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Monday, June 23, 2003

What In God’s Name Could He Have Been Thinking?

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are still surprised that Saddam behaved as he did before the war in the face of the fact that he was not as imminently dangerous as we portrayed him to be. Kevin Drum says today, “David is right to say that Saddam's non-cooperation remains a mystery if he really didn't have any WMD…”

I can think of several reasonable explanations.

First, Saddam was a strongman dictator who maintained his power, both within the country and in the region, through fear and violence. Kowtowing to the UN and especially to the US would have substantially weakened his reputation as a ruthless tyrant who was willing to do anything to stay in power. If a totalitarian shows weakness, the whole house of cards can come tumbling down. It’s possible that he felt he had to bluff or lose his grip on power from within.

And perhaps he simply made the logical calculation that, as the North Korea situation has shown, the US will not unilaterally invade a nuclear power and will hesitate to put large numbers of troops in the way of lethal unconventional weapons. Anyone in his shoes might have felt it was in his best interests to keep the world guessing about his WMD capabilities and willingness to use them. When it became clear last fall that the US was going to call his bluff, it appears to me that instead of preparing a traditional defense and going down in a blaze of glory, he made plans to go underground or escape (and perhaps live to fight another day.) I doubt very seriously that even crazy Saddam ever entertained the illusion that his army could defeat the US military in a straight up fight. Once that was inevitable, he went to plan B. Plan A was to keep the world guessing as long as he could about what he was really capable of .

On a sidenote, the mere fact that we called his bluff in defiance of the whole world indicated at the time that Bush knew Saddam didn’t really have a large stockpile of unconventional weapons. Would he have staged a long public buildup if he really thought there was a chance that tens of thousands of US troops stationed on the Kuwait border could be killed in their sleep while awaiting the published invasion date of the middle of March? I don’t think so. They knew it would be a cakewalk. They said so. And Saddam, of course, knew this better than anyone.

It was the main reason many people logically didn’t buy the argument for preemption. As with Korea, we would have tried a lot harder to talk him down if we thought he really had the capability of killing large numbers of American boys and girls in one fell swoop. (That much death and carnage for a controversial war of choice would have been terrible politics and Uncle Karl wouldn’t have stood for it.) Those of us who were paying attention knew this when Uncle Dick blew the pooch with his August speech saying that we were goin’ in come hell or high water. The whole UN inspections/cooperation charade was staged for the single purpose of buying time to get the troops in place and to try to get some financial backing from rich countries.

On the other hand, I find it quite interesting that many of the people who claimed Saddam was an irrational actor who blithely dismissed the clear fact that his country would be decimated if he actually launched a WMD at anybody, now seem surprised that he might have acted irrationally in this particular way. Apparently, it hasn't occurred to them that crazy people could manifest their craziness in any way other than waging a suicidal war with unconventional weapons against innocent people. Who would have ever dreamed that a crazy, megalomaniac would bluster and lie in the face of certain defeat? Nobody’s that crazy, right?

I have no idea whether Saddam had any WMD. If he didn’t, I’m sure he wished he did. But it is quite clear that the US and British governments felt confident that if he had anything it wasn’t catastrophically dangerous. They also knew that, as a hated and brutal tyrant, he was not in a position to become a good and wholesome global citizen by allowing the US and the UN to dictate matters of Iraqi sovereignty. Totalitarian dictators don’t stay in power long if they show that kind of weakness.

Both Bush and Blair made it quite clear that nothing Saddam could have done, short of killing his sons and then blowing his brains out on national television, could have kept the US and UK from invading and overthrowing him once the decision was made. There was obviously no amount of “cooperation” that could have saved him and I don't imagine that was lost on him. That's the kind of thinking a guy like him could really appreciate.

Saddam surely knew by August of 2002 that we knew he didn’t have large stockpiles of WMD and that we didn't care. He was dead meat from that point on. He just hung on as long as he could until the day of reckoning.