Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair testified to the Chilcot Inquiry that is investigating England’s involvement in the Iraq war on January 29, 2010 that Saddam Hussein was a threat to world security. Blair told the inquiry, “I think that he [Saddam] was a monster, I believe he threatened not just the region but the world. In the circumstances we faced then, but even if we look back now, it was better to deal with this threat, to remove him from office. I do genuinely believe the world is safer as a result.” Blair went on to say, “But I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power, even with what we know now, we would still have had to have dealt with him, possibly in circumstances where the threat was worse and possibly in circumstances where it was hard to mobilize any support for dealing with that threat.” Iraq as a threat to the world was a common theme amongst war supporters. Back in January 1998 the Project for the New American Century, a leading conservative and neoconservative group, sent a letter to President Bill Clinton calling for regime change in Iraq, saying that Iraq posed a challenge to the Middle East as great as the Cold War. They wrote, “It hardly needs to be added that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction … the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard.” These views of Iraq were all shaped by Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which turned Iraq from a bulwark against an Islamic Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, to a threat to the Middle East and its oil. The problem with this view was that it completely missed Saddam’s foreign policy goals. His focus wasn’t on the West, the Gulf states, or even Israel, but rather Iran.
Iraq’s focus upon Tehran was revealed in two post-war reports on the former regime’s leadership. After the 2003 invasion, the U.S. interviewed hundreds of Iraqi officials, including Saddam himself, and went through thousands of documents to try to decipher Iraq’s intentions, especially about its WMD and nuclear programs. These findings were published in the final report of the Iraq Survey Group tasked with discovering Iraq’s weapons programs, and the Iraqi Perspectives Project’s paper “A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership,” released by the U.S. Joint Forces Command. Both showed that Saddam considered Tehran as an existential threat to Iraq. Iran and Iraq were historical rivals going back centuries, and Saddam believed that not only was Tehran stoking internal unrest because of its ideology of Shiite Islamist rule, but wanted to annex southern Iraq. In talks with Iraq’s top leadership, Saddam believed that the next war would be with Iran, not the U.S. or even Israel. The latter was seen as a rival in the region and a threat to Arab countries, but Saddam believed that if there was ever a conflict between the two, Israel would only launch air or missile strikes. Iran on the other hand could invade Iraqi territory and was supporting the country’s Shiites, so it was considered a more pressing opponent.
Even as the U.S. was building a coalition to go to war with Iraq, Saddam still thought of Iran as his greatest enemy. In 2002 for example, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said that the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) that was created, supported, and based in Iran was the largest internal threat to the government because it was stirring up Shiites in the south. As late as January 2003, at a Ministry of Defense conference Iran’s WMD program was singled out as a looming threat to Iraq and the region.
In comparison, Saddam did not think of the U.S. as a real enemy. Saddam believed that after the Gulf War the United States had achieved its goals in the region by establishing military bases there. He actually thought that Baghdad and Washington could reconcile sometime in the future, and sent dozens of messages to the U.S. through the United Nations weapons inspectors that were always ignored. Even if there was a conflict with America, he believed that it would only lead to missile or air strikes, and he never considered a U.S. invasion likely even when the Bush administration was clearly heading in that direction. As the war drew closer he thought that international pressure would stop Washington short of Baghdad.
In Blair’s testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry he said that 9/11 changed Washington and London’s perspective of Iraq. Afterward, both felt that Saddam could not stay in power with WMD because it would threaten the Middle East and the West. This view was based upon the Gulf War, and completely missed Iraq’s focus upon Iran. As national security professor at the U.S. Naval War College Michael Mazarr noted in an article for the journal Foreign Policy Analysis, when the September 11 attacks happened, the Bush administration turned to what they knew, Iraq, rather than what they didn’t, Al Qaeda. The same could be said for the Blair government. That meant after the Afghanistan invasion, the U.S. and England became focused upon Saddam, and diverted all of its attention and resources to getting rid of his regime. The Baathist government was undoubtedly a threat to its own people. It had brutally suppressed the Kurds, Shiites, and anyone else that threatened its power. Saddam had launched two misguided wars against Iran and Kuwait thinking that they would be easy victories, and was intent on restarting his nuclear and WMD programs when and if U.N. sanctions were lifted. Even then, Saddam’s main priority was to assure that the Baathists stayed in power, and that Iraq could deter Iran. In fact, Saddam’s emphasis upon WMD was based upon his belief that they could be used to put down internal uprisings and were an essential defense against Tehran’s larger military and population. He also never fully cooperated with U.N. inspectors because he feared that if Iraq were exposed as having no WMD, it would weaken the country vis a vis Iran. Blair said that even after what he knows now he would still invade Iraq, but that just points to officials continued emphasis upon their previous views of Saddam, rather than anything that has been learned since Saddam’s overthrow from copious research into the former regime’s thinking and priorities. Perceptions are reality however, and they are hard to shake, so the image of Saddam as an imminent threat to the Middle East and the West will likely persist with many into the future.
Iraq Survey Group, “Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on Iraq’s WMD,” 9/30/04
Mazarr, Michael, “The Iraq War and Agenda Setting,” Foreign Policy Analysis, January 2007
Norton-Taylor, Richard and Watt, Nicholas, “The Blair defence: September 11 changed the ‘calculs of risk,’” Guardian, 1/29/10
Project for the New American Century, “The Honorable William J. Clinton,” 1/26/98
Woods, Keven 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
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