A Rare Window into an Authoritarian Regime
In the spring of 2003, Hal Brands watched the first accounts of the Iraq War trickle in from the battlefield as reporters embedded with U.S. military divisions recorded the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.Now Brands, along with a team of other researchers, has helped to make thousands of internal Iraqi documents and transcripts captured by coalition forces during the ground invasion available to scholars.
For historians and other scholars, the collection is a monumental find: the documents are a window into the complex relationships and decision making processes that characterized one of the world’s most infamous and secretive dictatorships.
Until recently, the documents were off limits to all but a few researchers. Housed in a restricted-access government network, the records could be viewed only by government officials and a handful of scholars at the nonprofit Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). The Defense Department had initially released some materials to the public in 2006 but withdrew them amid concerns that some documents might contain sensitive technical information that could aid terrorists. The episode showed the need for a more systematic approach to vetting the documents and making them available to researchers, Brands said.
Brands, an assistant professor at the Sanford School, teaches American Grand Strategy and Cold War history, and typically focuses his research on the history of U.S. foreign policy. After getting his PhD, he took a job as a researcher at IDA, where he began to work on projects involving the Iraqi collection. What he saw excited him.
“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” said Brands. “When dictators are toppled or defeated in war, most of the documents from their personal offices are lost or destroyed. So this is an unparalleled resource, giving us a really unique window into Saddam’s decision-making, his worldview and his relationships with his advisers.” The documents also have the potential to inform policymakers’ understanding of how authoritarian regimes think and operate.
Brands joined Kevin Woods and other IDA staffers to develop plans to make the documents available to scholars. Particularly in light of the 2006 misstep, it was important to carefully screen the material slated for release. Accordingly, the IDA team devised a series of vetting processes to ensure that the documents made available to scholars do not contain potentially sensitive technical information or information that might endanger innocent Iraqis.
By mid 2010, the team had begun to make some of the Iraqi records available through the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), located at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Scholars can schedule an appointment to review the documents.
While the documents largely reinforce Hussein’s reputation as a cruel and calculating dictator, another portrait emerges of a highly dysfunctional regime prone to catastrophic miscalculations and paranoia. Transcripts of conversations between Hussein and senior intelligence officers, for example, reveal that he confidently predicted Iran’s military forces could be easily overwhelmed, which led him to launch an invasion of that country in 1980. The war would go on to last eight years and claim nearly 500,000 Iraqi lives.
And during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, he and his generals wrongly predicted U.S. coalition forces would halt their offense before reaching Baghdad because of international opposition to the war. The regime also believed the Japanese Pokémon cartoon character was part of a secret Israeli plot against Iraq, and wanted to build a nuclear weapon as a precursor to launching a conventional war against Israel.
“Saddam saw himself as a hero of the Arab world,” says Brands. “He wanted a nuclear weapon because he believed that it would neutralize Israel’s nuclear monopoly and permit him to lead an Arab invasion to reclaim lands lost during the 1967 war.”
In the 18 months since it was opened, the archive is already having an impact. Scholarly analysis and reports using the documents have found their way to the desks of senior military and intelligence officials. Interest in the collection has steadily increased and researchers, including Brands, have relied on it for published papers. Brands’ papers include “Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmist Justified?” (with David Palkki) in International Security and “Conspiring Bastards: Saddam Hussein’s Strategic View of the United States” (also with Palkki), forthcoming in the journal Diplomatic History.
This story was originally published in Sanford Insights.