May 19, 2005

What Were You Thinking, Saddam?

What between George Galloway and the recently-unveiled British memo, there's been a lot of revisiting the Bush admininstration's decision to launch our excellent Iraq adventure—even if just to say, "Yes, it was still a dumb-ass idea." True. But while we're retrospecting, here's a question that's never, as far as I know, been fully answered: Why did Saddam Hussein decide to go to war with the United States? I mean, come on. And this isn't just out of idle curiosity; it sort of has relevance to Iran and North Korea, I think.

Now it's true, the White House was dead-set on invading Iraq no matter what, but surely there were things Saddam could've done that would've left him in a better state than he's in now. He could've absconded to Saudi Arabia, for instance. Or he could've immediately opened the doors to all inspectors and proved once and for all, as he knew perfectly well, that Iraq had absolutely no weapons of mass anything. (At the time of invasion, recall, there was still reasonable doubt about whether he had WMDs or not—hence the chemical suits for our soldiers.) Or whatever. But surely in a rational and sane world Saddam should've foreseen that staying defiant and letting the U.S. invade was the worst of all possible outcomes. And yes, it's true that proving to the world that he had no WMDs would've opened the door for a possible Shiite rebellion, say, but again, that would be one possible threat to weigh against the imminent threat—U.S. invasion.

Anyway, some possible explanations come from the ol' Duelfer report. Perhaps Saddam just didn't believe the United States was serious about invading: "By late 2002 Saddam had persuaded himself, just as he did in 1991, that the United States would not attack Iraq because it already had achieved its objectives of establishing a military presence in the region." Perhaps—though after his capture, Saddam told a debriefer that four months before the war he was convinced that "hostilities were inevitable." For what that's worth. Alternatively, perhaps Saddam was receiving such awful military advice that he really believed he could've defeated the United States in a conventional battle. (Tariq Aziz claims this was the case.) On the other hand, remember his cryptic remark to his advisors in late 2003: "Resist one week, and then I will take over." So perhaps he thought that he would let the U.S. invade, retreat, start up the insurgency we see now, bleed the U.S. into withdrawal, and then retake Baghdad, this time stronger than ever (because who would attack him now?).

Any of those seem plausible. Another theory: In the end, Saddam probably thought he was screwed no matter what he did. So what if he proved once and for all that he had no WMDs? Perhaps the U.S. would just attacks anyway. Indeed, the Bush administration didn't really give Saddam an exit strategy, or any assurance that backing down would yield any sort of benefit. There were a few prewar moments when Bush hinted that Saddam could just comply with the UN resolutions, avoid war, and save his own skin. But only a few. For the most part there was nothing but a steady drumbeat out of the White House: regime change, regime change, regime change. Under those circumstances, it's no wonder Saddam decided to take his chances with whatever deterrent he thought the threat of WMDs and mass American casualties might have, and failing that, the possible urban warfare/insurgency strategy.

At any rate, this is sort of moot, since it doesn't seem like the goal of the White House was ever to force Saddam to back down, comply with all UN resolutions, give up his WMD ambitions, and retreat back into his little shell. No, the goal was war, and war was what we got. Nevertheless, if Bush really had wanted to make Saddam back down, hypothetically, it seems he should have the following: 1) made it extremely clear that the U.S. was dead serious about invading, 2) made it absolutely clear that the U.S. would kick ass, 3) given credible assurances that if Saddam complied, he could save his own skin. None of those things were done. More to the point, our intelligence agencies could have focused less on what weapons Saddam did or didn't have, and more on how Saddam would've reacted to various threats and promises. Not a whole lot of prewar intelligence really focused on this aspect—again, probably because Bush wanted war no matter what—but it should have focused on this aspect; knowing what the enemy's thinking (or might be thinking) is essential. The Duelfer report suggests that we didn't have a clue. For all we know, the White House just figured Saddam was an irrational lunatic and so there was no use trying to get a handle on his thought process.

I'm bringing all this up because it seems there ought to be some lessons here for dealing with North Korea and Iran—two countries, presumably, that the White House really does want to coerce into doing stuff, and not invade no matter what. (Good god.) People doing intelligence stuff ought to be figuring out these questions: How will Kim Jong Il or the Tehran mullahs react to this or that situation? Will they find this or that condition too humiliating to accept? Is there a way for them to "save face"? Do they properly understand this threat or that promise? This seems like obvious stuff, and perhaps the CIA is on it, but the case of Iraq—and reading the Duelfer report makes this clear—suggests that our intelligence agencies really aren't very good at figuring this stuff out. The historical record's no better: No one really understood why Saddam didn't back down in the first Gulf War; no one really understood why Milosevic didn't back down initially over Kosovo. How well, exactly, do we understand our good buddies on the international stage? I wonder.
-- Brad Plumer 12:21 AM || ||