The Magazine

Saddam's Real Strategy

The Kay Report suggests he had one, and it almost worked.

Oct 20, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 06 • By TOD LINDBERG
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DAVID KAY'S interim report on the investigation into Saddam Hussein's weapons programs leaves open as many questions as it answers. Exactly what was underway and at what stage of development is still unknown. But it does establish to a certainty the critical point that Saddam had every intention of reconstituting chemical, biological, and nuclear programs as soon as he could. And this, in turn, allows us to bring some informed speculation to bear on what has been one of the great puzzles of the war: What was Saddam Hussein's strategy?

The problem begins with this obvious paradox: If Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction, why not simply demonstrate that he had no weapons of mass destruction? Some have maintained that such a move would not have spared him from a Bush administration determined to change the regime. But this is speculative and, I think, far-fetched. As Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out in his February 5 presentation to the United Nations Security Council, we know what cooperation on disarmament looks like--from, among others, the example of South Africa's dismantling of its nuclear program. If Saddam had moved forward in such a fashion, U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix would have hailed him for the candor of the declaration he was required to file and for his cooperation with inspectors. Under those circumstances, the United States could not have gone to war. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 offered a "final opportunity" to comply and disarm; had Saddam conspicuously seized it, disappointment among hawks would have been great, but the muscular doves would have won the day with the assertion that the international community had finally become credible to Saddam by backing up its demands with the threat to use force.

In the event Saddam had no WMD, he could have stayed in power by proving it. Why, then, would he be unwilling to do so? Writing in the May 11 Washington Post, Michael Schrage of the Security Studies Program at MIT proposed a novel explanation: Saddam was pursuing a strategy of ambiguity. He was insisting to the United Nations and others that he had no weapons while continuing to act as if he did have them. The idea was to obtain the benefits of WMD--namely, fear and respect for him and his regime--without overtly declaring them, which might precipitate military action against him. But he need not actually possess the weapons in order to create the impression that he possessed the weapons. And to the extent that actual possession makes detection easier and "serious consequences" more likely, perhaps he concluded that it was better to forgo the real thing in favor of a veneer of impression.

If this was his calculation, he miscalculated very badly. The United States and Great Britain were, in fact, prepared to topple him on the basis of the impression he created about his possession of weapons. So this theory is not much of an improvement over the proposition that he lost his country simply because he was a fool, having disarmed and then failed to demonstrate that he had disarmed.

What the report from Kay's Iraq Survey Group introduces into the equation is the element of time. The long-established consensus leading up to the war was that Saddam continued to possess weapons of mass destruction in significant quantities. The war and its immediate aftermath demonstrated that he did not possess such weapons in anything like the quantity imagined--possibly at all. We are therefore tempted to leap to an entirely unwarranted conclusion: that because he didn't possess significant quantities of WMD before the war we just fought, he therefore did not seek to possess WMD and would not in the future possess WMD.

The hindsight, left-wing case against the war rests entirely on this erroneous inference. Now much-repeated is the antiwar charge that Saddam was not an "imminent threat." This has tempted supporters of the war and Bush defenders to point out that the administration did not rest its case for war on the imminence of the threat, which the president described as "gathering." But even this defense gives too much ground to the critics.

To say in light of the failure to find WMD that the threat was not "imminent" is actually a roundabout way of claiming that there was no threat. Before the war, on the basis of what the president and the administration actually said, responsible antiwar opinion held that since the threat was not imminent, the war was optional and therefore harder (some would say impossible) to justify. Now, based on exactly the same conditions--that the threat was not imminent, here presented as a breathless revelation instead of the commonplace it was beforehand--we are urged to the conclusion that the war was wicked, stupid, and useless. This is plausible only if the absence of WMD is taken to prove that Saddam didn't want WMD. Those making this claim aren't quite candid enough to state their argument plainly: They don't believe that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a threat at all.

And this is the notion that the Kay report so effectively debunks. For it is entirely plausible that Saddam might not want WMD one day while at the same time planning for the day he would want them. In fact, it's the only thing to date that makes much sense of Saddam's overall strategy (which is hard to puzzle out not least because, manifestly, it did not work).

WHAT KAY REPORTS, based on extensive interviews with officials and scientists of the Saddam regime, is widespread uncertainty about the current condition of WMD programs along with a great deal of agreement, some of it based on direct communications with Saddam and his sons, that he had every intention of ramping up his nuclear, chemical, and biological programs as soon as he was able to do so.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that he saw the U.N. sanctions regime in place for more than a decade as the chief obstacle to his ambitions--and one that might soon be removed. Support for the continuation of the sanctions was eroding in the Security Council in the years before 9/11. Both Russia and France were known to favor a loosening of the sanctions (and thereby the advance of the effective date of oil-related contracts they had signed with Iraq).

It seems likely that, before 9/11, Saddam was prepared to outwait the sanctions regime--and indeed, not long before that date, Secretary Powell had proposed a new regimen of "smart sanctions" as a way of heading off U.N. pressure to lift sanctions altogether. From a pre-9/11 perspective, Saddam might reasonably have concluded that Americans, too, were tiring of the rigors of containment--what Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger once likened to a game of "whack-a-mole."

A more active component of such a strategy would be for Saddam to plan for the eventual readmission of weapons inspectors into Iraq--and to use the inspectors as the means by which to ensure the lifting of sanctions. Of course, to achieve this result, Saddam would need the inspectors to report to the Security Council that they were unable to find weapons of mass destruction or ongoing research and development programs. To that end, he might have found it highly prudent to defer such programs. If weapons stocks remained, they might go into the deep freeze (surely, they would not be deployed at the level of combat units, as indeed they were not). Ongoing programs might be confined to the civilian side of potentially justifiable "dual-use" applications. Saddam might, in short, pursue a "breakout" capability for implementation when the time was right. Kay's report describes many activities that are consistent with this interpretation.

But perhaps the game is a little more complicated than that. Suppose inspectors, based on intelligence reports, arrive at suspected WMD sites only to find sand. Would this not begin, over time, to look like a decision by Iraq to eliminate programs? An August 28 report in the Los Angeles Times described the suspicion in U.S. intelligence circles that they'd been had: that Saddam had used double-agent defectors to plant false stories about WMD sites and programs. Kay buttresses this conclusion.

But why would Saddam do that? Wouldn't it be dangerous, inviting the United States to draw precisely the conclusion that it did?

Yes and no. These efforts were clearly underway well before 9/11, which was the point at which the Bush administration began thinking with a new sense of urgency about the long-term threat Saddam posed. It seems likely that Saddam thought he had more time--time to lay the groundwork for inspectors, once reintroduced, to look for and find nothing. It is possible that Saddam was planning the eventual readmission of inspectors in a fashion that would suggest broad-based cooperation--but that the United States and the Security Council, by moving ahead with 1441, rushed him. This accordingly made his acceptance of resumed inspections look coerced and caused the declaration he filed with the United Nations to be met with suspicion, to put it mildly. Suppose, in a scenario in which 9/11 never happened, Saddam at some point had "voluntarily" offered to readmit inspectors and offered up the same multiple thousands of pages of documents. Suppose, further, that inspectors went where they had been led to expect to find weapons and found nothing. Wouldn't Saddam's chances of escaping the sanctions regime have been pretty good?

One of the direst warnings from opponents of the war was that faced with invasion, loss of power, and perhaps death, Saddam would unleash chemical weapons against U.S. and other coalition forces (and perhaps Israel). He would have nothing to lose. This was a reason not to go to war: We might be provoking the very attack we had gone to war in order to prevent.

We should therefore wait--and continue with the inspections for some period of time. The paradox here is that over time, the inspectors would have found the conclusion that Saddam possessed no proscribed weapons or WMD programs increasingly hard to resist--because, in point of fact, he had very little. The very day the inspectors pronounced him clean and the Security Council lifted sanctions, Saddam would be free to resume his programs--as he fully intended, according to statements Kay attributes to key officials and scientists.

Some, for example Fred Kaplan writing in Slate, have argued that the Kay report shows the sanctions and inspections regime worked: Sanctions made it impossible for Saddam to develop weapons of mass destruction. Presumably, had they continued indefinitely, Saddam would have remained contained.

This is fanciful. The Kay report in no way suggests that it was impossible for Saddam to produce chemical or biological weapons (nuclear is another story). It suggests that Saddam decided not to produce them. The purpose of the decision was to try to get the sanctions lifted. Long ago, Saddam apparently launched a disinformation campaign to further this end. And once sanctions ended, his intention was to relaunch his WMD programs.

If, somehow, a renewed inspections regime failed to clear him and sanctions remained in place, it seems clear that Saddam could have reversed his decision and resumed his covert programs. By Kay's account, much of the means to do so (chiefly in the form of dual-use equipment) was already on hand.

Saddam was not deterred; he was trying to create the impression he was deterred by laying the groundwork to prove that claims he was undeterred were false. Absent 9/11, he would likely have gotten away with it.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.