Ever since American forces invaded, overran and occupied Iraq in 2003, and discovered no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, the great lingering question about the war has been why Saddam Hussein would spend an entire decade acting as though he possessed WMDs when he didn’t. Since the ceasefire agreement he’d signed in 1991, in order to remain in power after the first Gulf War, obligated him to get rid of them, why would Saddam intentionally endure crippling United Nations sanctions as he jerked around, and finally ejected, weapons inspectors? Why wouldn’t he just come clean if he had nothing to hide?
The answer, according Ronald Kessler in his new book, The Terrorist Watch: Inside the Desperate Race to Stop the Next Attack, is that Saddam ultimately feared United Nations actions less than he feared an attack from Iran . . . which, he calculated, would be much more likely if the leaders of Iran knew he had no WMDs. Kessler based his conclusions on information obtained by an Arabic-speaking FBI agent named George Piro who debriefed and befriended Saddam after the dictator’s capture in Iraq, during his months of captivity before his eventual execution.
In retrospect, Saddam’s calculus looks altogether logical. He’d fought a brutal stalemated war against Iran in the 1980s and viciously persecuted Iraq’s Shiite majority out of fear they might align themselves with their Shiite neighbor. More alarming still, from Saddam’s standpoint, was the fact that his own military had been decimated by the 1991 conflict with the American led coalition. If Iran did attack, he had no chance in a conventional war.
His last option was a bluff: Since he once possessed WMDs, and the entire world knew it, he pretended he still did. He knew it would antagonize America, as well as the rest of the U.N. Security Council, but he figured that the threat of an American invasion to enforce the provisions of the 1991 ceasefire was less dire than the threat of an Iranian invasion to crush a bitter enemy and take control of Iraq’s oil resources. According to Kessler, “Saddam said that if America thought that he had WMDs, then of course Iran would, and this would fulfill his goal of making sure that Iran did not want to attack Iraq.”
What Saddam never counted on, of course, was September 11, 2001. Kessler’s book should put to rest, once and for all, the notion that Saddam was somehow involved in Osama bin Laden’s plot. The 9/11 attacks were Saddam’s worst nightmare because they changed the risk equation for the United States. Suddenly, the prospect of Saddam hiding WMDs went from being an ongoing nuisance to a mortal dread. What was to stop him from handing them off to al Qaeda?
President Bush decided the risk was intolerable — and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Kessler’s book should also, but of course won’t, ring down the curtain on the Bush-lied-people-died chorus of the peace movement. Whatever you think of the wisdom of going to war — for the record, I thought it the right thing to do in March 2003 and still think so today — even a minimal commitment to rational analysis and evidentiary standards acquits Bush of bad faith in deciding to oust Saddam’s regime. Saddam was suspected of stockpiling WMDs for almost a decade before Bush’s took office in 2001. We now know he was determined to look as guilty as possible. If a guy who’s been known to carry a gun is thrusting his hand in his pocket in order to look like he’s carrying a gun, you can’t blame the cop on the beat for believing he’s carrying a gun. Or, to mix metaphors, Saddam was walking like a duck and quacking like a duck; any wonder, then, that Bush concluded he was a duck?
As, of course, did Bill Clinton: “If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program” (2/17/98).
As did Nancy Pelosi: “Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology, which is a threat to countries in the region, and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process” (12/16/98).
As did Al Gore: “Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to deter, and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power. . . . We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country” (9/23/02).
As did Hillary Clinton: “In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members. . . . It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security. Now this much is undisputed.” (10/10/02) [emphasis added].
The effort to stabilize Iraq has dragged on much longer than anyone in the Bush administration predicted. The situation seems to be improving, but, truth be told, the end is not yet in sight. History will judge, in due time, how badly that initial miscalculation tarnishes Bush’s legacy. But given that war is always fraught with uncertainty and calamity, and given that establishing a working democracy in Iraq is a noble cause, the urge to render a final verdict on either Bush or Iraq now, in medias res, is nothing short of infantile.
– Mark Goldblatt is a writer in New York.