Somewhere right now, the former bloodthirsty tyrant of Iraq is sitting in a cell, with his own thoughts for company. Doubtless, he never planned to have things work out as they have, but the man is not a complete dolt, and I think a lot of people have forgotten that Saddam had some very specific plans in the works, and defied President Bush because he believed he could ride out the consequences. The question to be addressed here is, what did Saddam think would happen, and why was he so wrong?
There is a tendency to be negative these days. We so often digest one day’s news, good or bad, and brace ourselves for the next crisis. We do not, however, tend to look back at even the recent past to consider how we got where we are. The only ones who seem to do that on a regular basis are the conspiracists, who look for things to plug into support for their claims. That’s hardly the same thing as a sound analysis. Obviously, we all face limits to the available information, but a reasonable person can look at the available background, and see what fits, and to that end I write this admittedly unproven guess. I do this, because understanding how Saddam was so wrong and how things went as they did, can help explain how we may resolve the current situation with Iran. In many ways, Ahmadinejad shows some of the same characeristics in his thinking and assumptions, as did Saddam.
Saddam Hussein rose from the relatively small town of Tikrit to serve the new Baath Party as an enforcer by trade and torturer by avocation. Saddam was canny and street-smart indeed, not only to rise through the ranks as he did, but to make an attempt on the life of the Iraqi leader, yet still be invited back to return to be part of the power structure years later. Saddam Hussein must be understood to be a man of great cunning and intelligence. The fact that he held essentially absolute power from 1978 through 2003 means that for a quarter-century every bet of Saddam’s played out, if not as a winning move, at least to little personal cost for him. Even after the first Gulf War, Saddam still lived in luxury, unchallenged in his country. Small wonder he never expected what was to come; he judged Dubya by the standard of Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton, and believed that even Reagan would not have dared to move against Baghdad. This happened because Saddam held an ethno-centric view of the world- a common human error, but one which failed to understand that America’s goals, enemies, and options had all changed. The Americans not only held a renewed determination to protect American interests, but also understood that our military had grown beyond the old model; the new force is all-volunteer, with better weapons, training, and doctrine than any of our opposition can boast or hope to imitate. After all, a good deal of the AirLand doctrine we used back in Desert Storm depended on the initiative of unit commanders and on-scene decisions. And we have moved further along that training since then, as well. This, in a nutshell, is what undid Saddam’s plans; he never understood the nature of the conflict.
In the first Gulf War, Saddam was stunned by the force and speed of U.S.-led forces, but he was persuaded by his generals to believe that the Coalition could not have easily handled an invasion of Iraq the same way they did the recovery of Kuwait; he never understood that the U.S. held off only because the 1991 Coalition was operating under the mandate of the United Nations, who (never wishing to actually resolve a conflict) forbade the actual removal of Saddam at that time. Saddam was led to believe that his military was more formidable than was actually the case. Even so, Saddam understood that American advantages were overwhelming in some elements. For instance, the U.S. did not merely hold air superiority, or even air supremacy, but absolute control of the skies over Iraq - nothing flew unless they allowed it to fly.
The Iraqis tested the ‘No Fly Zone’ periodically, firing on Coalition aircraft in specific and deliberate violation of the cease-fire terms, the fact that response under the Clinton Administration was so weak and sporadic suggested to Saddam that all he had to do was wait, and the West would lose interest in him. To the end of resuming where he had left off, Saddam had had a great deal hidden away. Documented accounts note, for example, that supplies and weapons, even tanks and jet fighters, were buried in the Iraqi sand. Proof has been slow in coming, but I have little doubt that more illicit material, the stockpiles of WMD known to exist during the Clinton years for example, might also have been placed in similar keeping.
Middle Eastern nations have not established a long history of self-government, nor are the present regimes much inclined to take lessons from those governments they overthrew, as they tend to believe there are no lessons of worth there. Further, it runs against the traditional Middle Eastern psyche of leadership, to appear willing to reconsider one’s plans and actions – rather, rulers in the Middle East tend to believe that one must act decisively, and that admitting error is a fatal sign of weakness. This leads to a distinct rigidity in decisions, and a clear inability to change course, even when approaching disaster. When the Spring of 2003 showed that Saddam had badly misjudged the determination of the Bush Administration, it was too late for Saddam to change his plans, he could only make quick preparations for the inevitable.
Saddam has to have known that the U.S.-led coalition would eviscerate Iraq’s air and sea defenses in a matter of hours. His only hope, therefore, was a Mogadishu-style defense, hoping pinpricks would be enough to make the Americans lose interest in a long garrison of Iraq. Saddam hoped for Baathists to hold a degree of control in certain key cities, so that central control could be re-asserted once the Americans left. This proved to be great folly. Instead of massive and increasing losses, the American military proved able to adapt, improving weapons to meet the local needs and their tactics to adjust to the unexpected. Saddam judged the Americans by the Soviets in Afghanistan and by the surface appearance of our State Department, never comprehending the sterner stuff at the core. As a result, Saddam considered only three possible courses of action; In the best case scenario, the Coalition would fail to depose Saddam, in which case he fully intended to play that opportunity into leadership of the Gulf; the countries of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have long wrestled over the question of who could claim the crown of Middle East hegemony; for Saddam the possibility that he could appear to be the man who had successfully defied America was worth the gamble. In the middle case, Saddam still believed he could either hold his seat at some cost, or else flee to a comfortable exile with his family. Preparations were made to that end, but hidden to prevent the appearance of doubt. And even in the worst case scenario, Saddam undoubtedly believed he only needed to ride out the occupation; stay in hiding until the Americans left, at which time he could plan and act to regain power or security depending on the situation. All three scenarios betray the limited perspective Saddam held; he simply was unable to comprehend the determination of the American forces, nor the scope of their ability. As a result, by the end of the year his sons were dead and the former dictator had been himself captured, hiding in a dirty hole.
This review is not meant to say that I advocate invasion in every case, nor even full-scale military action. I do, however, suggest that our diplomats recall how swiftly negotiations with Libya progressed after the fall of Baghdad, and how accommodating even the emissaries from Teheran became in those days, when the United States was clearly victorious, even if the New York Times would never admit it. Following a series of successful elections, captures, and kills where necessary, it would be wise to remind our potential opponents of the stakes they face, and remind them as well that recent gambles against us have not paid off at all for the fools who thought to play them. George W. Bush is a President of a mold unlike anything these men have seen before, and the quality of our discussions may be improved by making that fact clear to the men on the other side of the table.