Saddam's Options

Jonathan I. Katz

No one chooses to bring on a war he expects to lose. Iraq's catastrophic defeat in the [first] Gulf War, the increased effectiveness of the U.S. military since then, the likely atrophy of the remains of Iraq's, and the rout of the Taliban by a handful of Americans and some poorly organized Afghan tribesmen make it clear that Iraq cannot hope to defeat us on the battlefield, or even to delay us significantly or to inflict many casualties. What does Saddam have in mind?

His strengths are that he is both cunning and cynical. An absolute dictator, he can change course whenever he wishes, without regard to consistency or yesterday's promises. He can lie without fear of contradiction or consequences. He can choose a battlefield on which he is strong. That is the battlefield of American public opinion, on which the Vietnam War was lost (or won, depending on which side you were on), and on which the Germans fought in 1914-17 and 1939-41 and the Soviets in the Cold War, each with a fair degree of success.

Saddam has several options. One is to permit inspectors to inspect and disarm Iraq, with none of the lying, cheating and obstruction he used in the past. First, he destroys anything he doesn't want found, including records of his foreign suppliers of materiel to make nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Then the inspectors are given free entry everywhere, including to all the ``presidential sites'' (some of them palaces, some of them weapons factories and military bases) paid for by taking food from the mouths of Iraqi children. After several months Iraq is genuinely disarmed, sanctions end, the domestic (U. S.) support for military action evaporates and our forces return home. Then Iraq goes back to building chemical, biological and nuclear weapons with no restraints at all.

If Saddam chooses this path it will be necessary to make the inspection regime permanent, continuing inspections indefinitely, and responding to any obstruction either by destroying the site from which the inspectors were excluded, or by taking obstruction as sufficient cause to resume the war and press on to Baghdad. This will require maintaining military readiness and political fortitude over many years, until regime change happens naturally. The experience of the first post-Gulf War decade shows that we are unlikely to have the required patience and determination. In 1992--93 I wrote an article discussing the necessity, and difficulty, of maintaining a inspection regime for the indefinite future.

Saddam's second option is to continue to lie, cheat and harrass the inspectors enough to prevent them from finding his weapons of mass destruction, but to give just enough to prevent an attack. Our President has stated that any obstruction will constitute a casus belli (more properly, a cause for ending the 1991 cease fire, for the war never ended), but we don't know if he means it. It is certain that most of our supposed allies (and significant domestic factions) will try to persuade him not to mean it. We have the military strength to crush Iraq in days, but not the political will to remain in a state of readiness to do so for years. Saddam used this strategy of lying, cheating and obstruction in 1991-98. It was very successful, because it first kept the inspectors from completing their task (originally planned to be finished in a few months), and finally led to their withdrawal.

Saddam's great strength, like that of enemies we faced earlier in the 20th Century, is that he is completely cynical and dishonest. Our weakness is that we are not. That makes us easy to deceive. Because we refuse to think the worst of our enemies, they can play the sheep until a wolf emerges from under the fleece, as on December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001.

Our second great weakness is a confusion over war aims. Are they the disarmament of Iraq, or regime change? Sometimes we hear one, sometimes the other. If our aim is limited to disarmament we are likely to fail, either because we lose our resolve before it is achieved, or because Iraq rearms afterward.

Regime change, as in Afghanistan, is the only permanent solution of the problem. Some may object that overthrowing a government, and perhaps fragmenting a country, will arouse the anger of others. Democracies think that way, but not tyrants. Tyrants understand two things---power, and the willingness to use it. After the Gulf War, we left but Saddam stayed. The Saudis, clear-eyed and cynical in their own interests, concluded it was more dangerous to be our friend than our enemy and turned against us. When the twin towers fell crowds cheered in the tyrannies of the world, and mourned elsewhere. When the Taliban fell, anti-American rhetoric faded from the streets and the controlled presses of the tyrannies, for they began to fear America.

Regime change will not require a bloody fight on the streets of Baghdad. A single well-placed bomb, or bullet, will be enough. Failing that, the same cynical desire to be on the winning side which motivates the tyrants of the world will also motivate the leaders of Iraq's military and secret police. Once American forces approach the outskirts of Baghdad, opposition will melt as a snowball in the desert sun, and it will fall as easily as Kabul.

Removing Saddam from power will make the tyrants of the world tremble. They will decide to find safety in our friendship, and the world will become a better place.

For further details on Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda see Apparatus of Lies. For more on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction and the nature of the Iraqi regime follow this link to U. S. and British reports.

Postscript September 5, 2003: The preceding was posted January 22, 2003. It now appears that Saddam ended, or mothballed, his nuclear, chemical and biological weapons efforts at some time in the past, possibly as far back as 1995. He appears to have preserved only a few critical items (some gas centrifuge sample parts and documents, for example), which would have been the basis of reconstituting the program. One must ask why, if Iraq was essentially ``clean'' (in compliance with the 1991 agreement to end these efforts) he did not simply give the inspectors free rein and end the sanctions regime? At that point reconstitution would have been straightforward, given Iraq's financial resources. One can only guess, so here are some guesses: 1. That would require admitting defeat, which he was psychologically unable to do, or which he feared would undermine his regime. 2. He was afraid the inspectors would find other things, such as mass graves. 3. He hoped that by maintaining ambiguity about his possible possession of WMD (denying it, while refusing to give inspectors the opportunity to verify this denial) he would deter an American attack, while ensuring that there were no WMD for the inspectors to stumble over. The sanctions regime was rapidly eroding, so in this way he hoped to outlast the sanctions without ever admitting weakness. Fortunately, our enemies make mistakes too.

Postscript November 30, 2003: Our enemies, the Baathists and (if still alive) Saddam himself, defeated on the open battlefield, have resorted to a campaign of guerrila war and terror. This is war, and we must expect our enemies to choose the methods most advantageous to them. Their strategy is apparent: to increase the human cost to us of keeping Iraq free, in the hope of winning the battle of American public opinion, to disrupt our coalition by killing allied soldiers as often as possible, and to intimidate and disrupt the reconstruction of Iraq by terror attacks aimed at international aid agencies and Iraqis attempting to cooperate with us or simply to rebuild their country. If Mother Teresa were alive and feeding starving orphans in Baghdad, she would be their first target.

Intimidation succeeds. Why did we lose a recent UN vote on Iraq by about 164-4, as so proudly trumpeted by Brzezinski in a speech reported in The American Prospect? Only a few of those 160+ votes represent countries which truly wish us ill. The rest know that voting against us is cheap insurance against a terrorist attack. They don't want their embassies, or cities, blown up. We mustn't be too hard on the cowards of the world. But we could encourage their conversion---if a few mysterious snipers fired on the more anti-American reporters and cameramen from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya the quality of press coverage would rapidly improve. They wouldn't even have to hit anyone. Demolishing all houses near the sites of ambushes would discourage future ambushes. War is hell, and if the enemy's tactics succeed we must adapt to them. The shooting is in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the battle is for the hearts of Americans.

But we must be steadfast, and persevere until Al Qaeda and the Baathists are destroyed. Their tactics are precisely to rely on the shortness of our outrage, and to wear down our will. We will defeat them if our will ourlasts theirs. Recall that even the most fanatic Japanese soldier laid down his arms when commanded by his Emperor, and the most fanatic Nazi when Hitler died and Canaris ordered surrender. All of these movements (Imperial Japan, National Socialism, and Al Quaeda) were essentially religious (State Shinto, the pagan ideology of the Aryan race, and radical Muslim), and disintegrate when their gods die or order surrender. If we weaken and withdraw before final victory, we will betray the victims of September 11 and our heroes who fell in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Another postscript: One of the benefits of the liberation of Iraq has been the discovery and publication of documentary evidence about the ``Oil for Food'' program, which was used by Saddam to bribe foreign leaders (his supporters, such as the governments of France and Russia and the leaders of the UN) and to build palaces, while starving the Iraqi people. Opponents of sanctions argued that Iraqi children died from hunger and disease as a result. In fact, they died because of Saddam, the UN, and the Oil for Food program, while Kofi Annan rejoiced (Did he take a bribe personally, as did Chirac and Putin? His son Kojo did, and I think Kofi did also, although documentary proof has not yet emerged.). Compared to his facilitation and encouragement of the murder of 800,000 people in Rwanda in 1994, Kofi's moral responsibility and criminal culpability in Iraq is small. Beginning with Waldheim, the UN has not only approved of mass murder, it has been the murderers' employer.

Postscript October 22, 2004, following the release of the Duelfer report on Iraqi WMD programs:

In its public statements the Iraqi regime denied the existence of a WMD program, many times, and demanded the end of sanctions. We believed it was lying because of both its past history and its interference with inspections (why interfere if there is nothing to hide?). In fact, we were wrong in that, and it was (in this specific matter) telling the truth or something close to it.

What we correctly inferred from its history and public statements was that Iraq had aggressive intent. We also inferred, almost certainly correctly but impossible to prove directly, that once sanctions ended it would have resumed active WMD programs.

So, why did Iraq interfere with inspections, when it apparently had no WMD to hide? Giving the inspectors free rein to find nothing could only accelerate the end of sanctions. Duelfer doesn't discuss this. Here are some hypotheses:

1. Saddam was trying to hide something else, such as mass graves (which really were there). Inspectors free to explore and dig up the countryside might be steered by Iraqis to them.

2. Dictators are control freaks, and just cannot tolerate the idea of anyone, especially unintimidated foreigners, moving about their country and looking into things freely.

3. He wanted us to believe he had WMD to deter an invasion, but couldn't simply lie and say he had them, because then the sanctions would have gone on forever. According to Duelfer he thought that the threat of WMD (which he then had) kept us from going to Baghdad in 1991. Yet he didn't have any in 2001--03 for they were destroyed in 1991--96 as a result of a number of inspections (remember, he was lying in 1991--96 when he claimed not to have any, another reason we didn't believe his denials in 2001--03). So he had to limit the inspectors so they wouldn't discover he was telling the truth (which would have ended his deterrence)! Sounds complicated (wants us to continue to assume he is lying when he is actually telling the truth), but I think this was the most important reason.

In intelligence this sort of thing is called Deception and Denial (denial refers to denying an adversary information, by methods such as encrypting communications or camouflage nets over military equipment). Saddam was a master at it, and pulled off this complex multi-layer deception flawlessly, fooling us completely. And I don't think there was a thing we could have done to uncover it. But I'm glad we didn't, because he ended up shooting himself in the head while trying to shoot himself in the foot.

Postscript January 31, 2005, following the Iraqi elections:

Sometimes the insurgency is described as Iraqis resenting foreign occupation. But that misstates it entirely. The insurgents stated their goal to be preventing the elections. Is that the goal of people we can respect, negotiate with, or leave in a position of power? It is the goal of people, Sunni Arab extremists, who believe they are a Master Race entitled to absolute rule, and strong enough to win (though a minority of less than 20% of the Iraqi population) a war with the rest of Iraq. They're obviously not going to win a free election, so they prefer civil war.

And the ``insurgency'' is really a civil war. Almost every attack is by Sunni Arab extremists and terrorists against the rest of the population (Shiites, Kurds, Christians, etc.) or against Americans and other foreigners who are trying to stabilize and rebuild Iraq. The attackers don't only strike against foreign soldiers (as a nationalist movement might); most of the victims have been, deliberately, other Iraqi civilians or the Iraqi security forces, or foreign contractors (and Iraqis) rebuilding the country. Would a legitimate nationalist insurgency be destroying the oil industry or the electrical grid on which ordinary Iraqis depend? These people are terrorists in the pure sense of the term, valuing destruction and death for their own sake (Osama bin Laden has said that his strength, and our weakness, is that we love life while al Qaeda loves death) in the hope that it will lead to their absolute power. If we let them succeed in Iraq, we will be next (as we were the targets of their allies on September 11).

A message to our reluctant European allies from Thucydides (Peloponnesian War IV.78):

``And if any one from envy, or possibly from fear (for greatness is exposed to both), would have Syracuse suffer than we may receive a lesson, but survive for his own security, he is asking to have a thing which human power cannot compass. For a man may regulate his own desires, but he is not the dispenser of fortune; the time may come when he will find himself mistaken, and while mourning over his own ruin he may possibly wish that he could still have my prosperity to envy. But he cannot bring me back again when he has once abandoned me and has refused to take his share in the common danger, which, far from being imaginary, is only too real. for though in name you may be saving me, in reality you will be saving yourselves.'' (Thucydides also has a scientifically accurate account of how earthquakes make tsunamis in III.89.)

Jonathan Katz
Wed Nov 20 09:21:11 CST 2002