What with all the Internet overload during the first two weeks of the war, it had been very difficult to get through to my old friend, the late CIA counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton. I finally had to hook up the old ouija board to my vintage Cray computer, and after a bit of static, there he was, loud and clear.
JJA: Good to hear you, I was wondering.
ML: It’s been tough to get through, circuit overload I think. So whaddya think? Is Saddam alive or dead? Did we get him or what?
JJA: I’m sure if you talk to my old colleagues they’ll tell you that the bombing run on Saddam — the “decapitation” — was a triumph, that’s the sort of thing they love, a quick strike, totally unanticipated (or so they think), utterly decisive (or so they try to convince American presidents).
ML: In fact, a friend of mine at Langley told me he thought it was “our finest hour,” and he repeated it a couple of times. And maybe it was. Maybe we really got him.
JJA: But if we don’t know, it wasn’t our finest hour at all, because in order to work not only we, but the whole world — above all the Iraqi people — had to know that it had happened. Instead, nobody knew, and I suppose nobody at CIA really knows for sure even now. Finest hour indeed! Pfui. If you couldn’t know the outcome, then it was by definition an act of nincompoopery, not genius.
ML: Why is that? As I understand it, the theory was that if the regime could be decapitated, if Saddam and his sons were knocked off, then the whole structure would collapse and we’d have a parade to Baghdad, cheered on by happy Iraqis chanting “free at last, free at last!”
JJA: Yes, that was the theory. And it’s a theory that reflects a real misunderstanding of the nature of totalitarian regimes. They do sometimes collapse; look at the Soviet Empire, which imploded to the great amazement of the policy intellectuals, most certainly including the CIA analysts, who were still writing that Gorbachev was firmly in control, and the economy was growing, etc. Anyway, the thing collapsed virtually overnight, but it wasn’t the result of some coup, Gorbachev wasn’t decapitated, the people just gave up on him and the whole stupid system, and since the KGB no longer wiped out those who publicly criticized, and since the Red Army did not march into Warsaw to take care of Solidarity, the long-awaited insurrection did take place, the great sucking sound was heard all over the planet, and that was that.
Iraq was totally different. Its political collapse was not encouraged, and its terrorist grip on the Iraqi people was intact. The Iraqis had no reason to believe they could succeed in overthrowing the Baathist regime, did they? They had every reason to believe that if they ran toward us they’d be shot in the back, and even if one survived, his whole family would be executed.
ML: But they could have heard the president promise we were coming to liberate them.
JJA: Really! On that groovy radio station of ours that runs rock music most of the time?
ML: Or VOA, or BBC.
JJA: BBC is against this war, doesn’t believe in the liberation of Iraq, doesn’t believe that Arabs are capable of self-government doesn’t believe there can be democracy in a Muslim country.
ML: Yeah, well, it’s that old colonial racism, isn’t it?
JJA: Yes, just as it is at the State Department, and at CIA, where they believe the same colonial racism.
ML: Right. That’s why they kept on advocating coups, because they weren’t interested in regime change. They thought the only thing that mattered was the identity of the guy in charge. Saddam was a bad guy, so they’d knock him off and provide us with a guy who would be more pliant to guidance from Foggy Bottom.
JJA: Careful about the history — yes, Saddam was considered a bad guy, but only after the Kuwait invasion, mind you; up until then they thought he was terrific, a new kind of Arab leader, the kind of Arab leader we could really do business with, a secular socialist that we really liked. But everyone’s forgotten about that.
Anyway, to get back to their “finest hour,” the whole coup theory is nuts, because we had to destroy a regime, not just kill a single leader. Even if they had killed Saddam, and even if the whole world had known it, the regime would have provided a successor right away. If the Soviets could replace Stalin and the Chinese replace Mao, the Iraqis could replace Saddam and his whole family if needs be.
ML: I suppose that they had a successor in place, don’t you think? If they really had killed him, they’d need somebody to take over.
JJA: Which presumes that you can manipulate the Politburo, or whatever it’s called in Arabic, with a couple of case officers. It’s nuts.
ML: Okay, I see you don’t entirely agree with the decapitation strategy. What do you think happened to Saddam? Or are you an agnostic on this question?
JJA: I don’t know, of course. He hasn’t showed his face here where I am, but that doesn’t mean he’s still alive by any means; traffic is way up in the last couple of weeks.
What happened to him? I think that Saddam is likely to have taken a page out of the Iranian handbook, and has been “disappeared” to Syria.
ML: He doesn’t want to go down fighting?
JJA: I don’t think so. I think he wants to win. I think he thinks he’s lost a battle in a long war, and he’s going to keep fighting.
At which point, the damn Cray blew a circuit breaker, and I haven’t been able to get back to him since. He’s a pretty smart guy; pity guys like that can’t get ahead in the current intelligence community. Anyhow, I’ll get through to him shortly and ask him how on earth Saddam could believe he’s got a chance to win.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.