Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why Saddam Hussein Did Not See The United States As A Military Threat Before The 2003 Invasion

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


Buatbest said...

hello your nice blog..~ greeting from malaysia..~

SerenityNow! said...

Perhaps Saddam hoped for some miracle against the US, but for all the sanity he could muster, he could not hope to stave off the US from doing what it ultimately wanted to do. And it would be fair (even for Saddam) to assume the US would continue to satisfaction - regime change. In an Iraqi mindset, it makes sense that: 1) the son Bush would seek to continue and exceed his father's mission; 2) Bush would lash out against the Muslim world for 9-11; and 3) it would commit ground forces in Iraq as it did in Afghanistan, where the ruling government was swept aside. Another strong motivation for Saddam was to never reveal weakness in front of Iran. At all costs, this was most important. He would rather roll the dice and hope for the best with the US than risk exposing a weakness to Iran.

Joel Wing said...


What the captured Baath papers and interviews with former Iraqi officials show is that in fact, Saddam didn't believe that there would ever be a real U.S. invasion or regime change. Saddam did think that a U.S. attack was going to happen under Bush, but it would just be like before, which was some cruise missiles being sent his way and that was it.

SerenityNow! said...

I mostly agree with you and recognize that you are an honest, diligent journalist. And I wouldn't disagree with Saddam's use of this statement "there would never be a US invasion" to justify his bad behaviors in resisting IAEA inspections. It would be useful in convincing his followers to understand what he was doing. But what he believed about what the US intended or could actually do would not have changed much what Saddam did militarily.
I don't challenge what was said in papers and interviews, but I would certainly view the SOURCES with healthy skepticism. No statements of Baathists or Iraqi officials before the invasion could be trusted to be reality - only apish mimicry of the party line. Statements after the fact that claim to know the true mind of Saddam are suspect. Outside of Saddam's inner circle, there were few (if any) that could speak for Saddam. And most of those guys ended up dead.
First, to begin to be accurate in the assessment of Saddam's attitude during that time, you have to respect the simple reality of Iran's importance as a threatening enemy. How could Saddam admit to NOT having WMD in front of Iran and the Arab world - well, he could if he could convince his followers that the US would not invade on that single issue.
Second, it's doubtful Saddam could've considered the Clinton America to be the same as a post-9-11/post-Afghanistan America.
Bush 41 behaved differently from Clinton who behaved differently from Bush 43.
Again, I don't disagree that the basic premise of the article was part of Saddam's calculus; but all I'm saying is the article seemed too focused on the single idea of Saddam's belief in a soft, non-committal America.

Joel Wing said...

The U.S. is doing a massive project to go through the Baath Party and Iraqi government papers as well as interview former Iraqi officials. Most of the information in this article is based upon that project.

Again, according to all this work, Saddam did not think that the U.S. substantively changed between Clinton and the Bush administration. Saddam believed that Pres. Bush wanted to attack Iraq, but that it would be just like those that happened during the Clinton administration or perhaps include a temporary seizure of southern Iraq.

As for the inspectors, Saddam was actually trying to appease the U.S. as much as possible so that Iraq would not provide an excuse for the Bush administration to launch an attack.

If you go through the U.N. reports on those inspections you'll see that Iraq was actually giving in to the their demands slowly but surely.

SerenityNow! said...

Again, your research, as always, is rigorous and your conclusions are sound. Truly, I couldn't hope to match it.
The last two paragraphs of your response seems to undermines the second. If Saddam sought to appease the US and also to gradually and incrementally concede to the inspectors, it reflects that Saddam did respect the US political/military/diplomatic potentiality and wanted (wished) that the US would understand his actions and rhetoric with respect to the Iranian reality. If the US understood and cared about Saddam's simple motivations: 1) to stay in power; and 2) to stave off Iran, then 1) war could've been avoided; and 2) the US could've made a deal with the devil in Saddam and enlisted him to use his formidable security structure to assist the hot war against Al-Qaeida and the cold war against Iran. The latter, of course, would've been a long shot and a spectacular act of clandestine diplomacy. I'm not sure if we could've pulled it off, but ...
Anyway, I understand you probably don't indulge in the 'would've', 'could've' world of speculation, but I'm all about that.
Enjoying your blog, and respecting your work. - Joe

Joel Wing said...

Saddam and the Iraqi leadership did not think there was going to be a serious invasion. A strike was entirely possible however since that had become routine under the Clinton administration. IMO Pres Bush had decided upon war probably even before I elections started and were using them to Fi d international legitimization for war as the White House didn't expect Saddam to comply as he never did before. As for the US to co wider Iraq and Iran I don't get the sense that many in the administration who were pushing for war knew much of anything about Iraq and its foreign policy.

This is a case of two countries tries completely misunderstanding and looking past each other.

bb said...

Joel - since Musings changed format where are all the archives etc? Also there seems to be only one page of recent entries.

And also - your Dec 17 entry is titled ""Sadr Ramps Up The Campaign Machine Before Iraq’s Provincial Elections" but all it talks about is saddam and US invasion?

Is this my PC or what?

Joel Wing said...

Are you using Internet Explorer? You need to use another web browser because IE is no longer compatible with Google Blogger. Try Firefox or something else and then everything on the blog will show up.

Anonymous said...

whatever the nature of the Saddam's view was but the truth is that the US is fighting Iraq to this moment.

This Day In Iraqi History - Apr 16 Shah of Iran started giving military aid to Barzani to pressure Iraq to give him control over Shatt al-Arab

  1914 US consul in Baghdad reported rumors spread that all Christians and Jews in city would be massacred due to start ...