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April 20, 2007

Saddam Was Bluffing! We Know This Because "Saddam Never Talked Openly About Bluffing"

In comments here, Justin refers to an August, 2003 AP story which claimed Saddam had bluffed about Iraq's weapons programs so he wouldn't look weak, and wonders why this shouldn't be taken seriously.

A long, long, long answer is below. It is only for fanatics.

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When it became clear in summer 2003 that Iraq had nothing, the Bush administration, the CIA and their flunkies were anxious to find ways to exculpate themselves. They came up with a bunch of different, often contradictory storylines. For instance:

• Saddam didn't have anything, but was going to restart his WMD programs the second our backs were turned
• Saddam was deceived by his underlings into thinking he had WMD
• Saddam pretended to have WMD in order to bluff regime outsiders
• Saddam pretended to have WMD because he liked everyone to look at him as leader of the Arabs

If you glance at the various government reports on Iraq, you'll see they all assert that one or more of these theories is correct. But if you actually read them carefully, you see the evidence they provide for their assertions is weak to nonexistent. In fact, they bear an uncanny resemblance to the pre-war case that Iraq had WMD.

This is true for the idea that Iraq was just waiting to restart WMD production as soon as sanctions were lifted. The CIA Duelfer report makes this claim strongly at the very beginning. But the only evidence the body of the report provides is that several regime figures "thought" Saddam would probably try to do that. But then the report also says they never actually heard him say that, nor did the regime take any measures to plan for this. Meanwhile, the report provides several instances of Saddam saying directly to subordinates that Iraq would give up even any aspirations to WMD if the UN followed through on pledges for a WMD-free mideast. (According to the UN resolutions, Iraq's disarmament was purportedly a first step toward this.)

So what's the actual truth about what Saddam planned to do if sanctions were lifted? There's no way to know for sure, because we'll never get to see all the interviews with regime figures, and we'll certainly never have a chance to question them independently, particularly the ones who are dead. But given the government's propensity to cherry pick whatever there is that makes them look good, and ignore whatever doesn't, the rational way to proceed is simply to look at what the Saddam regime did. And what it did to prepare to restart its WMD programs was...nothing.

The same holds true for the bluffing issue. The article Justin references is here. It describes a "close aide to Saddam Hussein" who says Iraq ran a "disinformation campaign" because "Saddam remained convinced that an ambiguous stance about the status of Iraq's weapons programs would deter an American attack." Okay. Except...other reports say Saddam was convinced that the US knew for certain that Iraq had nothing. And this guy says "it was common knowledge among the leadership" that Iraq had nothing...while other reports claim otherwise. And most importantly, what was this "disinformation campaign"? As far as I'm aware, no one has ever described a single thing Iraq did to deceive the world that they still had WMD. Instead, they screamed for twelve years that they had nothing, including during the years 1991-95 when they actually were hiding something.

Now, here's the section from the Duelfer report that deals with the "bluffing" issue. The bolds are mine:

WMD Possession—Real or Imagined—Acts as a Deterrent

The Iran-Iraq war and the ongoing suppression of internal unrest taught Saddam the importance of WMD to the dominance and survival of the Regime. Following the destruction of much of the Iraqi WMD infrastructure during Desert Storm, however, the threats to the Regime remained; especially his perception of the overarching danger from Iran. In order to counter these threats, Saddam continued with his public posture of retaining the WMD capability. This led to a difficult balancing act between the need to disarm to achieve sanctions relief while at the same time retaining a strategic deterrent. The Regime never resolved the contradiction inherent in this approach. Ultimately, foreign perceptions of these tensions contributed to the destruction of the Regime.

* Saddam never discussed using deception as a policy, but he used to say privately that the “better part of war was deceiving,” according to ‘Ali Hasan Al Majid. He stated that Saddam wanted to avoid appearing weak and did not reveal he was deceiving the world about the presence of WMD.
* The UN’s inconclusive assessment of Iraq’s possession of WMD, in Saddam’s view, gave pause to Iran. Saddam was concerned that the UN inspection process would expose Iraq’s vulnerability, thereby magnifying the effect of Iran’s own capability. Saddam compared the analogy of a warrior striking the wrist of another, with the potential effect of the UN inspection process. He clarified by saying that, despite the strength of the arm, striking the wrist or elbow can be a more decisive blow to incapacitate the entire arm; knowledge of your opponents’ weaknesses is a weapon in itself.

Saddam’s Prioritization of Getting Out From Under Sanctions

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 led to the imposition of comprehensive and mandatory trade and financial sanctions under UNSCR 661 of 6 August 1990. These sanctions remained in place after the military ceasefire on 28 February 1991. The “Political Ceasefire” incorporated in UNSCR 687 of 3 April 1991 explicitly linked Iraq’s WMD disarmament to Iraq’s right to resume oil exports. Withdrawal of wider sanctions was made dependent on this step.

Saddam continually underestimated the economic consequences of his actions. His belief that sanctions would prove ineffective led him to conclude he could avoid WMD disarmament. (Saddam may have been encouraged in this belief by a miss-appreciation of the relative effectiveness of sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.) As early as 1992, however, Saddam began to form a more sober impression of the power of sanctions and their deleterious effect on Iraq.

The compounding economic, military, and infrastructure damage caused by sanctions—not to mention their effect on internal opinion in Iraq—focused Saddam by the mid-90s on the need to lift sanctions before any thought of resuming WMD development could be entertained. Saddam’s proximate objective was therefore lifting sanctions, but efforts had to be compatible with preservation of Regime security.

While it appears that Iraq, by the mid-1990s, was essentially free of militarily significant WMD stocks, Saddam’s perceived requirement to bluff about WMD capabilities made it too dangerous to clearly reveal this to the international community, especially Iran. Barring a direct approach to fulfillment of the requirements of 687, Iraq was left with an end-run strategy focusing on the de facto elimination of sanctions rather than the formal and open Security Council process.

* In the late 1990s, Saddam realized he had no WMD capabilities but his ego prevented him from publicly acknowledging that the Iraqi WMD program was ineffective, according to the former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Humam ‘Abd-al-Khaliq ‘Abd-al-Ghafur. He added that Saddam never talked openly about bluffing in regard to WMD.

As you see, the report does here exactly what it does elsewhere about the question of the regime's post-sanction plans -- lots of huffing and puffing, no actual evidence.

Saddam continued with his public posture of retaining the WMD capability

This posture consisted of...what, exactly? Screaming for twelve years that Iraq didn't have anything?

Saddam never discussed using deception as a policy, but he used to say privately that the “better part of war was deceiving,” according to ‘Ali Hasan Al Majid

So...Al Majid told the US that he thought this was Saddam's strategy, but Saddam never actually said this.

The UN’s inconclusive assessment of Iraq’s possession of WMD, in Saddam’s view, gave pause to Iran

According to whom? Saddam? Probably not, since we just heard "Saddam never discussed using deception as a policy." A regime figure like Al Majid, guessing about things Saddam never said? We don't know, because the report doesn't deign to tell us, and certainly doesn't provide any direct quotes. And in any case, it makes no sense. Iraq wasn't trying to get sanctions lifted without getting a clean bill of health from UNSCOM. It was constantly trying to get a clean bill of health so that sanctions would be lifted.

And indeed, most of the problems in getting that clean bill of health arose because of acts by Iraqi WMD scientists the regime didn't know about. In 1991, "Dr. Germ" was ordered to destroy the anthrax she'd produced, but did it near one of Saddam's palaces, and so would never tell UNSCOM where she'd done it because she didn't want Saddam to find out. Meanwhile, Mahdi Obeidi hid materials and documents that UNSCOM was looking for, unbeknownst to the regime.

Saddam’s perceived requirement to bluff about WMD capabilities

Again: note that it was the "perceived" requirement, not explicit. Nor is any mention given to actions that were taken according to this requirement.

He added that Saddam never talked openly about bluffing in regard to WMD.

Again: regime figures are guessing at Saddam's motivations. In this case, the guess had to do with his ego rather than a desire to bluff.

And that's it. As I say, this is all reminiscent of the pre-war case for Iraq having WMD -- tons of conjecture, based on very little, that creates a flattering story line...but no hard evidence.

Now, perhaps there's more to this tale. According to a recent story about George Tenet's forthcoming book, Tenet will offer "a gripping narration of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was an unusual foe: Never before had a rogue nation tried so hard to convince the world that it had WMD.”

Uh huh. Well, based on previous experience, and the very strong motivation Tenet has to bend the truth here, I'm not going to give Tenet the benefit of the doubt. But who knows?

Posted at April 20, 2007 06:36 PM | TrackBack

apropo of what Mike above says, when Bush,jr started his presidency in January 2001 with an airstrike on Iraq I found myself thinking he was signaling Saddam, to whit:

"hey,don't worry about me invading, I'm going to play this just like Clinton did, keeping the sanctions on and periodically engaging in a small bombing run on you guys when my polls don't look so hot."

but I wuz wrong.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at April 20, 2007 09:14 PM

Interesting. They appear to claim that Saddam really used the wrist-slap metaphor. But knowing that a guy could kill your family with a word might prevent you from asking for clarification when he makes vague metaphorical statements like that one. If he did say it -- and as you rightly point out, they don't claim to give us a direct quote -- who knows what he meant?

It sort of reminds me of American pundits telling funny stories about Al Gore with no regard for precision or accuracy. I don't know if what they say this time fits the facts. I do get the impression they don't care if it does or not.

Posted by: hf at April 21, 2007 12:28 AM

I remember watching Saddam on Brit Channel 4 TV and thinking he seemed way more credible than bush. In February 2003, Saddam said he had no WMDs. He also said he had no relationship with bin Laden, but if he (or Iraq) did - he would be proud to announce it.

Posted by: Susan at April 21, 2007 01:17 AM

Yeah, George Tenet, a guy you can really trust to give you an honest appraisal. First that son-of-a-bitch helps Bush and the Bushies cook the evidence that Iraq had WMD in just about every way possible after which Bush throws Tenet to the wolves after being such a good little yapping lap-dog and makes him a scapegoat.

So now Tenet is going to cash in on the death and destruction that he so willingly facilitated by regaling us with his book. As far as I am concerned he can place his book in an anatomically interesting place. I suspect it will be mixtures of truth and fiction that will make him look better. I doubt it would be worth reading.

The relationship between Bush and Tenet is a beautiful and heart rending story of love and betrayal exhibiting the higher qualities of human nature

Posted by: rob payne at April 21, 2007 03:13 AM

at that point, those who had no gain from lying were telling one story, and those who had no loss from lying were telling another. i say, it's dangerous times when the press's reputation is secure regardless of the outcome of the story. and it's weird, too, because, in the great culture war, the side that frames everything as black and white turns the whole process to muck gray, where the whole picture people get the story right.

Posted by: hibiscus at April 21, 2007 06:44 PM

SADDAM'S SIN was selling oil for euros, all those people he murdered, just business as usual for one of our puppet dictators. His SIN is what bought him the rope, good riddance.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at April 22, 2007 01:00 PM

Again, another instance where the USSR should've said fuck Washington and saved the world one big fucking headache. I hope Chavez grows some balls and invades that putrid dictatorships Columbia and Mexico(all of their PEOPLE really want it anyway) before too long and saves the DEA a CENTURY of headaches. Not that the DEA deserves it, being as they were and still are complicit in most oraganized smuggling scemes anyway.

Posted by: at April 23, 2007 10:23 AM

I had this very argument with my (shuddering chagrin) Republican brother in July 2003. We took away Saddam's weapons. Saddam has a longstanding Hatfield/McCoy thing going with Iran. Saddam must project strength to avoid invasion by Iran. Hence, he does not dispute U.S. continued claims of his possession of/desire for WMDs, until it becomes clear that we really are going to come kick the shit out of him.

It's basically the same MO as leaving the Brinks Security sign on your lawn long after the contract has expired. Or putting up a Beware of Dog sign when all you've got is a Mexican Hairless.

Posted by: slim at April 23, 2007 06:57 PM

To clarify, I should add that anyone with half a brain should have seen through any perceived projection of "strength" by Saddam. If an undergrad history major like me could see that just by learning a little about the Iran, Iraq, the Gulf War, and all of the players' respective motivations, there can be no other explanation for the intelligence "failure" than that Tenet & Cheney & Rumsfeld were feeding Bush exactly what he wanted to justify their long-planned Anschluss.


Posted by: slim at April 23, 2007 07:08 PM