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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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?