Friday, January 25, 2008

If I Show You My Weak Side, What Would You Do?

Some, er, 'breaking' news hitting the wires today:

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein kept up the illusion that he had weapons of mass destruction before 2003 because he did not think the United States would invade, an FBI agent who questioned him said.

In an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes"...FBI agent George Piro describes conversations with Saddam in the months after his capture in December 2003.

Piro said Saddam...wanted to maintain the image of a strong Iraq to deter Iran, its historic enemy, from hostile action.

"He told me he initially miscalculated ... President (George W.) Bush's intentions. He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998... a four-day aerial attack," Piro said.

"He survived that one and he was willing to accept that type of attack," Piro said...

The word 'breaking' earns its scare quotes by virtue of the fact that this story already broke almost two years ago in a highly recommended article in Foreign Affairs. That article - written in reliance, in part, on declassified documents - corroborates Piro's account, and adds many additional layers of detail. From a post on this site discussing that Foreign Affairs piece:

...[T]he article attempts to provide an answer to the question: Why was Saddam so uncooperative with inspectors if he indeed had no WMD? The answer: Saddam didn't think the US would invade Iraq and if it did invade, Saddam didn't think the US would prevail. Thus, he wanted to maintain the perception that he did have WMD - or at least ambiguity around this issue.

When it came to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them. Coming clean about WMD and using full compliance with inspections to escape from sanctions would have been his best course of action for the long run. Saddam, however, found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons on Kurdish civilians in 1987, was convinced Iraq no longer possessed WMD but claims that many within Iraq's ruling circle never stopped believing that the weapons still existed. Even at the highest echelons of the regime, when it came to WMD there was always some element of doubt about the truth. According to Chemical Ali, Saddam was asked about the weapons during a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council. He replied that Iraq did not have WMD but flatly rejected a suggestion that the regime remove all doubts to the contrary, going on to explain that such a declaration might encourage the Israelis to attack.

By late 2002, Saddam finally tilted toward trying to persuade the international community that Iraq was cooperating with the inspectors of UNSCOM (the UN Special Commission) and that it no longer had WMD programs. As 2002 drew to a close, his regime worked hard to counter anything that might be seen as supporting the coalition's assertion that WMD still remained in Iraq. Saddam was insistent that Iraq would give full access to UN inspectors "in order not to give President Bush any excuses to start a war." But after years of purposeful obfuscation, it was difficult to convince anyone that Iraq was not once again being economical with the truth.

...I wanted to briefly highlight a couple of passages that touch on an aspect of the Iraq war/WMD story that I have argued on numerous occasions: sanctions worked. Not only did sanctions prevent Saddam from acquiring/re-equipping Iraqi WMD programs, but they also contributed to the severe decay and degradation of his conventional forces.

Another factor reduced Iraq's military effectiveness: sanctions. For more than a dozen years, UN sanctions had frayed the fiber of the Iraqi military by making it difficult for Baghdad to purchase new equipment, procure spare parts, or fund adequate training. Attempts to overcome the effects of the sanctions led Saddam to create the Military Industrial Commission as a means to sustain the military. The commission and a series of subordinate organizations steadily promised new capabilities to offset the effects of poor training, poor morale, and neglected equipment. Saddam apparently waited for the delivery of wonder weapons that would reverse the erosion of his military strength. [emphasis added throughout]

The upshot: sanctions can work (and did with respect to Iraq) and sometimes regimes/nations do actually have a motive to exaggerate WMD/military capacity. Something to keep in mind when assessing the outlandish claims of nuclear progress that Ahmadinejad is known to toss around.

[UPDATE: Reader Ken Almquist makes a very good point in the comments section below:

Gravatar One of the details that the AP report leaves out, but that the Foreign Affairs article includes, is that Saddam wasn't trying to create the illusion that he had WMD at the time we invaded Iraq. At the time of the invasion (1) Iraq was cooperating fully with the inspectors, and (2) the supposedly valuable intelligence that we had shared with the inspectors had turned out to be worthless.

It's unfortunate that the AP left out this detail, because it's a safe bet that the AP report will be used to try to blame Saddam for Bush's decision to invade.

Indeed, Armed Liberal over at Winds of Change seems to be hinting at this very argument. But I'll let him clarify if I'm misreading him.]

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