Would Saddam Husayn Abdicate?

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace; Former Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

February 4, 2003

Americans and their allies are spending a great deal of time debating whether Saddam Husayn might be willing to give up power and accept exile in a foreign country. Rumors abound that the Saudis, the Russians, the Jordanians, and other states are attempting to persuade Saddam to abdicate to prevent a war that would surely destroy his regime. Whatever the merits for or against, there is little likelihood that it will succeed. At least until the war starts, and probably even then, it is extremely unlikely that Saddam Husayn will voluntarily give up power. If Saddam ultimately feels he must make an accommodation, he is more likely to agree to greater cooperation with inspectors rather than abdication.

Saddam Husayn is a survivor. Throughout his political career he has made many concessions, performed many tactical retreats and proved his ability to be flexible and resourceful. These personality traits suggest that, when faced with certain destruction, he might be flexible and resourceful enough to secure his physical survival by abdicating and asking for political asylum. Certainly, we can’t rule it out. But such a likelihood is remote. It flies in the face of at least three hallmarks of Saddam’s decision-making: his incurable optimism, his deep attachment to a code of tribal honor, and last his belief in his own historic destiny. These reasons make total surrender and abdication extremely unlikely.


Saddam Husayn always believes that things are going to turn out in his favor, no matter how bad they might look to others. Saddam’s insurmountable optimism rests on his life of achievements in the face of overwhelming odds. As is evident from a new autobiography issued in 2002, Saddam believes that his mother tried to abort him. Thus, his very birth was his first victory in a struggle to survive. Throughout his childhood he was an orphan in a traditional society without a father to protect him. His mother and stepfather—poor, landless peasants—reportedly did not want him to go to school but instead to help them with farm work. Yet, according to his semi-official biographies, he became a leader of the children in his village, he forced his parents to accept his demand to go to school, and he almost completed his high school education before he was drawn into the violent politics of Iraq in the interregnum period between the demise of the monarchy and the rise of General Abd al-Karim Qasim.

As a youth, despite crippling disadvantages in terms of social background and education, he became a leader of a street gang and joined the most radical and violent underground party of the day, the tiny Ba’th Arab Socialist party. Over the course of more than a decade, Saddam rose slowly to the highest echelons of the Ba’th through his readiness to use violence and his determination to succeed. He became the Ba’th’s czar of internal security, and shortly after they finally secured power permanently in 1968, Saddam was named Deputy Secretary of the Revolutionary Command Council, the highest decision-making body in the land. By 1979, he had survived countless other power-plays to become president of Iraq without peer or rival.

Saddam’s remarkable success in rising to the top and staying in power despite all of his initial disadvantages have convinced him that he is marked out by destiny. Even though this incurable optimism has contributed to his tendency to miscalculate and make mistakes—many of them potentially fatal—the fact that he has still survived has only fuelled his self-confidence. For example, the war against Iran (1980-88) did not proceed as planned and at times became so dangerous as to threaten Iraq and the regime itself. However, Saddam did not lose power. Indeed, when he finally prevailed over Iran, it left him even more powerful than before. Similarly, the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) created a dire threat to his regime and his own survival, yet here as well he survived and held power. These and numerous other instances when he managed to survive in desperate circumstances have given him an ironclad conviction that he is uniquely lucky and that his fortune will never forsake him.

Although we have only scraps of information suggesting his current thinking, these snippets and his past pattern of behavior suggest that Saddam, the eternal optimist, is looking at the international arena and even the domestic American one with a great degree of confidence. Saddam’s willingness to continue to play games with the UN inspectors and his relatively limited military preparations indicate that he is again optimistic about his chances to remain in power and retain his weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, in Saddam’s eyes, the vociferous opposition to war against Iraq from the leaders of Germany and France—as well as by demonstrators in the streets of European capitals and even Washington, DC—are an indication that war is not inevitable if he fails to comply and he therefore does not have to cooperate fully with the inspectors. Indeed, the offers of asylum from foreign leaders and the stream of anti-war activists to Baghdad in recent weeks almost certainly have further convinced Saddam that Americans do not want to go to war and are desperately looking for a way out.


Another critical consideration for Saddam is the importance of honor and cowardice in his thinking. Among the tribesmen upon whom Saddam has founded his rule, honor is sometimes more important than life itself, and to appear weak or act dishonorably could cost their loyalty. Thus, for Saddam to show weakness or act in a dishonorable fashion could cost him his life’s achievements, his control over Iraq and even his life.

Saddam has frequently proven that he can be flexible and so escape difficult fixes, but only when he has been able to suit the requirements of honor and demonstrate that his actions do not constitute cowardice. For Saddam and his tribal henchmen, cowardice consists of retreating without absolute need or when doing so means forsaking one’s ultimate goal for ever. A temporary retreat that can be reversed is acceptable; it can be tolerated, admitted and forgiven. However, accepting defeat without any hope of being able to regroup and return to the battlefield with renewed, even redoubled power—that is cowardice. Cowardice, of course, makes a terrible stain on a man’s honor, and for Saddam, tribal honor (al-sharaf al-‘asha’iri), is a cardinal virtue. Thus, for example, Iraq’s propagandists explain that Saddam chose to stay in Kuwait and fight, rather than withdraw peacefully, because to retreat would be cowardice, and would have seriously affected Iraq’s “tribal honor.” By withdrawing under fire, Iraq demonstrated courage and resolve.

It is not always easy to differentiate between a wise retreat and cowardly rout. Saddam has drawn the distinction by contrasting the perceived dangers of holding his ground to the dangers of making a concession. In Iraq, the latter are not insignificant. If Saddam’s ruling elite is not convinced that Baghdad has exhausted all other options and therefore retreat is unavoidable, they might consider Saddam a coward. More to the point, Saddam is paranoid about his internal position and has kept power successfully in part by never taking any action that he believed would risk such an outcome. Saddam fears that if his power base believes that he is a coward it could lead to his demise.


For Saddam to give up power would be to repudiate what he believes to be his historic destiny. Moreover, Saddam’s absolute faith that he has been marked out by providence to accomplish great deeds further reinforces his optimism that he will survive the current crisis as he has so many before.

Saddam is convinced that he is destined to play the historic role of the liberator and redeemer of the Arab nation. Leading the struggle against “world imperialism,” incarnate in the United States and its allies, has long been a crucial element of this role. Although he has often justified his actions in the name of Iraq’s national interests, Saddam is obsessed by these grandiose dreams of power. As he and his media have stressed ever since he became president, only he, as leader of Iraq, can save his country and the whole Arab Nation from the claws of “World Imperialism” and bring the Arab Muslims back to the summit of human civilization, the place they occupied at the height of their power before the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.

Despite all of the tragedies Iraq has suffered under his rule, mostly as a result of his own flawed decisions, Saddam has remained in power. And as long as he remains in power, he retains the hope that Iraq will be able to wriggle out from under the mountain of hardships he has piled on his country, and eventually he and Iraq will achieve their destiny. No setback has ever been bad enough to extinguish this vision.

If, however, Saddam were forced to flee Iraq to live in another country, the chances that he would recover from such a blow are practically nil. It would mean giving up on the central motivating force of his life: his destiny to turn Iraq into a new superpower, redeem the Muslim Arab nation, and bring it back into the international sunlight. It is not only that American intelligence would be watching him closely to ensure that he did not return; every other intelligence service including that of the new Iraqi regime would as well. His hosts would be under relentless pressure to isolate him and watch his steps or pay a horrendous political and economic price. Thus accepting exile would be almost as difficult for him (if not as difficult) as giving up his life. And because Saddam’s tyrannical rule has left hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals ready to risk their lives to kill him, asking for political asylum may in fact mean both.

Neither Saddam nor his regime would be able to recover from such a blow. Saddam could not go into exile on his own because the U.S. has made clear that it would not accept a Ba’th regime without Saddam either. Thus, he would have to take with him his whole family, including his two sons, Udayy and Qusayy—who is the czar of domestic security. In addition, people like General Abd Al-Hamid Mahmud, the most powerful internal security operator and many like him, would also have to leave Iraq with their families. The highest party officials like Tariq Aziz, Izzat Ibrahim, Taha Yasin Ramadan, and Saddam’s paternal cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid, would also have to seek political asylum as well. Everyone within Saddam’s elite, probably with good reason, would see such a calamity as an irreversible capitulation.


As noted above, Saddam is no stranger to policy U-turns. Thus, for example, in 1975, Saddam signed the Algiers Agreement with the Shah of Iran in which he conceded Iraqi territory (the eastern part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway). This was a painful and humiliating concession, but the alternative was continued Iranian aid to Iraq’s Kurdish revolutionaries and even full-scale war with Iran. Iran was much better armed and was fully supported by the U.S., while Iraq was much weaker and only an erratic client of the USSR. Likewise, after the Gulf War, Saddam made meaningful concessions to the UN Security Council, allowing UNSCOM’s weapons’ inspectors to roam, even though not quite freely, all around Iraq. This was a major blow to Iraqi sovereignty as well as to Saddam’s honor, and yet it was regarded as unavoidable, because the alternative was a new and devastating war that would put an end to the Ba’th regime. In all of the cases where Saddam made dramatic concessions, two prerequisites were met. First, Saddam remained in power, the regime remained in place, and both had a very good reason to believe that they would eventually prevail. Second, in all of these cases it was absolutely clear both to the leader and to his ruling elite that any other course of action would be an unmitigated disaster. Under such circumstances damage to national honor and to that of the leader, however regrettable and objectionable, were acceptable. As the earlier analysis makes clear, if Saddam agreed to go into asylum as suggested publicly by the Bush Administration and covertly by some Middle Eastern leaders, neither of these two prerequisites would be met.

Even had both prerequisites been met, it still seems unlikely that Saddam would abdicate. For Saddam, abdicating and leaving the country would be so humiliating, would hold so little promise and so many threats, and would represent such a devastating blow to his self-image and to the place he covets in Arab history that Saddam probably will never do so. In speeches throughout the 1990s, Saddam told his people that what he cares about most is how he and his regime, and Iraq under them, will be seen and remembered by Arab children a thousand years from now. A retreat into exile would not be in keeping with this burning ambition. Even for such a fierce survivor as Saddam, dying in a blaze of glory seems more in keeping with his delusions of grandeur.


There is one precedent for the abdication scenario, and Saddam’s behavior then may serve as an indication of his likely course now. In mid-1982, Saddam was similarly confronted with the option of retirement and exile. Ayatollah Khomeini promised that if Saddam would leave power he was ready to stop the Iraq-Iran War. This was a crucial moment in war: Iraqi forces had been repeatedly smashed and then evicted from Iranian territory, and Iran was poised to launch its own offensive into southern Iraq to “liberate” the Shi’ite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. Khomeini’s offer consequently seemed like a bargain. Saddam assembled the Iraqi leadership and asked them their opinions. Only one man suggested that Saddam should indeed leave the country—Shafiq Abd al-Jabbar al-Kamali, a senior Ba’thi official, a poet (who had just composed a new Iraqi national anthem) and an artist. All the others rejected the idea out of hand. Saddam remained in power, but that same night Kamali and his wife disappeared, never to be seen again.

At present, Saddam does not seem to believe that he is likely to fall and therefore there is no incentive to take a step as precipitous (and irreversible!) as abdication. This means that only when the inevitability of war is clear to Saddam and his lieutenants with nothing less than 100% of certainty, will he be likely to seriously consider meaningful concessions—and even then he is far more likely to offer greater cooperation with the inspections as a more palatable alternative. Abdicating and going into exile would take much more. If and when he ever decides to adopt such painful decisions, though, this may be too late, because the degree of certainty he would be needed to persuade him might only be achieved when the bombs start to fall on Baghdad, and maybe not even then.