Why autocrats like Saddam confound US presidents

How the US invasion could have been avoided and why the Iraqi leader sacrificed a long reign and ultimately his life by creating the impression that he possessed dangerous weapons when in fact he did not

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Saddam Hussein in the courtroom, Photo: Reuters
Saddam Hussein in the courtroom, Photo: Reuters
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

America made the worst foreign policy mistake of the post-Cold War era when it invaded Iraq in 2003 to disarm Saddam Hussein of alleged weapons of mass destruction. The ensuing war took a terrible toll in Iraqi and American lives and resources and also strengthened Iran, fueling regional proxy conflicts that left Washington stuck in the Middle East, as the Biden administration painfully discovered again.

At a time when the United States has identified dictatorships in China and Russia as their greatest national security challenges, and when the isolated and eccentric North Korean leader possesses nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, Saddam's case offers a rare, well-documented analysis of why autocrats often confound American analysts and president.

How could the US invasion of Iraq have been avoided? Much of our post hoc investigation focused on false and manipulated intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the decisions of President George W. Bush, the "selling" of the war to the public, and the complicity of the media. Another central question has rarely been explored: Why did Saddam sacrifice his long reign - and ultimately his life - by creating the impression that he possessed dangerous weapons when he actually did not?

There is an answer to this question. Saddam recorded his private leadership conversations as diligently as Richard Nixon. He left behind about two thousand hours of recorded conversations as well as an extensive archive of meetings and presidential records. The material documents the Iraqi leader's thinking at key moments in his long-running conflict with Washington, including his private reactions to 11/XNUMX and the Bush administration's plans to oust him.

The material also sheds light on the complicated subject of why he was unable to convince UN inspectors, various spy agencies and many world leaders that he did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

The toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad in April 2003.
The toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad in April 2003.photo: Reuters

On tape, as he thunders on about world events and his colleagues rarely dare to interrupt him, Saddam can come across as impressively shrewd and insightful. In October 2001, days after Bush declared a US-led war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Saddam asked his cabinet: If America installs a new government in Kabul according to its wishes, do you think that will end the problems of the Afghan people? They won't. It will create more causes for so-called terrorism instead of eliminating it”.

Faced with American hostility, he feigned and feigned, motivated by two goals above all else: to stay in power and to achieve glory in the Arab world, preferably by striking Israel.

Saddam harbored deeply racist beliefs about the Jews and was confused by elaborate conspiracy theories about American and Israeli power in the Middle East. He believed that successive US presidents, influenced by Zionism, had secretly and constantly conspired with the radical Ayatollahs of Iran to weaken Iraq. The Iran-Contra plot of the 1980s, when America and Israel briefly joined forces to sell weapons to the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, cemented the Iraqi leader's beliefs for years to come. It never occurred to him that Iran-contra was a form of flippant incompetence in American foreign policy.

The reasons why Saddam did not clarify that he did not have weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to 2003 are rooted in his tragic, decades-long conflict with Washington: his covert, untrustworthy cooperation with the CIA in the 1980s; the Gulf War of 1990 and 1991; the ensuing United Nations-sponsored struggle to disarm Iraq; and the height of the post-11/XNUMX confrontation.

George W. Bush
George W. Bushphoto: Reuters

Shortly after the Gulf War, he secretly ordered the destruction of its chemical and biological weapons, as demanded by Washington and the United Nations. He hoped this action would allow Iraq to pass disarmament inspections, but he covered up what he had done and repeatedly lied to the inspectors. He did not tell the truth to his own generals, fearing that he might invite internal or external attacks.

His decision to comply with international demands but to lie about it to UN inspectors defied Western logic. But Saddam did not want to expose himself to public humiliation, primarily because he thought it would not work. "One of the mistakes that some people make is when the enemy decides to harm you, you believe that there is a chance that you can reduce the harm by acting in a certain way," he told a colleague. In fact, he said, “The damage will not be less”.

Saddam believed that the CIA was almost all-seeing, so especially after 11/XNUMX, when Bush accused him of hiding weapons of mass destruction, he assumed that the agency already knew he had no dangerous weapons and that the accusations were just a pretext for the invasion.

That the CIA could make such an analytical error as to mislead about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was not part of his worldview.

It's almost impossible to understand or influence other people without letting go of judgment and trying to see the world from their perspective

While researching Saddam's conflict with America, I sued the Pentagon, and with the help of the Committee to Protect the Press, I obtained reams of his tapes and files, including some that have never been released. They turned out to be invaluable to my book project, but it's inconvenient that I had to go through such trouble. It is clearly in the interest of the United States to make the entire archive available to researchers, so that the American public and their government can be informed about Saddam's dictatorship.

My work deals with the background of the 2003 invasion, mostly from the Iraqi leader's perspective. Still, I couldn't help but think about how America's decision makers could have done better and what lessons their failures offer today. Saddam wasn't the first mass murderer I've written about in detail, but I was reminded how difficult and uncomfortable it can be to fully empathize with someone who behaves and thinks in ways you find horrific.

Yet it is almost impossible to understand or influence other people without letting go of judgment and trying to see the world from their perspective. As a writer, I had a way of humanizing Saddam without embellishing the image of him. I could also understand how difficult it would be for an elected American president to attempt this.

Saddam was hanged in Baghdad on December 30, 2006.
Saddam was hanged in Baghdad on December 30, 2006.photo: Reuters

The incentives of competitive democratic politics reward the demonization of the enemy and offer little credit for thinking deeply about the tyrant or rejecting conventional wisdom about his motives. In theory, nonpartisan intelligence analysts at the CIA and other agencies should be able to speculate and advise freely on the character and motives of America's most dangerous adversaries.

In reality, career analysts too often succumb to groupthink that recycles prevailing political or public opinion. It certainly helps explain the intelligence community's miscalculation of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Domestic political incentives also discourage presidents from talking to hostile autocrats, in part because it could undermine the economic sanctions the United States is trying to enforce. "If the press didn't hold me back, I'd pick up the phone and call that son of a bitch," President Bill Clinton told British Prime Minister Tony Blair privately in 1998, discussing Saddam. “But it's such a hard decision in America. I can't do that.”

Indeed, after early 1991, as far as is known, no major American official ever spoke directly to Saddam or his top emissaries. It was only after his arrest in December 2003, when he was sharing cigars with various CIA and FBI interrogators in a prison outside Baghdad, that he began to offer insights that helped explain America's misjudgment of him.

Saddam wanted to avoid a nuclear conflict, and the most important lesson from his example may be that even a reckless dictator can be deterred from aggression if he clearly understands that he may lose his life, inheritance or power

As one of Saddam's aides once said, quoting an Arabic proverb: "In the story of a liar, you miss many truths." The best way to avoid this is through periodic private conversations. Such contact with Saddam before 2003 could reveal that, as he reached his sixties, he lost much of his previous interest in military affairs and became obsessed with writing novels.

In his many contradictions and inconsistencies, Saddam was not an unusual dictator. Important features of his rule are often found in autocracies - paranoia about threats to the leader's power, unreliable information provided by servile and fearful aides, and an inability to fully discern the intentions of the adversary.

Like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un today, Saddam alarmed the world with reckless declarations of nuclear war. During the conflict over Kuwait, he was so convinced that an atomic attack by Israel or America was imminent that he ordered plans to evacuate the population of Baghdad to the countryside. His thinking even rattled his ruthless cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali,” who was later hanged for his role in the gassing of Kurdish civilians in the 1980s. "This whole hype about the consequences of a nuclear and atomic attack ... is scaring the kids," he complained during a taped meeting.

To which Saddam exclaimed: “What are we, a bunch of children? Pay attention to civil defense!”

Saddam with his soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War.
Saddam with his soldiers during the 1991 Gulf War.photo: Wikipedia

However, the Iraqi leader wanted to avoid a nuclear conflict. The most important lesson from his example may be that even a ruthless dictator can be deterred from aggression if he clearly understands that he may lose his life, inheritance or power.

Important characteristics of Saddam's rule are often found in autocracies - paranoia about threats to the leader's power, unreliable information provided by servile and fearful aides, and an inability to fully discern the intentions of the adversary.

Fooled by Saddam and misled by bad advice from Arab allies, President George HW Bush failed to send a clear message of deterrence to the Iraqi leader before Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The president corrected that mistake in early 1991, as he prepared to order forces led by the US to expel Iraqi troops from that emirate. He sent Secretary of State James Baker to convey to Saddam's chief envoy that if Iraq attacked American troops with chemical weapons, the US would overthrow his government.

Baker did not mention nuclear weapons, but the Iraqi leader already believed that America would not hesitate to drop atomic bombs. As war approached, he deployed chemical weapons to attack American and Allied soldiers, but hesitated at the moment of decision and did not use the gas. A few months later, he destroyed the weapon. The deterrent worked.

This may not always work. The case of Saddam Hussein is a paradox. He was unpredictable enough that it was unwise to gamble with American security by speculating about his intentions. A better policy would have been to act on the basis of Iraq's capabilities and to have sent clear and convincing messages of deterrence. Ultimately, though, America made a profound misjudgment of his weapons of mass destruction capacity because it failed to understand who he really was.

Steve Cole is an editor at The Economist and the author of Achilles' Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of the US Invasion of Iraq.

The article was taken from the "New York Times"

Prepared by: A. Šofranac

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