He threw it all away

If Saddam Hussein had complied fully with Resolution 1441 and allowed real inspections and been completely forthcoming about his WMDs programs in 2002-2003 instead of continuing to conceal WMDs or certainly striving mightily to appear to be concealing them, his country would not have been invaded and he would still be alive and he would still be the dapper dictator of Iraq. He threw it all away out of sheer egotism, or so it seems. Yet the egotism explanation makes no sense. If his concern was not to lose face by revealing his weapons to the UN and the U.S., he did allow the inspectors into his country, so he lost face anyway, right? What more “face” would he have lost by turning over to the inspectors all his actual information on his WMDs? He would have kept his country and his life, and we would not have been forced to invade and we would not now be mired in the horrible dilemma created by our invasion.

People say that Hussein was not crazy. But his behavior of appearing to conceal WMDs (which apparently he did not even have), which forced America to invade his country and destroy his regime, was crazy. I wonder if he ever realized this.

Or perhaps it comes down to this: his ego and perhaps his power were so invested in the world’s mistaken belief that he had WMDs that he would rather let his regime and his life be destroyed than admit not having the WMDs—which, of course, the world found out anyway once his regime was destroyed. So his behavior was, at best, spectacularly irrational.

By the way, the title of this blog entry is a paraphrase of Bob Dylan’s beautiful song from Nashville Skyline, “I Threw It All Away.” Below are the first two verses. The second verse in particular, with its line about “rivers that ran through every day,” is amazingly appropriate to Saddam Hussein, who was the absolute dictator of the Land of the Two Rivers, the two most famous rivers in the world, until he threw it all away.

I once held her in my arms.
She said she would always stay.
But I was cruel,
I treated her like a fool.
I threw it all away.

Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand,
And rivers that ran through every day.
But I must have been mad,
I never knew what I had,
Until I threw it all away.

* * *

Many readers disagree with my view of Hussein’s lack of rationality. (These comments are being posted on January 1st.)

Jed W. writes:

Please do not uncritically buy into the concept that Sadaam had no WMD with comments like your aside on the subject in your latest post. You wrote in reference to WMD “which he apparently did not have.” There is a mountain of evidence that he did have WMD including his scientific infrastructure, the testimony of his Air Force second in command (General Saada), satellite evidence of convoys during the run up to war going to Syria, the discovery of actual chemical weapons (see Rep Weldon and Sen Santorum) etc. The evidence goes on and on. This is a very important point. It mystifies me why the Bush administration just caved on this and accepted the analysis of its enemies who successfully proved a negative. All of the Jihadists have WMD programs (large and small). And yes, secular Saddam was in effect a jihadist. (Read Caroline Glick’s incredible piece on that subject in the current Jerusalem Post for a great primer. She lays out the relationship of various factions in the Islamic (jihadist) world and how and why, though they have differences, they coalesce around fighting the West, especially the U.S. And Israel. It is also a good explanation of the severity of the Iranian threat to the world.)

Finally, I actually had the opportunity to hear an ex head of Mossad questioned about the possibility of the WMD being in Syria. His enigmatic answer was “I’ve heard rumors” and then he smiled a joyless smile.

LA replies:

I have previously made the same point as Jed. But at a certain point, when event he adminsitration fails to defend its own position for which there is some evidence, it becomes difficult to maintain it. And a joyless smile is not evidence of anything.

Randall Parker writes:

Here’s a theory to explain his behavior: He wanted to hide his lack of WMDs from Iran. He gambled the U.S. wouldn’t invade over this issue.

Keep in mind his gift was not strategy. His gift was in knowing how to rule Arabs split by tribal and sectarian divides and, most importantly, being willing to rule them with the brutality that his knowledge showed him he needed to use. Bush, the neocons, and even the liberals are unwilling to admit about the Arabs what was obvious to Saddam.

Think about what he was convicted of and sentenced to die for. He killed the better part of a Shia village when someone in that village tried to kill him. He behaved logically given the local culture. Got to kill all the relatives if you go for revenge. Otherwise they’ll come at you again and clans will get the idea that the risk is low for their tribes to send one of their youths (of which they have a surplus) to try to kill you too. His willingness to be brutal effectively deterred many challengers and therefore, perversely, saved many lives. We took away that brutal guy at the top who efficiently scared Iraqis into accepting his rule and look at what primal forces we have unleashed. Thomas Hobbes would have understood Saddam Hussein.

Thucydides writes:

Your speculation that Saddam may not have been mentally sound in that his actions do not seem to have been rational. Now I am not among those who look for very much rationality from human beings, but here is an alternative explanation:

Saddam was deriving great personal satisfaction from his highly public contest with the United States, and it surely was making him very popular in the Arab and Muslim world. He found that in the Gulf War, we ultimately did not want him removed, presumably because the Saudis wanted him as a counterpoise to Shi’ite Iran. So perhaps he thought that circumstances not having changed, we would not go so far as to oust him, but perhaps just make empty threats, and at worst carry out a temporary partial invasion – which would only further his reputation in the Muslim and Arab world.

He had the French, German, Russian, and presumably other high officials in his pay through the corrupt sanctions program. No doubt they assured him they would never allow the UN approval that would allow the invasion to proceed. He believed them, because he knew they would not want to be exposed for their corrupt dealings with him, should his regime fall. He imagined the U.S. would not proceed without the UN imprimatur, probably from reading and believing the Western media. It seemed to be shaping up that way, since Tony Blair clearly was insisting on going the full UN route. He may have thought that internal political opposition would stymie any plans for invasion, given the highly visible Democrat obstruction of all the other party’s initiatives.

He saw us tied in knots, even though he was daily committing acts of war against us, including clear violations of the sanctions that were the condition of the Gulf War cease fire, and firing on aircraft enforcing the no-fly zones. Who knows how far his aggressions went? There may also have been Iraqi involvement in the first World Trade bombing, in response to which Clinton did nothing; in the Oklahoma city bombing (see Laurie Mylroie’s work), and even in 9/11 (Iraqi facilitation of highjackers’ travel to U.S., possible Iraqi connections to the Khalid Sheik Muhammed family (Beluchi tribe members hostile to Iran, used by Iraq during the Iraq – Iran war against Iranian interests). All this is purely speculative of course, and I only mention it to suggest a possible picture of his motivations – he saw that he could get away with a lot, without suffering consequence. Flaunting supposed WMDs in our face was part of his mystique of the fearless Arab hero.

Finally, he overplayed his hand, and the invasion took place. In short, it may be that he took a risk, based on what he could observe, and that this did not seem a bad bet based on what he could observe. It turned out disastrously for him, but can we say his thinking was all that unreasonable given his presumed aims? His goal was not to enjoy his power in peace, but play a high-stakes game of setting himself up as a sort of Arab/Muslim hero by playing on and pandering to the deep resentments of members of that culture.

So, in this speculative analysis, Saddam foundered on the shoals of his inability to understand our culture, which has been one of putting up with unbelievable loss of face and humiliation time and time again, beyond the point that we have any credibility left, and then suddenly having enough, and turning on the enemy with great violence.

Mark P. writes:

You wrote:

“Or perhaps it comes down to this: his ego and perhaps his power were so invested in the world’s mistaken belief that he had WMDs that he would rather let his regime and his life be destroyed than admit not having the WMDs—which, of course, the world found out anyway once his regime was destroyed. So his behavior was, at best, spectacularly irrational.”

I really don’t think Saddam Hussein (or his counterparts in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere) was irrational. I think these type of world leaders gauge their behavior from observing the wishy-washy, mercurial internal politics of Western countries. Since the West has a free press that is accessible anywhere in the world, this dirty laundry is open to everyone’s scrutiny.

So what do they see? They see a nation capable of wiping out millions of people with a push of a button squabbling over minutiae, like finances and moral principles. “Why, if I had America’s power,” they think, “I would end my enemies at breakfast and be ready for tea at brunch.” The fact that U.S. responses to real and perceived threats are so dramatically out-of-line with its capabilities indicate, to Hussein and others, a fundamental weakness worthy of exploitation. That is why the North Koreans blatantly test ICBMs designed to hit U.S. cities, why Chinese subs shadow U.S. naval fleets, why Iran develops a nuclear weapons program, and why Saddam acted as if he had WMD’s. These are not irrational activities. These are good bets, even if they lose.

I hope that Americans wake-up in time to what is going on, but I doubt it.

James S. writes:

Saddam was bluffing. And we couldn’t tell. He must not have thought we would actually take him out. I think I read this idea in a James Fallows Atlantic article.

D.T. Devareaux writes:

Saddam’s behavior was irrational only if he was certain the U.S. would invade. Given his successful defiance of the UN and U.S. for the past 12 years prior to OIF [?], what guaranty could he have that we wouldn’t, at the last minute, call it all off? His power, his egotism (in the absence of any real force, i.e. WMDs, etc.) was artificially constructed—largely by us. We allowed resolution after toothless resolution to go by unheeded. It was our absolute lack of resolve in performing anything but the most superficial penalties upon him that permitted him, the reincarnated Nebuchadnezzar, to thumb his nose at and defy, time and again, the world’s most powerful country. This is not to absolve him of his crimes, of course, but how could he not believe the hype? Had we previously done what was necessary, had we treated Saddam like the common thug that he was and not given way to diplomacy and resolutions we never intended to enforce, it may not have been necessary to invade Iraq in 2003 and we could have avoided this mess entirely. Instead, it appears that we fell for our own joke—and boy isn’t our face red?

LA replies:

Mr. Parker, Thucydides, Mark, James, and Mr. Devareaux all make reasonable and interesting points. But I still don’t see how any rational human could have doubted by early 2003, notwithstanding all the previous shilly-shallying by the U.S., that Bush had determined to invade Iraq and that the only way Hussein could stop him from doing so would have been to be completely forthcoming on WMDs. I mean, our armed forces were there, in Kuwait, in a posture ready for invasion. What did Hussein think we were going to do with those vast forces? Leave them sitting there forever? Pack up and go home?

Michael Jose writes:

In your claim of Saddam as irrational, you are also overlooking another possibility. In order for Saddam’s refusal to cooperate to be irrational, he would not only have to be certain that the U.S. would invade if he did not cooperate, he would have to be reasonably certain that cooperation would prevent an invasion.

If Hussein were convinced that the U.S. would attack anyway, he might have seen no benefit to allowing more intrusive inspections.

LA replies:

Look, we were operating within Resolution 1441. That wasn’t a joke. We were serious about it, even if the French weren’t and were setting us up for a back stab. We were not setting anyone up. For better or worse, we had decided to go the UN route (which I opposed our doing at the time). Therefore if Saddam had truly complied with 1441, the entire legal basis of the invasion, defined by us ourselves over many months of hard diplomatic effort, would have been taken away. If Saddam had said, “Ok, here is EVERYTHING I’ve got,” it is impossible to imagine that Bush would have proceeded with the invasion.

It think the Bush administration thought it highly unlikely that Saddam would comply; they expected that his continued refusal would enable the invasion to go forward. But that is a separate question from Saddam’s decision to refuse to comply.

Tom S. writes:

It’s not for me to say whether Saddam acted “irrationally” or not. There are still too many “unknown unknowns” with regard to the whole WMD question, and, as you and many of your correspondents have pointed out,”rationality” seems to means something rather different in the Middle East than it does in the West. But certainly, Saddam did not intend to end up on a gallows surronded by his Shia enemies, so I think that it is safe to say that he certainly miscalculated on an epic scale, even if he thought he was being “rational”. It turns out that he did not understand the United States any more than we understood Iraq. This mutual incomprehension is something we need to keep in mind when the topic of separationism come up. The less we have to do with people who employ Saddam-style “rationality” the better. It also points out the need to prevent such people obtaining WMD. They understand us, if anything, less than we understand them, and if Iran managed to convince itself that Israel or the U.S. was too “decadent” to respond to a nuclear attack, it wouldn’t really matter that they turned out to be wrong—millions would still die. Oddly enough, the irrationality or miscalculation of Saddam actually helps to justify the original invasion—a guy this stupid or unreasonable was too dangerous to even possibly have WMD. However, such Arab-style” “rationality” is also the reason that attempting to set a democracy in Iraq is coming (and will come) to naught.

Happy New Year—may 2007 bring happiness and prosperity to you, and victory to our cause!

LA replies:

Thank you. Happy New Year to you and to all VFR readers.

You write:

“Oddly enough, the irrationality or miscalculation of Saddam actually helps to justify the original invasion—a guy this stupid or unreasonable was too dangerous to even possibly have WMD.”

Yes. This is another way of putting an argument I’ve often used, “We cannot allow a rogue regime to possess or appear to possess WMDs.” A rogue regime means a regime that is likely to do anything, that is not subject to the ordinary rules that states follow. The same is true of irrationality or instability. A leader as unstable and unpredictable as Hussein could not be allowed to be in possession of, or to act as if he’s in possession of, WMDs.

You put it very well: Arab-style irrationality necessitated the invasion and precludes democracy-building.

LA continues:

Let me repeat that I hated our Iraq involvement from the start and saw terrible things coming from it but could never see any alternative to invasion given what we knew or thought we knew: an outlaw Muslim regime developing biological and nuclear weapons, and an international Muslim terrorist group with thousands of agents around the world including the West who could reasonably be expected to acquire those weapons. I hate everything about the invasion of Iraq and what it’s brought. But unlike many others, I do not let my hate of that situation blind me to the factors that in my view made the invasion necessary.

Richard Perle told Vanity Fair in the interview of the apostate neocons this past autumn that knowing what he knows now, he would not have supported the invasion. But then he doesn’t say what he would have done, if not invade. This is utterly irresponsible. Yet that has been the nature of this debate all along. Starting in September 2001, when I began seeing articles that argued for the necessity of invading Iraq that made sense to me, I looked for arguments that would disprove the invasion argument, and I never saw one. Finally, I endorsed the invasion argument myself in August 2002. I’ve seen plenty of arguments attacking the invasion of Iraq for perfectly good reasons, but these were arguments that did not confront head-on the argument that persuaded me the invasion was necessary. I’ve yet to see an article explaining how to deal with the WMD threat (which most everyone thought existed), other than by invading the country and destroying the Hussein regime.

Jim A. writes:

The war and removing Saddam and the Sunnis from power was a strategic disaster. In the brutal world of Mideast politics he was able to maintain a relatively stable balance of power while Bush’s war stupidly gave power to the Shiites and Iran. It is a contradiction to support Saddam’s removal from power and also be opposed the war, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Anyone opposed to the war must also accept that Saddam should still in power. He was executed quickly because the Shiites are seeing the US is learning it’s mistake and will ultimately have to support the Sunnis. If not dead, Saddam might have been returned to power as the only one capable of stabilizing Iraq and the region.

LA replies:

“It is a contradiction to support Sadaam’s removal from power and also be opposed the war, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Of course, I never opposed the war. I always supported the invasion of Iraq, despite extreme misgivings, because of the WMDs issue. I never supported anything we did there after the fall of Hussein.

And as for the need to a strong leader to hold the country together (assuming that that is what we want), on March 6, 2003, two weeks before the start of the invasion, I wrote:

[E]verything we know about Arab and Muslim societies suggests that they are so rife with sectarian divisions and political and religious fanaticism that no government can survive in those countries except through despotism. The Bush administration and the neoconservatives seem disturbingly blind to these profound tendencies in the Muslim culture, or seem to imagine that they can be easily cured with a little American good will and know-how, backed by military force. I sincerely hope that I am wrong and that the Bush team and the neoconservative optimists are right. But so far I do not see any reason to believe that they are right.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 30, 2006 07:54 AM | Send

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