Did we get him? Was that Saddam on TV? Is it pretty much over already? The war-opening “decapitation” strike on senior Iraqi leadership elements was a bold and unplanned action, an opportunity shot that apparently disrupted planning on both sides. With resistance crumbling on the battlefield, little evidence of counter-moves by Iraq as Coalition forces drive deep into the desert, and members of the Special Republican Guard (Saddam’s most loyal troops) negotiating terms for surrender, Operation Iraqi Freedom seems on the verge of living up to its name. Saddam Hussein is either dead, incapacitated, or gone so far underground that he has effectively lost command and control of his forces. Talk about shock and awe, I think this made the point.
Decapitation has a logical temptation, a close connection between objective and method. The Coalition is at war with Saddam Hussein’s regime, not Iraq per se. The more closely the regime can be targeted, the better. Broadening the war outside that circle by conducting a traditional bombing campaign may not make sense in cost-benefit terms. The Coalition could destroy every bridge in the country, but would the benefits of impeding the movement of Iraqi forces and disrupting lines of communication be greater than the costs to Coalition mobility upon reaching those crossings, as well as the expense to rebuild the bridges after victory has been achieved?
Targeting the leadership is also useful because it works. When an individual is the embodiment of the state, placing his life in danger will have much greater compellence value than killing thousands of conscript troops the dictator could not care less about. The Soviet leadership was greatly alarmed when Ronald Reagan decided that nuclear-war strategy would be much more sensible if, rather than targeting civilians in Moscow, our missiles were aimed at the Politburo’s bomb shelters. During the air campaign against Serbia for the liberation of Kosovo (or whatever our objective was), Slobodan Milosevic showed no particular fear of the prospect of NATO air bombardment of his country or his forces, and in fact defied the air campaign for weeks, much to the surprise and embarrassment of President Clinton. Milosevic only gave in to NATO demands when the targeting set was changed from knocking out Serbian bridges and electrical grids, to dropping bombs close to Milosevic’s bunker. You can’t get a dictator’s attention by inconveniencing his subjects, you have to get him to focus on something he really cares about, like his posterior.
But beyond logic and utility, targeting dictators is a moral approach to war. If it must be fought, this is a very humane way to do it. No innocent Iraqis should be killed by Coalition arms in pursuit of their liberation. Some probably will be, but striking at the leadership decreases the probability that innocents will die. In fact, it limits both civilian and military casualties, on both sides. And if successful, it ends war quickly, which also spares lives and decreases destruction overall. It is much more humanitarian than resorting to mass slaughter on the battlefield, or destroying the infrastructure of cities and creating tens of thousands of refugees.
It is worth noting that this technique is only effective against dictatorships, in which a single person or small group comprise the center of gravity, the focus and source of power. It would not be effective against a liberal democracy like the United States, because in our system, power is fundamentally divorced from personality. The system itself is the power, and clear rules of succession guarantee that the government will continue to function regardless of changes at the top. Dictators rarely focus on making lines of succession clear, because it only encourages the successor to speed up the process, and the enemies of the heir apparent to try to preempt the transfer of power. The infighting between Saddam’s sons is a case in point — both suffered assassination attempts when considered the leading candidate to take over power. (Note that there is a report that the elder son Uday suffered a brain hemorrhage yesterday after an attack by a member of the Saddam Fedayeen militia he commands. He was also alleged to have been killed in the decapitation strike.)
Events will hopefully clarify over the coming hours. If the decapitation strike missed Saddam, it may have reinforced his belief that he is divinely protected, as Hitler believed after repeated failed attempts on the life. There is more evidence that he survived the attack. Late on Thursday, Baghdad television carried a cryptic written message from Saddam, addressed apparently to President Bush. “America has been afflicted with you and with your predecessors, who rushed to the abysses of evil before you, and you brought shame upon it,” Saddam wrote. “[H]ave you seen and heard what Almighty God promised us and the mujahedin — the power to hold onto right against falsehood to inflict disgrace on the criminals?! What will you tell your people and humanity after all the crimes you committed and those you intend to commit?! What is more important than that is how would you face your people?! May you be accursed and may your actions fail. God is greater, God is greater, and may the lowly ones be accursed.” Looks like the war may go on a few more days.
— James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.