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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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.