What Saddam thought

At Musings on Iraq, Joel Wing writes that Saddam did not plan the post-invasion insurgency, as some thought at the time, because he didn’t think that his government was going to fall. It’s strange that despite the talk of “regime change” here, he completely discounted the possibility:

The project found that Saddam and his top officials’ worldview was shaped by Iraqi history, and was quite different from what Americans were thinking. First, Saddam did not believe that the United States had the will to invade Iraq. He looked at Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and even the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and interpreted them all as examples that the Americans could not take casualties, and preferred to use air rather than ground power. Saddam also looked at Iraq’s past intransigence with the United Nations weapons inspectors and its 1993 attempt on former President Bush’s life in Kuwait where the U.S. just launched air and missile strikes as other examples to bolster his opinion. A few senior military officials believed that the Americans would actually invade, but they thought it would be like the 1991 Gulf War where the U.S. would carry out a massive air campaign, and then invade the south, but never head towards Baghdad. For example, the former commander of the Iraqi Air Force and Air Defense told interrogators after the war that, “We thought that the war would be like the last one in 1991. We figured that the United States would conduct some operations in the south and then go home.” The Director General of the Republican Guard’s General Staff told his captors, “We thought the Coalition would go to Basra, may be to Amarah, and then the war would end.” In 2002, when Washington and London were stepping up international pressure upon Baghdad, Saddam thought that France and Russia would stop any United Nations’ resolutions that authorized the use of force. That was because Iraq had created strong economic ties with both since the 1990s in an attempt to undermine U.N. sanctions imposed after the Gulf War. Even if the U.S. were to invade, Saddam thought that Iraqi troops were better fighters, and would cause such heavy casualties, that President Bush would stop. As Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz said, Saddam “Thought that this war would not lead to his ending.”

When the invasion came in March 2003, Saddam was obsessed with the military details and giving orders, but because his staff had been conditioned to hide bad news from him out of fear that he would have them killed, he never knew how serious the threat was, and how fast the American troops were moving towards Baghdad. Instead he thought the Iraqi forces were actually winning. General Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam’s secretary for example, later told the U.S. that Saddam ordered the Foreign Ministry on March 30 to tell the French and Germans that Iraq wanted an unconditional surrender from the U.S. Even in the last days of his regime in April, Saddam was still coming up with plans on how to defend the capital, and ordering units that had been destroyed into new positions. To the very end, Saddam was focused upon the invasion, and not what would happen afterward. That’s why no documents or official was found that said that he ever thought about forming an insurgency. Before the war, he thought it wouldn’t happen, and then when it did, he believed the U.S. would never head towards Baghdad, and that his army could stop the Americans in their tracks. The idea that he might be deposed, never seemed to enter his mind until the night he fled, and his regime collapsed.



  1. Fascinating, Scott! Thanks for sharing this.

    Saddam was the same way even to his death. I think it is part of the arrogant self-assuredness and distorted reality that autocrats develop. Also reminds me of a study showing how people confuse arrogance for leadership.

    But I actually thought the same thing as Saddam at the time. In fact, I am still surprised by the invasion. I suspect it was mainly just the result of a genuine belief that he had WMD that only in hindsight looks paltry.

  2. Interesting. What made you think that Bush was bluffing?

    Agreed about Saddam’s self-assuredness. It seems that the terror that allowed him to stay in power ultimately served him very badly when he needed sound advice.

  3. The scope of the commitment and lack of precedent, primarily. It was preemptive because of the WMD and technically a continuation of the previous war and broken treaty but it didn’t quite feel like that. I didn’t think Bush’s threats were idle; I expected some sort of invasion to depose Saddam, I just didn’t realize the scope. It’s like there’s nothing in between air force or discrete special forces and total invasion. It’s sickly funny that Saddam’s mistake was posturing on WMD.

    I think there’s a lesser but similar self-assuredness in many country’s leaders. I often wondered if Bush and now Obama live in a sort of bubble. Not at the kooky insane level of a Kim Jong-il or even Gaddafi but some insulation and warping seems to be going on there. I assume it’s necessary to some extent to stave off self-doubt and criticism, and soldier on.

  4. I think that you’re right about bubbles. We all probably have to have them to some degree to deal with challenges to the way we do things (as you put it, “to stave off self-doubt and criticism, and soldier on”). There are some things that bubbles probably keep out that need to be kept out (imagine if Bush or Obama tried to answer every conspiracy theory about them), but then the bubbles probably keep out stuff that needs to come in and be dealt with.

  5. I have even heard speculation by a friend who works at Sandia NL that Saddam himself may have thought he had WMDs and was being misled by his scientists and generals (which would go a long ways in explaining why everyone from Clinton to Blair to HW Bush thought he had them). If Saddam inaccurately thought that, it could also explain some of his belligerence and unwillingness to believe that he was going to be invaded. Given how many people he killed who did not fulfill his wishes, it doesn’t seem like he was given very good information by his advisors out of fear for their own lives.

    Of course, we’ll never know what really happened. The stories we are given regarding sensitive intelligence are rarely, if ever, the truth.

  6. That would fit in with the pattern of Saddam’s regime. I have also heard that he felt that bluffing until the end like he had them would strengthen his hand.

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