Foreign Policy

Conquering Heroes

Saddam Hussein's role models

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And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name."
(Genesis 11:3-4)

The Tower of Babel, the location of which has been tentatively identified in southern Iraq, was not nearly as nice as one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. It did not have gold-plated bathroom hardware, Italian marble, or a chandelier in every room. But the grandiose impulse behind it was similar to the one that drove Saddam to build one ridiculously opulent residence after another, along with his ubiquitous statues and enormous government buildings.

Saddam, the poor boy from Tikrit who aspired to be a modern Nebuchadnezzar, wanted to make a name for himself. As his victims can testify, it wasn't heaven that he reached. Yet he believed that elevating himself would elevate his country. He rebuilt the walls of Babylon's central temple and put a brick at the center of each that reads: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq."

There was no shortage of bold conquerors to inspire Saddam's megalomania. In addition to Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi and Alexander the Great ruled from Babylon. The northern city of Nineveh was the imperial seat of the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal.

Nineveh is the city to which God sends a reluctant Jonah, who does not want to give its sinful people a chance to repent. Eventually, after a stopover inside a fish, Jonah goes to Nineveh—"an exceeding great city" that takes three days to cross on foot—and warns, "Yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown." Hearing the terrible news, the people, led by their king, fast, put on sackcloth, and sit in ashes. God decides to spare them, to Jonah's dismay.

One traditional explanation for the prophet's response is that he knew the Assyrian empire would arise from Nineveh and conquer the Israelites. He thought it was a mistake to spare Nineveh, despite its people's repentance, because he foresaw the threat it eventually would represent. I suspect President Bush would take Jonah's side in this dispute, although his father saw things differently 12 years ago.

Warriors are not the only role models Saddam could have chosen. Abraham, the common ancestor of Arabs and Jews, reportedly hailed from Ur, one of Iraq's most important archeological sites, located 140 miles south of Babylon. As depicted in Genesis, Abraham does not run from a fight: When warring kings capture his nephew Lot, he and 318 hand-picked men launch a daring rescue mission. For the most part, though, he manages to live in peace with his neighbors. But where's the glory in that?