in its national interests—so it was much more accommodating to the seizing of power in Iraq by the Ba’ath Party in 1968 than the US, which held concerns over the Ba’ath’s radical stance vis-à-vis Israel and its willingness to establish close relations with the Soviet Union.
[inset_left]the British government produced a rather upbeat biographical assessment of Saddam Hussein in November 1969.
In this context, it is unsurprising that the British government produced a rather upbeat biographical assessment of Saddam Hussein in November 1969. The report described Saddam as a “presentable young man” who was initially regarded as a “Party extremist,” though “responsibility may mellow him.” It also pointed out Saddam’s familial connections to then-Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr, who helped facilitate Saddam’s rise to power.
Another British document, from December 1969, details a meeting between the British Ambassador to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, not long after his “emergence into the limelight.” In this initial encounter, Saddam appeared to be reserved at first, but eventually warmed up to the ambassador and spoke with candor about significant issues like Iraq’s relations with the Soviets, the Palestine question, and Iraq’s longstanding disputes with the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). In the end, the British ambassador judged that Saddam was a “formidable, singled-minded and hard-headed member of the Ba’athist hierarchy, but one with whom, if only one could see more of him, it would be possible to do business.” Quite clearly, from early on the British were intrigued by this young upstart.
But the view of the Americans with respect to Saddam was much more complicated. At the time that the Ba’ath Party seized power in 1968, the US did not have diplomatic relations with Iraq and so it was very difficult to develop a clear assessment of the Iraqi leadership’s views. What little information it did have, however, did not lead to rosy conclusions. For instance, just after Richard Nixon’s election in November 1968, the fledgling Iraqi regime initiated a pogrom against Iraqi jews that forever soured the Nixon administration’s views on the regime. This would eventually contribute to Nixon’s approval of a joint US–Iranian–Israeli operation to arm and finance the Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq to destabilize the Iraqi regime.
By the time of Saddam’s seizing of the Iraqi presidency in 1980, the US, while put off by his violent excesses, was forced to improve relations with Iraq due to the more pressing strategic imperative of preventing revolutionary Iran from defeating Iraq in the Iran–Iraq War. This led the US to “tilt” toward Iraq in the brutal, eight-year-long war.
But by the lead-up to the 1990–91 Gulf War, when the US no longer needed Iraq to prevent an Iranian victory, US perceptions of Saddam underwent a dramatic shift. According to a CIA-produced psychiatric report, there was no evidence that Saddam was a madman or psychotic, but the CIA felt he was a “wounded self,” a “malignant narcissist,” and a “paranoid with no constraints on his conscience or aggression.”
In the end, the differing British and American assessments of Saddam over time suggest that both governments viewed him through their own lenses and based on a calculation of their own national interests. So, during the 1960s, when the British were concerned about Nasser’s influence in the region, Saddam was considered someone they could work with. Similarly, for the US during the Iran–Iraq war, when the US needed Saddam to prevent an Iranian victory, it was more than willing to work with him, but when the war ended and Saddam threatened US interests in Kuwait, suddenly his more negative characteristics came out. This raises the question: what was Saddam truly like?