- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

How could Saddam Hussein have been so fatally wrong? How could he have so misjudged President Bush? How could the late Iraqi dictator, with access to informed judgments by his allies like French President Jacques Chirac, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, not have realized that President Bush would go to war?

Did he think the deployment of American arms and men in the Middle East was part of a gigantic bluff? He must have thought it was a bluff. Otherwise he would have surrendered, hoping to fight another day. Saddam must have thought the televised peace demonstrations in Europe, the Middle East and the rest of Asia would sway the White House into postponing or even calling off the attack on Iraq.

Saddam surely believed that at the first U.S. aggression against Iraq the marching masses in Cairo, Amman, Damascus, and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world would join him in repelling the invasion. He must have believed that the U.N. Security Council and the New York Times editorial page would deter the U.S. war policy, which was being implemented by daily troop deployments and equipment arrivals.

Saddam survived 30 bloody years as Iraq's dictator and warlord. He lost wars against Iran, against Kuwait and yet emerged, his terrorizing power untouched by defeat. He ignored 17 U.N. resolutions, refused to comply with an unconditional weapons inspection regime, expelled U.N. inspectors from Iraq in 1998 and yet nothing happened. He was still in the saddle when coalition forces began to move.

There is plenty of precedent for such foreign policy misjudgments by dictatorial regimes: Adolf Hitler on Neville Chamberlain and British appeasement, Hitler on Winston Churchill and British courage. He miscalculated his fellow-tyrant, Josef Stalin, who earlier had misjudged Hitler. Hirohito and his admirals thought that defeating the U.S. could be done by surprise attack and it would be all over. And there is ample precedent for disastrous misjudgments by democracies, too: France's self-defeatist view of Nazi Germany, President Roosevelt on the Soviet Union, the U.S. in Vietnam, France in 1936 when it allowed Hitler to move into the Rhineland. Fortunately, democracies seem to have a resilience which undemocratic societies lack. Defeats for democracies, like Pearl Harbor, seem to be temporary hazards.

So the question remains: How could Saddam have been so stupid, so ill-informed, so arrogant as to think he could beat back coalition forces? He must have had some knowledge of the arsenal of America the Superpower. After all, American war-making power had just crushed Taliban Afghanistan and destroyed al Qaeda's Afghan bases. Is it conceivable that his European allies, France, Germany and Russia, didn't warn him about what it would mean to Iraq's future if America's military might were unleashed? In any case the result, as Professor John Keegan described it in the London Telegraph, "has been almost no check to the unimpeded American advance to Baghdad, nor have there been any major battles. This has been a collapse, not a war."

I prefer to believe that the reason for Saddam's misinterpretation of the events leading up to his downfall was his fearsome power over his subordinates in Baghdad and at the United Nations. Even if they believed Iraq was on a losing streak, Saddam's subordinates would not have dared utter a defeatist word lest they and their families suffer. A counsel of prudence would have been regarded by Saddam as treason. And if Saddam's allies, the Unholy Three, counseled prudence we have yet to hear about it. Overnight Saddam's absolute power was corrupted into absolute decrepitude.

Perhaps the explanation for Saddam's willful blindness is to be found In George Kennan's famous State Department cabled dispatch (which formed the basis of his 1947 Foreign Affairs article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct").Mr. Kennan, then charge d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, wrote that Stalin "does not by any means always receive objective and helpful information about the international situation … the entire apparatus of diplomacy and propaganda under him works not on a basis of any objective analysis of world situation but squarely on basis of the preconceived party line which we see reflected in official propaganda. … Stalin is presumably constantly at the disposal of a set of inside advisers of whom we know little or nothing. As far as I am aware, there is no limit or extent to which these people can fill his mind with misinformation and misinterpretations about us and our policies."

Lucky for us, then and now.

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