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.