Thursday, January 20, 2011

Saddam Hussein is back in the news 

There is new news on Saddam Hussein, with the declassification of captured Iraqi documents. Today's New York Times has a story about Saddam's diplomatic efforts to head off or deflect the American counterattack in 1991. The headline, on page A10 in the paper version, tells us absolutely nothing we did not already know: "Hussein wanted Soviets to head off U.S. in 1991."

The article itself does, however, contain this nugget:

With only fragments of information coming from the battlefield and a room full of subordinates eager to applaud the faintest glimmer of success, Mr. Hussein was convinced that the United States lacked the resolve to wage a grinding ground war, the transcripts show.

This was neither the first nor the last example of Saddam failing to understand his own military position and that of his adversary and acting recklessly as a result. As one Clinton administration alumnus put it, "Saddam is also one of the worst gamblers and risk takers in modern history[, and his] behavior is ... completely unrestrained by the Iraqi political structure.... Saddam's foreign policy history is littered with bizarre decisions, poor judgment and catastrophic miscalculations." For example:
  • In October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a sneak attack on Israel, surprising the rest of the world, including the Iraqis. While most other Arab states sent a brigade or an air force squadron to show solidarity, Iraq sent an entire armored corps and about a hundred aircraft. By the time the Iraqis reached the Golan heights, the Isrealis were there to destroy them.

  • In 1974, Saddam abrogated the "March Manifesto," which had granted the Kurds (who had the backing of the United States, Isreal and Iran) limited authority back in 1970. Saddam sent in his army having concluded, incorrectly it turns out, that the Shah would not intervene to help the Kurds. This conclusion was essential to Saddam's decision to invade Iraqi Kurdistan, because at the time the Iranian military was substantially more powerful than Iraq's. Contrary to Saddam's expectations, Iran invaded. Saddam was ultimately forced into signing the Algiers Accord of 1975, which guaranteed Kurdish autonomy (once again) and, for the Shah's troubles, recognized all of Tehran's disputed territorial claims against Iraq (including the Shatt al-Arab waterway).

  • In 1980, Saddam invaded Iran, beginning a war that would last eight years. Saddam was concerned that revolutionary Iran would spark a revolution among Iraqi's majority Shia. Rather than crack down internally (which we know he was more than willing to do and did successfully for almost thirty years) he decided to attack a much larger and better armed country that was in the grip of a revolutionary fervor. He launched the invasion with no real planning, and his army was stopped by paltry Iranian resistance after having achieved exactly none of its objectives. By January 1981 Iran was counterattacking (also incompetently, but successfully nonetheless), and it eventually devestated that generation of the Iraqi army. Iraq was only able to stop Iran through the routine use of chemical weapons, including in encounters where they conferred no tactical advantage.

  • Apart from grievously miscalculating the risks of invading Iran, which decision itself casts doubt on whether Saddam had the judgment necessary to be deterrable, Saddam repeatedly made insane decisions during the course of the war. Specifically, when things started going bad for the Iraqis on the battlefield, Saddam began lobbing missles into Iranian cities. The problem, though, was that Iran's significant cities were much further from the border than Iraq's population centers, so Iran was able to retaliate against Baghdad with much greater destructive force than Iraq was able to deliver against Iranian civilians. These exchanges would "go on for weeks or months before Saddam would realize that he was taking more damage than the Iranians and so would halt his attacks." Saddam would never learn this basic fact of that war: he would initiate city-exchanges with Iran seven times during the war (July-August 1982, October 1982, December 1982-January 1983, February 1984, March-June 1985, January-February 1987, and August-September 1987), "each time with the same results." If ever there was evidence that Saddam could not be deterred by mutual assurred destruction, this was it.

  • After only two years of peace, Saddam again took his country to war when it made no sense to do so. In 1990, we understood --correctly -- that Saddam's chief concerns were his country's growing internal economic problems, the unchecked power of the United States, and his own stature within the Arab world. Invading Kuwait was so obviously idiotic in light of these interests that Western analysts ignored the warning signs, and persistently doubted that Iraq's mobilization toward its southern border was anything more than the rattling of sabres. But invade he did. We learned years later that Saddam "had concluded that there was a high probability that the United States would oppose an invasion of Kuwait militarily and he believed that he could defeat the expected American response."

  • There were those who argued in advance of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 that it would have been possible to deter Saddam even if he did have weapons of mass destruction. Deterrence, though, requires that the parties understand the situation they confront and have normal ability to assess risk. Saddam had neither understanding of basic military matters nor good judgment. His record of totally irrational risk-taking, revealed again in the linked article, reminds us that Saddam probably could not have been deterred. Certainly no American president could look at his 30 year history and decide that he was rational. In this regard, Saddam's Iraq was different from every other threat we have recently confronted. The Soviets, the Chicoms, the Iranians, and even the North Koreans have evinced more intelligence and rationality in their brinksmanship than Saddam ever did. All the evidence argued that Saddam could not be deterred, only interdicted. As a result, American choices in 2002-2003 were not nearly as palatable as many who opposed the war argued at the time, or still argue in retrospect. That is, I think, why the Clintons supported George W. Bush's Iraq policy until it became politically untenable to do so.


    By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Thu Jan 20, 08:46:00 AM:

    Saddam's history of poor decision-making is a testament to the limits of malign tyranny. Nobody acts to check your authority to do stupid things.

    Our mistake, in my judgment, was not, in fact, choosing to go back and finish him off in 2002-2003. It was a historical inevitability that we would have to do that. We almost did it in 1998 with Clinton/Gore, but Clinton's political weakness at that moment due to the Lewinsky scandal restrained him to a mere Operation Desert fox. No, our mistake was not finishing him off in 1991 when we had a huge political alliance and global consensus to deal with him and instead we played cute tactically, lacking thge resolve to finish what we started.

    When historians write about the US saga with Iraq, they will write it as one conflict, unfinished in 1991, with a series of skirmishes in the interim and finally completed in 2003.  

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 20, 10:24:00 AM:

    "...failing to understand his own military position and that of his adversary and acting recklessly as a result...
    We talking their Hussein or our Hussein here?  

    By Blogger Georgfelis, at Thu Jan 20, 10:51:00 AM:

    Don't forget the Oil-For-Food program, Saddam's plan to avoid an invasion and get control of his country back. Massive amounts of cash were handed out in the program to people he thought would protect him including the Sec. Gen. of the UN. The end result was failure, but records of who took what bribes were rather energetically hidden, and what we know of the program indicates not only that many public figures can be bribed, but have rather affordable rates.  

    By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Thu Jan 20, 01:41:00 PM:

    "No, our mistake was not finishing him off in 1991 when we had a huge political alliance and global consensus to deal with him and instead we played cute tactically, lacking thge resolve to finish what we started."

    American leadership was for it. But there was no consensus. The Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, whose opinion mattered most, flatly refused this option. There was the additional issue that the UN resolution that provided 'cover' for the abstention or involvement of many countries covered only the liberation of Kuwait, not the toppling, occupation, and restructuring of Iraq.

    I'd direct you to a book, but I'm not at home and I can't find it on Amazon right now; it may no longer be in print.  

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 20, 01:48:00 PM:

    saddam is living proof of a theory once trotted out years ago in a pulpy-fiction thriller. a secret plot is moving against the gen. sec'y of the USSR, and he finds out it was set in motion 20 years ago, when he was but just another apparatchik.

    "how? how could you know, even back then?!", he demands of the plot's mastermind. the mastermind answers, "i didn't. so i set the same plot in motion against the 3 most stupid of you, and the 3 most vicious. i didn't know exactly who, but i knew *one of you* would end up on top."

    you can learn a lot from cynical pulp novels sometimes. of course, that could never happen here. we have the best & brightest! educated at ivy-league universities! THOSE guys would never eviscerate our country's manufacturing base; or borrow more in 5 years than we had in the previous 200+; or (literally) sign the country over to the big banks; or get us into wars that A) either can't be won or B) can only be won by stationing very expensive troops in hostile territory for 100 years or more.  

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Jan 20, 04:49:00 PM:

    While I consider my self reasonably well informed, I never have read so cogent an explanation of the reasons for invading Iraq. Thank you.  

    By Anonymous Ignoramus, at Fri Jan 21, 06:13:00 PM:

    I'm no fan of Saddam, but the lede analysis leaves a lot out.

    Saddam was a nut, but for the longest time he was OUR nut. We backed him in his war against Iran. In fact, for the longest time our strategy was to use Saddam's Iraq as a bulwark against Iran.

    Being a nut can be a very effective strategy for a dictator to stay in power. Based on history, it may actually be a requirement. Witness Stalin, the nuts who ran Romania and Albania, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Kims in North Korea. Not caring about the wholesale deaths of your own people is actually a show of strength.

    Saddam wasn't totally irrational when he invaded Kuwait. The Rumalia oil field was one of the best in the world --it's 90% in Iraq and 10% in Kuwait -- the Kuwaitis were drinking Saddam's milk shake! With Saddam's troops massed on the Kuwaiti border, our ambassador --one April Glaspie -- met with Saddam and was so weak that Saddam thought we gave him a greenlight.  

    By Anonymous Westie, at Thu Jan 27, 12:31:00 PM:

    Good analysis re: Saddam. I remember vividly screaming at the TV in 1991 when GHWB let the fool SofS Colin Powell go wishy washy on the destruction of Saddam's Revolutionary Guard, a big mistake and may have been part of the reason GHWB was unable to shake off BJC in 1992.  

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