Deterrence Lessons From Iraq

Rationality Is Not the Only Key to Containment

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What, me worry? Saddam Hussein, July 1983 (Francois Lochon / Gamma-Rapho Via Getty Images)

As Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear capability, outside observers have debated just how worried the world should be. Optimists argue that since nuclear war would be suicidal, no government would ever risk it, and they think the Islamic Republic would be no exception. Pessimists argue that Iran's radical and unstable regime might behave in unpredictable ways and cannot be trusted. Both camps seem to agree that rationality is the key to deterrence; they disagree over whether a nuclear Iran would be rational. 

Unfortunately, things aren't that simple. The link between rationality and deterrence is less direct than people think, and what constitutes rational behavior for the leaders of a particular country can be hard to read. Deterrence, in short, is a more complex issue than generally assumed. 

These points are brought home forcefully by a careful look at attempts to keep Saddam Hussein in check, something that the recent release of a massive amount of captured Iraqi records finally makes possible. As a result of the Iraq war, the United States gained possession of a priceless cache of documents, records of interviews, and even tape recordings of many meetings that shed invaluable light on Saddam's behavior -- material that is now accessible to researchers at the Conflict Records Research Center, in Washington, D.C. Taken together with previously available information, what these records show is a leader who was extremely hard, occasionally even impossible, to deter, but for reasons that have little to do with irrationality. 

Containing Saddam was difficult, even though he acted according to a coherent set of self-interested preferences. This was because the Iraqi leader tended to ignore inconvenient facts and unpleasant information. He would repeatedly construct convoluted scenarios that allowed him to believe events would play out in the way that he wanted, even though others could see that such outcomes were highly unlikely. Rather than regard information about an opponent's intentions or even capabilities as givens, he would simply assert that they were what he wished them to be. And he treated learning the same way, drawing on his past experiences selectively, idiosyncratically, and only to suit his current purposes. 

Groupthink and sycophancy played a role in Iraqi decision-making, the records show, but not as much as might have been expected. Although most of Saddam's advisers were willing to let his assumptions and assertions stand even when they recognized them to be too optimistic, there were usually at least some voices of dissent raised. At various key moments over the years, influential members of Saddam's inner circle challenged his delusional positions, and some even did so without suffering punishment, remaining trusted advisers and lieutenants. Yet Saddam would just ignore the objections or come up with a rationalization to explain them away. This pattern might have become worse over time; Saddam's self-proclaimed "victories" and his longevity in office appear to have made him ever-more self-confident, which in turn made him ever-more reckless. 

Saddam's conduct of Iraqi foreign policy after coming to power in the 1970s was thus essentially one long game of Russian roulette. He managed to escape the ultimate penalty for decades, a record that only served to convince him further of his infallibility. In 2003, he spun the chamber once again -- and this time a bullet came up.

THE 1970s AND 1980s

The clearest, most unequivocal episode in which Saddam was deterred -- or, more properly, coerced -- came early in his career. In 1975, the Baath regime was stuck in a difficult military campaign against Iraq's own Kurdish population. For Saddam, who was then vice president and already the most powerful man in the country, victory was crucial because it would eliminate the last obstacle to the regime's total control. The Kurds were resisting staunchly with the help of the shah of Iran, so Saddam sat down with the Persian monarch in Algiers and gave him everything he wanted in order to persuade him to stop backing them. Saddam's main concession was giving up Iraq's sovereignty over most of the eastern part of the Shatt al Arab waterway, which also implied abandoning demands for the independence of the Arab population of Khuzestan, in southwestern Iran. These were humiliating terms, and Saddam was scathingly criticized for accepting them by the rival Baath regime of Hafez al-Assad in Syria. 

Five years later, a few days before he invaded Iran, Saddam revisited this decision at a meeting with his closest advisers. In 1975, he told them, he had given in to the shah because the Soviet Union had refused to provide him with more ammunition. Iraq was left with only enough artillery shells for one more day of fighting. The Iraqis knew that the shah was being lavishly supplied by the United States, and Iran was already sending whole artillery brigades into Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran and Iraq were on the verge of a war that Iraq could not win, and this profound military inferiority had forced Saddam's hand, making him show "flexibility." 

Saddam may have backed down vis-à-vis Iran that time, but he did so in order to achieve what he considered a larger and more important victory over the Kurds, and his strategy worked. Without Iranian backing, the Kurdish forces collapsed in a matter of weeks, and Saddam was able to secure control over all of Iraq in a way that no ruler had since the days of the British-backed monarchy. As a bonus, the shah also ceased his (limited) support for Iraq's Shiite opposition. From Saddam's perspective, the deal was a good one, and his calculations throughout were rational and pragmatic.


Busted: sculptures of Saddam taken down from his palace, Baghdad, 2005 (Jim Gordon / U.S. Department of Defense)

Saddam may have given up the eastern Shatt al Arab for a reason, but he never reconciled himself to the loss, and his obsession with getting the territory back was one of the principal drivers of his decision to invade Iran five years later. The captured records do not yield a complete account of Iraqi decision-making in 1980, but they do reinforce existing theories that Saddam had both defensive and offensive rationales for the attack. He feared the new Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and its potential to turn the unhappy Iraqi Shiite population against Baghdad. Defeating Iran would end that threat and remove an obstacle to Iraq's regional ambitions, as well as regain the territory lost at Algiers. The invasion was not an economic necessity, nor the solution to some domestic problem. Saddam's lieutenants warned him in the early summer of 1979 "not to be dragged" into war with Iran, and at that point he agreed. But once he had started thinking about reclaiming the eastern Shatt al Arab, he couldn't stop, and he rationalized his ambitions by ignoring possible drawbacks and conjuring up best-case scenarios. 

On September 16, 1980, Saddam, now Iraq's president, met with his inner circle to share his plans. Iran would not reject the Iraqi demand to be allowed to repossess the eastern Shatt al Arab, he claimed, because if it did, there would be war, and Iran would lose badly. Most of those present concurred, but some, including his first cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (later to earn the sobriquet "Chemical Ali"), did not. In response to Majid's challenge, Saddam grudgingly conceded that Khomeini might fight, but he continued to insist that if he did, any such campaign would be a cakewalk for Iraq: "When push comes to shove [the Iranians] are only humans. . . . They will have to be realistic and recognize the Iraqi victory." In the event, Saddam declared victory after six days of war even though the battles continued for eight more years. Saddam had grossly overestimated his own military's proficiency and underestimated Iran's nationalism, Islamic and revolutionary fervor, territorial advantages, and huge human reservoir. 

During these same years, Saddam revealed a hatred for Israel and Jews more generally; he longed to play the part of a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar or Saladin and "liberate" the Holy Land. In the records, Israel appears regularly. For example, in a 1978 lecture at Al-Bakr University for Higher Military Studies, Iraq's staff college, he argued that Iraq needed nuclear weapons to enable a conventional victory against Israel. The Arabs might launch a new, concerted war against Israel, he noted, and if they did, Iraq would commit a large expeditionary force -- but first the Arabs had to have a nuclear arsenal. Arab conventional forces would dominate, he predicted, but they needed nuclear weapons to neutralize any Israeli threat to escalate the conflict to another level.

In June 1981, Israel's air force destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor. Israel prepared for a reprisal in the form of an Iraqi air raid, but Baghdad did nothing. Why not? In a discussion about the Israeli attack, neither Saddam nor any of his top advisers suggested retaliation. They did not explicitly note why, but it seems from the context that it was because everyone recognized it was just not feasible. Iraq was in the throes of an excruciating war with Iran, and they feared that opening a new military front would be unwise. Iraq's air force was fully engaged with Iran, and Baghdad did not yet have any medium-range missiles.

Admissions of Israel's conventional military excellence appeared throughout the 1980s. In September 1989, when the war with Iran was over and Iraq had a large army that was free for another adventure, Saddam's half brother Barzan al-Tikriti apparently learned of new war preparations. Fearing that his big brother was contemplating an attack on Israel, he warned him against it. If Iraq attacked Israel, he cautioned, "they can wipe us off the face of the earth." Saddam's response was to commit to rebuilding Iraq's nuclear program. Israel managed to deter Saddam in the short run, but he kept Israel's destruction as a long-term goal, putting it off until he could acquire nuclear weapons and had solved more urgent problems with his immediate neighbors.

THE GULF WAR

Far from teaching Saddam caution, Iraq's eventual Pyrrhic victory over Iran somehow reinforced his sense of his own infallibility. He emerged from the war with two big problems: massive debt and a huge military with nothing to do. In early 1990, he decided to use the latter to wipe out the former: he would invade his wealthy and defenseless neighbor Kuwait and so gain a deep-water harbor to boot. 

As tensions in the Persian Gulf mounted that summer, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, gained an audience with Saddam. Many Americans have blamed her for failing to use this opportunity to deter him, but the evidence suggests that there may have been nothing she could have done. When they met, on July 25, 1990, they talked past each other. Saddam informed Glaspie that he intended to resolve his differences with Kuwait one way or another. Glaspie never believed that Saddam intended to invade Kuwait, and although she warned him that the United States "can never excuse settlement of disputes by other than peaceful means," she also assured him that when it came to the issue of the border between Iraq and Kuwait, the United States "took no position on these Arab affairs." The mixed message did not convince Saddam that the United States would definitely intervene, but the records show that he did believe some American military response was likely. He went ahead with the invasion anyway. 

Saddam boasted in one closed-door meeting that even his minister of defense and the chief of staff of the armed forces (as opposed to the elite Republican Guard) did not know about the invasion until it was under way. The leaders of the Baath Party were more privileged: they were told four hours before the invasion began that it would include the whole of Kuwait rather than the small portion that had previously been discussed. The officials were confused: Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam's closest advisers and then Iraq's foreign minister, would note years later that at this point he asked, "Why?" Saddam replied, "Because it makes no difference," and that was that. 

Iraq's military moves during the invasion, including erecting defenses at Kuwait's airfields and along its beaches within hours after the assault had begun, show that Saddam thought the United States might counterattack immediately to prevent him from digesting his prize. Indeed, in a meeting with commanders on August 7, five days after the invasion, he thanked God for allowing him sufficient time to prepare for a U.S. counteroffensive. So why wasn't he deterred from invading in the first place? According to the records, because he was confident that he could defeat the United States even if it did take action against him. As he put it to Glaspie, "Yours is a society which cannot accept 10,000 dead in one battle." He convinced himself that any U.S. response would be limited to airpower and that he could make the United States desist by attacking U.S. bases in the Gulf.

After Saddam seized Kuwait, the United States made multiple efforts to convince him to withdraw (a form of compellence) and to deter him from taking particularly dangerous and destructive actions during any subsequent conflict. These efforts mostly failed. 

On January 9, 1991, for example, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker met with Aziz in Geneva and presented him with a letter to Saddam from President George H. W. Bush. Baker demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait or face war, and warned that if war came and Iraq destroyed Kuwait's oil facilities, mounted terrorist attacks against the United States, or used chemical or biological weapons, "the American people will demand vengeance and we have the means to exact it. . . . It is a promise." 

In subsequent weeks, Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait, prompting an intervention by a 34-country coalition led by the United States. Iraq also tried to mount terrorist attacks against U.S. targets (to little avail) and destroyed vast amounts of Kuwait's oil infrastructure. The only one of Baker's deterrent threats that Saddam heeded was the demand to not use chemical or biological weapons against the coalition. The American warning did not differentiate among these matters, but Saddam did. 

Iraq's media would explain that for Saddam, a peaceful withdrawal from Kuwait was out of the question because it would have been unmanly and humiliating; his "tribal honor" prevented him from taking such a course. Such factors may have played a role in the decision not to back down, but something else was more important. Saddam was convinced that if he ordered a peaceful withdrawal, he would lose the respect of the Iraqi people, including the elites on which his regime relied to remain in power.

Having decided that withdrawal was out of the question, however, Saddam then had to rationalize away the risks involved in remaining in Kuwait, and that meant conjuring up reasons why the Americans would never attack and why they would lose if they did. The latter was easy: he simply prevented his generals from reporting pessimistic conclusions to him and fired any who did. As a result, according to various Iraqi generals, Saddam believed that his well-dug-in, million-strong army was robust enough to bleed the coalition forces white. Iraqi sources indicate that by the start of the war, Saddam had deployed 55 of his 66 divisions to the Kuwaiti theater, dug them in deeply and supplied them with plentiful reserves of artillery and armored vehicles, and put the Republican Guard in depth behind them all -- the same lineup that Iraq had learned to use to stymie Iranian offensives in the 1980s. He felt that this was enough to guarantee a bloody stalemate, which the effete Americans would not be able to long endure. In a highly classified meeting on January 13, 1991, two days before a UN Security Council ultimatum for Iraq to withdraw was set to expire, Saddam was elated. He assured his officers that the U.S. Air Force didn't know where it was flying and asked rhetorically in regard to a ground offensive whether "the Americans [would] be able to do anything if [the Iraqis] captured 20,000 of them." 

All along, Saddam also continued to insist that the United States lacked even the intent to fight him. At a Revolutionary Command Council meeting in late October 1990, for example, he claimed that although there might be large numbers of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, Washington remained diffident. He dismissed a recent American announcement that the United States was deploying an additional 100,000 troops to the region. Aziz, the regime's leading specialist on the United States, pointed out that such a declaration represented a commitment to war. He explained to Saddam that the U.S. administration could not back down now without losing face domestically, and therefore, having sent so many troops, the United States had to go to war. Saddam was unconvinced, arguing that the chances of a U.S. assault were no more than "50-50." 

As for the United States' demands that he refrain from terrorist attacks and the destruction of Kuwait's oil wells, Saddam appears to have dismissed these because they were inconvenient for his plans, telling himself that Washington either couldn't or wouldn't follow through on its threats. He both encouraged and paid a wide range of Arab terrorists to conduct attacks for him in the hope that this would convince Western publics to give up the fight, and he began destroying Kuwait's oil wells in February 1991.

Unconventional warfare is a more complicated story, however. The records suggest that despite the deliberate vagueness of the warnings that Baker and Bush had made about exacting "vengeance," Iraq's leaders may have feared an American nuclear response if they employed chemical weapons, in part because Iraq had long tried to equate its own chemical arsenal with the United States' and Israel's nuclear forces. In one conversation among the top leadership in the fall of 1990, Aziz reminded his colleagues that it was their policy that Iraq would not use chemical weapons unless it was attacked by nuclear ones. Similarly, at another secret meeting around the same time, Izzat al-Douri, Saddam's right-hand man, insisted, "It is dangerous for us to reveal our intentions to use chemical weapons. We should not do that." Aziz then added that if they did, they "would give [the Americans] an excuse for a nuclear attack." At that meeting, Saddam did not completely rule out the chemical option and reported to his subordinates that Iraq had new and extremely lethal chemical weapons. And yet he sounded less than convinced that Iraq should be using such weapons. Deterrence thus seems to have succeeded in this case, but only partially. Saddam chose the threats that he wanted to respect, which were only the ones not central to his most important plans.

The same held true for Iraqi actions toward Israel during the Gulf War. Israel promised to retaliate in great force against any Iraqi attack, but it did not provide details. Once again, Saddam read the threat in his own way. He knew the history of Israel's retaliations. A conventional attack would get Israel to retaliate conventionally; this was what Israel always did. And so he actually sought to provoke an Israeli response in order to break up the coalition, which included Arab countries. Saddam happily ignored the nebulous warning and attacked Israel with his modified Scud missiles, forgoing the use of chemical or biological weapons. As Saddam had expected, the Israeli government was apoplectic and wanted desperately to retaliate, but Saddam's plan was foiled when Israel was prevented from doing so by Washington.

THE 1990s AND AFTER

By 1994, Saddam faced numerous problems. He had held on to power after his catastrophic defeat during the Gulf War, but just barely. He had lost control of northern Iraq to the Kurds and faced a persistent Shiite insurgency in the south. The dinar was in free fall and the Iraqi economy a shambles as a result of the UN sanctions imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Not surprisingly, Saddam faced a series of coup plots, and he was increasingly fearful for his own survival. The sanctions were killing his economy and with it his prestige, and he decided he had to make a move. 

That summer, after he failed to convince the UN that Iraq had fulfilled all its obligations in regard to ending its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program, Saddam publicly promised that if the sanctions were not removed soon, he would "open the granaries of the world" for the Iraqis by his own methods. In October, he began deploying four divisions of the Republican Guard toward Basra and Kuwait, just as he had done in July 1990 prior to the invasion of Kuwait. But this time, the United States responded immediately, reinforcing Kuwait with 30,000 troops and several hundred warplanes. Washington made it clear that if Saddam did not pull his troops back, the United States would destroy them, and Saddam quickly complied. 

What explains this success? Saddam was somewhat vague as to why he decided to pull the Republican Guard back. All he said to his lieutenants was that "there were facts" that compelled him to do so. But he also told them that all he had wanted to do was to break the diplomatic logjam regarding the sanctions and let the French and the Russians, who had been friendly to Iraq, do the rest. Still, it seems hard not to conclude anything other than that Saddam had learned the lesson of 1990-91: the United States had demonstrated both the intent and the capability to obliterate his armed forces just three years before, and there was no way for him to rationalize that away -- at least not with the memory so fresh in the minds of all Iraqis. Saddam had another course of action available to him, moreover, that might alleviate his problems: he could agree to sell oil under UN supervision and try to wear down international resolve in regard to the sanctions gradually over time. And that is the path he took. So the recipe for successful compellence was not simple: fresh memories of the Gulf War, plenty of U.S. forces in Kuwait combined with a graphic American threat, French and Russian advice to withdraw, and the existence of the oil-for-food program as a plausible alternative course.

As the millennium approached, Saddam played a double game. We know now that he eventually gave up his WMD capabilities. But he refused to come clean about this, trying to convince others that he had secretly retained a WMD arsenal. On some level, he believed it was essential to keep Iran fearful, but his domestic opponents were an even more important audience. He thought it was vital for him to keep the fear of his unconventional weapons hanging, like the sword of Damocles, over the heads of Iraq's rebellious Shiite population.

When the war clouds began to gather in 2002, Saddam continued to follow this approach, despite the pleading arguments of his subordinates that it wasn't working. At one meeting with his top advisers that year, most of those present, including prominent generals and influential leaders in the Baath Party and in the Revolutionary Command Council, felt that the only way to avoid a U.S. attack was full disclosure. Saddam allowed his lieutenants to express themselves but flatly rejected the idea. His argument was that Iraq had already been caught lying to the UN inspectors many times. If it were to disclose all the facts now, he argued, it wouldn't be believed. The inspectors would pocket everything the Iraqis gave them and then ask for more. As he saw it, there was simply no way out.

As the months passed and the Bush administration began to concentrate U.S. troops in Kuwait, the danger of a full-scale rematch, this time on Iraqi soil, became undeniable. Indeed, Iraqi intelligence provided quite good information on and analysis of the United States' buildup and likely strategy. And yet Saddam remained intransigent. He forbade his military intelligence to analyze American intentions, which were the specialty of the political leadership. It was obvious to almost everyone else on the planet that George W. Bush was determined to invade Iraq and overthrow his regime, but not to Saddam. Why not? 

Because he seems to have begun to believe his own propaganda. Between 1991 and 2003, Saddam and the Iraqi media had pounded away at the theme that the Gulf War -- what Saddam called the "Mother of All Battles" -- had been a great Iraqi victory. There had been some military setbacks, it was admitted, but morally, the Iraqi side had won. The U.S. forces had stopped in their tracks before entering the populated areas of Iraq because they were deterred -- by Iraq's WMD, by the spirit and ability of the Republican Guard, and by the heroism of the Iraqi population. In a closed-door meeting as early as March 1991, for example, Saddam told his lieutenants that although Iraq had been defeated from a technical point of view, it had not lost the war. The Prophet, too, he argued, was defeated, in the Battle of Uhud, but eventually he won his war, as would Iraq. And Saddam bestowed medals on his commanders and praised them for their heroism. All this created an atmosphere in which self-awareness and criticism became impossible. 

In a March 2002 meeting, Saddam received a senior visitor who knew the United States well and had just met with American officials. The visitor warned in the most categorical way that the United States was getting ready for a massive "conspiracy" against him. Saddam responded by listing all the reasons Washington could do little against him and saying he was confident that he could handle it:

We are confident and we are capable of defeating [the American conspiracy], and if we have to face it militarily, then we are prepared to do so. The Americans anyway as a military force are trying to avoid coming to Iraq. . . . The Americans, I think, are starting to face difficulties in Afghanistan, and
. . . the Afghans are inflicting war casualties on them. . . . There will be a big problem when the American losses start mounting. . . . We are taking everyone into account militarily with different degrees. For Saudi Arabia, all the indications say that they are not interested [in attacking Iraq], and the same for the Gulf countries. Kuwait is not capable of refusing the [U.S.] plan. . . . In our assessment, the Americans will not strike, or maybe they will strike only military targets. They will not take an action to change the regime at this time, at least not for a while, because this requires considering their risks as far as the impact on [world] public opinion for attacking two Muslim countries. Bush's relationship with his people regarding the conspiracy [against Iraq] is currently excellent, . . . but what he is saying [about regime change] requires much more time, and there are indications that his popularity is starting to diminish partially. Narcissism is disastrous and can cost a man the opportunity to be wise. . . . Our relations with the Arabs are generally good. . . . Our international relations are good. Our relations with Russia are good, as well as with China.

And so it went. Saddam kept grasping at straws, and when there were no more straws to grasp, he made them up altogether: The French and the Germans would prevent the Americans from going to war. The Russians would save him. The Americans would only bomb Iraq, as they did during Operation Desert Fox, in 1998, never daring to actually invade. They could not invade until after they withdrew from Afghanistan. 

As a sideline, Saddam also beseeched God to save him because God owed him one. This came out in a bizarre secret letter he wrote to God in 2002 and ordered an aide to "send" to the Almighty by burying it, together with several hairs from his mustache as a sign of deep personal commitment, in a wall of the Mother of All Battles mosque. Indeed, Tikriti complained bitterly in a mid-2002 personal diary entry that his elder brother was a changed man. Saddam, he grumbled, behaved "like a hermit sitting in a sanctuary and worshiping [God]." 

In Saddam's mind, unlikely but rational elements became fused with entirely fanciful calculations, allowing him to convince himself that a U.S. assault was unlikely and that if it came, he would still survive it. And all of this allowed him to rationalize doing what he wanted to do: refuse to come clean about Iraq's WMD and still not fear the destruction of his regime. It is not clear that the Bush administration would ever have been ready to accept yes as an answer to its demands. But that hardly mattered, because Saddam was unable to offer it.

EXCEPTIONAL, BUT NOT UNIQUE

Even at the end, when he was finally found, filthy and unkempt, hiding in a spider hole in a rural area of Iraq, Saddam still could not perceive his own reality, proposing to "negotiate" with the U.S. soldiers who had captured him. It is hard to imagine what he could possibly have offered. But he clearly believed that he remained a towering figure who held all the cards. 

This pattern of behavior made him an exceptionally problematic figure in international politics, but not necessarily a unique one. Other megalomaniacal leaders have evinced a similar willingness to distort reality to fit their own desperate needs, Hitler being a prime example. 

Too often, meanwhile, debate over dealing with troublesome countries has centered on whether a given ruler or regime is rational, as if rationality implies reasonableness. Saddam was fully rational, in the sense that he could and did create a logical chain of how to get from point A to point B and achieve his goals, all of which were very much of this world. But the more one learns about him, the more one recognizes how delusional and reckless his thinking and behavior were in practice. He constantly sought to rationalize the pursuit of goals that were ultimately unobtainable or irreconcilable, and when anyone pointed out the flaws in his thinking, he simply dismissed the objections. This did not make him irrational -- but it did make him very dangerous and very, very hard to deter.

The implications of the Iraq case for dealing with Iran and other problematic actors are unsettling. The one thing optimists and pessimists seem to agree on -- that rational regimes can be counted on to act in predictable ways -- turns out not to be true. So policymakers cannot base their decisions on judgments about what hypothetical rational actors would do in abstract situations. Instead, they need to rely on fine-grained, case-specific analyses of particular political figures and bureaucratic processes operating in particular, local contexts.

 

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