Why Authoritarians Like Saddam Hussein Confound U.S. Presidents

America committed its worst foreign policy mistake of the post-Cold War era when it invaded Iraq in 2003 to disarm Saddam Hussein of his supposed weapons of mass destruction. The war that followed exacted an appalling price in Iraqi and American lives and resources, and it also empowered Iran, energizing regional proxy conflicts that have entrapped Washington in the Middle East, as the Biden administration has rediscovered painfully.

At a time when the United States has identified managing dictatorships in China and Russia as the country’s most important national security challenge and when North Korea’s isolated and idiosyncratic leader holds nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles, Mr. Hussein’s case offers a rare, well-documented study of why authoritarians often confound American analysts and presidents.

How might the U.S. invasion of Iraq have been avoided? Much of our post hoc investigation has focused on the false and manipulated intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, President George W. Bush’s choices, the selling of the war and the media’s complicity. Another central question has rarely been examined: Why did Mr. Hussein sacrifice his long reign in power — and ultimately his life — by creating an impression that he held dangerous weapons when he did not?

The question is answerable. Mr. Hussein recorded his private leadership conversations as assiduously as Richard Nixon. He left behind about 2,000 hours of tape recordings as well as a vast archive of meeting minutes and presidential records. The materials document the Iraqi leader’s thinking at critical junctures of his long conflict with Washington, including his private reactions to Sept. 11 and to the Bush administration’s plans to oust him. And they clarify the complicated matter of why he could not persuade U.N. inspectors, multiple spy agencies and many world leaders that he did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

On the tapes, as he rambles on about world affairs — his colleagues rarely dare to interrupt him — Mr. Hussein can be impressively shrewd and prescient. In October 2001, days after Mr. Bush announced the American-led war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Mr. Hussein asked his cabinet: “If America established a new government in Kabul according to its desires, do you think this will end the Afghan people’s problems? No. This will add more causes for so-called terrorism instead of eliminating it.” In the face of American hostility, he dodged and feinted, motivated by two goals above all: to remain in power and to achieve glory in the Arab world, preferably by striking Israel.

Mr. Hussein held profoundly racist beliefs about Jews and confused himself with elaborate conspiracy theories about American and Israeli power in the Middle East. He believed that successive U.S. presidents, under the influence of Zionism, conspired secretly and continually with Iran’s radical ayatollahs to weaken Iraq. The Iran-contra conspiracy of the 1980s, when America joined briefly with Israel to sell arms to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime, cemented the Iraqi leader’s convictions for years to come. That Iran-contra represented a strain of harebrained incompetence in American foreign policy did not occur to him.

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