What the Dictators Can't Stop

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dictators die harder than most of us. Having wielded unlimited power in life, they seem to be sustained by a stubborn belief in their ability to stare down death, too. In his final moments yesterday, Saddam Hussein refused the offer of a hood to cover his eyes.

Such defiance lends a particularly morbid quality to the last days of dictators such as Hussein and the now-infirm Fidel Castro. They follow in the reluctant footsteps of Spain's Francisco Franco and of many other tyrants-in-extremis before el rais Saddam and el jefe Fidel were confronted, respectively, with a hangman's rope and the withering ravages of disease.

Survival is the dictator's primary occupation -- as well as his justification for ruthlessness. "His main contribution to life, finally, is fear; but fear such as thunder, cancer or madness may provoke," author William Kennedy wrote of the fictional caudillo that Gabriel García Márquez created in "The Autumn of the Patriarch." Facing death, the dictator is "the embodiment of egocentric evil unleashed," Kennedy continued in a masterful 1976 book review for the New York Times.

The year before, García Márquez was in Madrid, as was I, for Franco's 40 days and nights of dying, inch by inch. Moreover, meetings I had with Hussein around the same time and later with Castro instantly gave me the impression that neither intended to go into the night quietly -- or at all. They could not and would not let others pretend to command their people, nor would they allow history to tamper with the image they willed for themselves.

When he ruled Iraq, Hussein left nothing to chance. A visitor who might greet him had to wash his or her hands with a mysterious blue liquid and pass through a maze of metal detectors in his vast palace. Among the scores of guards and aides, only one was trusted to know which room Hussein would use to greet the visitor.

For years after that encounter, I published open letters to Hussein urging him to get out of the dictator business or at least to quit slaughtering his nation's Kurds, Shiites and Sunni dissidents. I can stop. The approach of the hangman's rope finally focused his mind on my point.

Or so it seemed in the farewell letter that Hussein's lawyers claim the deposed tyrant wrote. Released one day after Iraq's highest court upheld his death sentence last week, the letter urges Iraqis "not to hate, because hatred does not leave space for a person to be fair. . . ." Even U.S. troops should not be hated.

The lawyers would have us remember Hussein as a pious, forgiving ruler concerned about his people's welfare. They saw this as a useful legal tactic. But I doubt it is the way Hussein wanted us to remember him. On the witness stand in his two trials, he remained generally fierce and defiant, refusing to be anything other than a man whom others must fear or else.

Those who would blame all of Iraq's current evils on the American occupation are already busy airbrushing Hussein's image. But we cannot let death obscure his role in creating the inferno that is Iraq today. He leaves behind a country successfully recast in his own ferocious image to a degree far greater than I had imagined.

Before 2003, I believed that Iraqis were largely a people held hostage by Hussein, his murderous clan and the Baathist machine. But far more Iraqis turned out to be like Hussein -- ready to use torture and assassination in the pursuit of wealth and power -- than the world's best intelligence agencies had predicted, as David Kay's official analysis of the CIA failure to understand pre-invasion Iraq details. These Iraqis are Saddam Hussein's enduring legacy.

I suspect that Hussein preferred to go out in a grim finale that will be portrayed by his disciples as victor's justice than to waste away, in solitude and yet under the public's watchful gaze, as Castro is doing in Havana.

Cuba's situation after Castro will not be as traumatic or bloody as Iraq, in large part because Castro did not feel it necessary to rule as harshly and sadistically as did Hussein. As García Márquez, Castro's friend, has written: "The Latin American reality is totally Rabelaisian." It misshapes Latin dictators in ways different than do the blood feuds of the Middle East.

But both dedicated their lives to what García Márquez calls "the solitary vice of power." Their deaths will lighten their crimes and responsibilities not a whit.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


© 2006 The Washington Post Company