David Palkki is the deputy director of the Conflict Records Research Center (CCRC) at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. The CCRC was created by the Secretary of Defense to provide scholars with access to captured documents from Iraq and Al Qaeda. This includes hundreds of papers and audio files from Saddam Hussein’s regime, some of which became the basis for the newly released Saddam Tapes co-edited by Kevin Woods, Mark Stout, and David Palkki. The book provides invaluable insight into everything from Saddam’s foreign policy, to his dealings with Iraq’s ethnosectarian groups, weapons of mass destruction, and United Nations’ sanctions and inspections. Below is the first of a two-part interview with David Palkki, which covers Saddam’s dealings with the United States, Israel, Iran, the Arab world, and the three wars he fought from 1980-2003. What emerges is a man that was obsessed with conspiracies against his country, while trying to place Iraq as the leader of the Middle East. Saddam often spent long hours with his inner circle discussing these matters, but he consistently miscalculated how other countries would react to his policies, leading to one foreign policy crisis after another for three straight decades.
1. How did you get involved with putting together The Saddam Tapes?
Kevin Woods, one of my co-editors, obtained funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to compile this study at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). I had previously worked with Kevin at IDA, and Kevin invited me to join him, and our other co-editor, Mark Stout.
2. The first main topic in the book was Iraq’s relationship with the United States. Saddam seemed to believe that the United States was a major threat to his regime. Did you gain into any insight into why he felt that way?
For decades he believed that the United States was hostile toward his regime and conspiratorial, which probably stemmed from a host of factors including his upbringing, U.S. support for Israel, anti-colonial sentiment in Iraq, and U.S. support for his enemies (Israel, Iran under the Shah, rebellious Kurds, etc.). Iraq had problematic, but much closer ties with the Soviet Union than with the United States, which might not have been insignificant given the Cold War context. One striking thing that the tapes reveal is the degree to which Saddam expressed belief in bizarre conspiracy theories involving Zionists influencing or colluding with U.S. policymakers.
|Saddam believed that the U.S. was working with Israel and Iran to keep Iraq down (Middle East Online)
4. Based upon this worldview, Saddam believed that the U.S. was behind the Iran-Iraq War?
He expressed belief that the United States was behind the Iranian Revolution, and that Zionists had fostered war between Iraq and Iran, so Israel could have an excuse to attack Iraq’s nuclear reactor under the cover of war.
5. Yet, the Reagan administration quickly made a tilt towards Iraq in the war. How did Saddam view this new relationship?
He was willing to accept assistance, but remained extremely skeptical of U.S. intentions.
6. How did Saddam react to the Iran-Contra Affair when that story broke?
He was furious that the United States had secretly passed intelligence and facilitated weapons deliveries to Iran. He told his advisers that the Americans were “conspiring bastards,” and described the episode as “this stab in the back.”
7. Saddam came out of the 1991 Gulf War believing that he had won. Can you explain where that opinion came from?
Saddam defined victory as staying in power. From his perspective, the United States had created an enormous coalition that had attacked Iraq, and sought to remove him from power, but failed. He remained in power well after Bush and Thatcher had been replaced. In this sense, he was victorious.
8. Despite Saddam’s negative opinion of the United States, he actually tried to improve relations with the Clinton administration. Can you explain why he did that, and what came of those overtures?
Clinton, shortly after defeating Bush in the election, told a reporter that as a Southern Baptist he believed in deathbed conversions, and that if Iraq improved its behavior, the United States would lighten up on Iraq. Saddam was very aware of the softer rhetoric from the president-elect, and wished to end the economic sanctions. From Saddam’s perspective, though, the role of the Israel Lobby, and the need for cheap oil in the United States would serve to undermine rapprochement.
9. When the Bush administration began singling out Iraq in 2002, Saddam did not believe that America would go to war. Why did he feel that way?
We didn’t find a clear answer to this in captured audio files. According to a variety of interrogation reports (see the Duelfer Report and Iraqi Perspectives Project), Saddam and his core advisers didn’t think the United States had the stomach for a bloody ground campaign to topple the regime.
10. Even when it became apparent to Saddam that the U.S. meant business, and was going to invade, he still felt that Iraq was going to win. Where did that opinion come from?
Perhaps from his belief about Iraq’s “victory” in 1991. In 1991, the United States had many coalition partners, but failed to replace the regime, and in 2003 it had far fewer partners. According to a variety of sources, many of Saddam’s advisers also failed to inform him about Iraqi weaknesses.
11. Looking at these events, can you say that Saddam ever figured out how the U.S. worked?
Saddam understood some things, and at times was quite insightful. That said his views of the United States were frequently grossly inaccurate.
12. Didn’t Saddam spend a large amount of time discussing with his inner circle U.S. politics and policy?
Yes, he did. He also spent many hours discussing the politics and policies of other countries. The United States was often a key player, but only one of many, and in many instances not as important as scholarly accounts imply.
13. Of more immediate concern to Saddam during his time in power was Israel. Would it be wrong to say that he considered Israel his largest rival and threat to Iraq in the region?
I think he viewed Egypt as more of a “rival” than Israel in the sense that Iraq was competing with Egypt for leadership of the Arab world. Syria was also a key rival. Israel would never rival Iraq in this sense. In the military sense, by contrast, Israel and Iran were both key rivals. Israel could never occupy parts of Iraq in the way that Iran could, and in this sense Iran was the greater rival. Israel could launch airstrikes and engage in intrigues, however, which Saddam saw as threatening.
14. Saddam’s opposition to Israel seemed to be driven by two factors. One he saw Israel as a military threat, but you also argued that he was a fervent anti-Semite. Can you elaborate on that?
Saddam bought into many anti-Semitic views. For instance, he ordered his inner circle to read “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an infamous anti-Semitic text forged by the Russian Czar’s secret police nearly a century earlier, and said that he believed what it said about Zionists usurping countries’ economies. When bad things happened to Iraq, Saddam frequently suspected a hidden Jewish/Zionist hand.
15. What did Saddam see as his role in the Arab world?
He wanted to lead the Arab world. He spoke of this frequently.
16. How did that affect his foreign policy?
Support for Palestinian groups, rivalry with Egypt and Syria, and hostility toward Israel all come to mind.
17. After 1979 Iran became a main focus of Saddam, and the next year he started the Iran-Iraq War. What were the main reasons he gave publicly and privately to justify that war?
In public, he largely justified it by saying that Iran had attacked Iraq by shelling various border towns. He also said this in private, but it is clear from Iraqi intelligence reports that he knew that Iran had no military capabilities to seriously invade Iraq, whereas Iraqi military intelligence informed him that Iraqi forces could reach deep into Iran.
|One of Saddam's many foreign policy foibles was launching the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 (AFP)
18. Iraq thought it would have a quick victory over Iran, because it was still in the throes of a revolutionary period. That proved false, and the war ended up dragging on for years with Iraq facing a country with a much larger population. Saddam seemed to realize this before many others in the regime. How did he end up changing tactics to try to prevail?
He tried hard to end the war, but also came to realize that Iraq needed to target Iranian economic targets. He also relied on chemical weapons to help offset massive Iranian human wave attacks.
19. That seemed a rather astute observation by Saddam, but at the same time he was known to micro-manage the war. What kind of affect did that have?
According to many military officers who served under his command, the effects were horrible for the Iraqis. Iraqi defectors frequently blamed Saddam’s micromanaging for military setbacks.
20. Did Saddam prove to have much of a military mind?
He did not have much of a military background prior to assuming power, though he studied hard and learned things as he went along.
21. Were the people around him much better?
Some generals were reportedly chosen for their loyalty combined with lack of ambition/intelligence. “Saddam’s Generals,” a new book by Kevin Woods and Wick Murray out by the National Defense University Press, has great information on this.
22. The next decade Saddam made another foreign policy blunder by invading Kuwait. What were the main reasons for this new war?
That’s a good question. Iraq was facing huge economic problems, which Saddam might have thought could be solved by invading Kuwait, thus ending Iraq’s debts to Kuwait and taking Kuwait’s oil. He also appeared to have believed that Kuwait, the United States, and Israel were conspiring against Iraq, and might have seen the invasion as an advantageous preemptive/preventive strike. I co-authored an article coming out in a few months on this topic in the journal Diplomatic History.
23. One of Saddam’s many missteps in this conflict was the taking of Western hostages and using them as human shields. What did he hope to achieve with this tactic?
I haven’t seen a captured record that gives an answer to this, but it seems clear to me that he thought it would undermine desire for war in the West.
24. A major controversy after the Gulf War was why Iraq did not use its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Some have argued that a threatening letter by then Secretary of State James Baker deterred Iraq from using these munitions. What did the tapes reveal about this matter?
In a number of meetings during the weeks prior to and after invading Kuwait, Saddam expressed concern that the United States might attack Iraq with nuclear weapons. Iraq practiced massive evacuations of Baghdad and other cities, in preparation for nuclear strikes. The Iraqis dispersed their forces to make them harder to destroy with nuclear weapons. There’s no smoking gun, but it seems clear to me that he feared nuclear retaliation. It’s less clear to me that Baker’s warning had much of an effect on Saddam’s decision.
Woods, Kevin, Palkki, David, and Stout, Mark, The Saddam Tapes, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2011