Iraq’s military confrontations with the United States largely shaped the Saddam Hussein’s view of America. Each time Iraq did something provocative in the 1990s the White House would usually respond with a few cruise missiles, which did not have much affect. The Iraqi dictator believed that the U.S. was therefore wed to air power rather than the use of its ground forces. America’s defeat in the Vietnam War, and its experience in Somalia and Serbia seemed to solidify Saddam’s opinion. For all of those reasons, Baghdad did not believe that the Bush administration was serious about going to war in 2003.
Saddam Hussein looked down upon the United States’ military might, seeing it as a paper tiger. He saw the American defeat in Vietnam as a sign of its weakness. Saddam pointed out that the U.S. lost 58,000 soldiers in that war, and then gave up, while Iraq lost 51,000 in just one battle for the Fao Peninsula in the Iran-Iraq War. He interpreted this to mean that the U.S. was afraid of taking casualties. The Clinton administration’s experience in Iraq, Serbia, and Somalia seemed to further prove Saddam’s point. In June 1993, Washington fired cruise missiles at the Iraqi Intelligence Service for an attempted assassination of former President George Bush. Then in October 1994, the U.S. sent forces to the Persian Gulf to deter Saddam’s deployment of 64,000 soldiers across the border with Kuwait to protest United Nations’ sanctions. In September 1996, the Americans launched Operation Desert Strike, which consisted of another cruise missile attack in response to an Iraqi offensive against the Kurds. Finally, in December 1998, Operation Desert Fox was a four-day missile and bombing campaign to punish Baghdad for refusing to work with United Nations’ weapons inspectors. Likewise, in Serbia, the Americans insisted on only using air power to achieve its goals. Finally, there was the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, which led to an American withdrawal. The Iraqi dictator took this all to mean that the U.S. was afraid to fight. That led him to believe that the U.S would never launch a serious invasion of Iraq to overthrow his government, because it would cost too many soldiers. In his opinion, Iraq had one of the strongest armies in the world since it was willing to take huge losses such as during the Iran-Iraq War. The United States on the other hand, lacked this wherewithal, and therefore would not take on Baghdad.
When it became apparent to many in 2002 that the Bush administration was set upon invading Iraq, Saddam Hussein had the exact opposite opinion. He thought that the Americans and British were afraid of the strength of the Iraqis forces. In a February 2003 speech, he said that Iraq might lack the advanced equipment of the United States military, but its morale and beliefs were stronger, and that’s what mattered in war. To most of Iraq’s leadership, if something were to happen with America it would be like Operation Desert Fox, a series of air assaults or perhaps a seizure of southern Iraq like how the U.S. moved into Kurdistan after the 1991 Gulf War. The Director General of the Republican Guard’s General Staff for instance, told American interrogators after the war that he believed that the Coalition would take Basra, and perhaps Amarah in Maysan province, and then leave. Saddam thought that the Iraqi military would inflict such high casualties upon the Americans that they would withdraw if a war were to ever come. These seem like incomprehensible views, but they show the subjective nature of human reality. Iraq’s leadership looked at a series of events in American foreign policy, and they all seemed to point to the same thing. That was a military superpower that was afraid to use its ground forces, and over relied upon air power after Vietnam. When the new Bush administration came into office, and immediately singled out Iraq, Saddam didn’t think anything had changed strategically. After all, the previous Clinton administration had a series of confrontations with Baghdad, but nothing serious ever came of them. The Iraqis thought the same thing would happen with the new president.
Many foreign policy analysts and politicians believe that the majority of people act in a rational way. What they don’t understand is how worldviews vary from individual to individual creating a multitude of ways to act rationally. Saddam Hussein before the 2003 invasion was a perfect example. He operated in a bubble, but it was one partially based upon his analysis of American foreign policy. If the worst America could do was send a few cruise missiles after Iraq attempted to assassinate a former president, what was there to fear? Baghdad seemed to believe that the new Bush administration’s tough talk would not change America’s preference for using air power. Therefore there was not a real threat of an invasion. This was obviously a massive miscalculation, but one that could be explained by how Saddam and his followers viewed the United States.
Global Security, “Operation Desert Strike”
Pine, Art, “U.S., Iraq Move More Troops Toward Kuwait: Military: Baghdad mobilizes force of 64,000. Tension up as American ships, planes, 4,000 soldiers converge on Gulf,” Los Angeles Times, 10/9/04
Von Drehle, David and Smith, Jeffrey, “U.S. Strikes Iraq for Plot to Kill Bush,” Washington Post, 7/27/93
Woods, Kevin with Pease, Michael, Stout, Mark, Murray, Williamson, and Lacey, James, “A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership,” Iraqi Perspectives Project, 3/24/06