- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

President Bush recently tired to distance himself from the Iraq government’s handling of Saddam Hussein’s sentence and execution, describing it as looking like, “a revenge killing… they fumbled.” But the U.S. administration is not blameless.

The cultural and legal norms of the Middle East often seem alien to us in the West. We are reminded daily of the difficulties of establishing democracy in the post-totalitarian Iraq. Insurgency and sectarian violence are protests against Western ideals and influence, the manifestation of long-held rivalries between indigenous factions that have never truly agreed on any sense of nation and yet another symptom of the Long War.

Some hoped that Saddam’s death would draw a line under the preceding era to allow the Iraqi people and government to move on. But Saddam’s execution has been divisive. For Shi’ites and Kurds it was required to satisfy the local sense of justice, but it fuelled Sunnis’ anger — neither being of any strategic value. Moreover, beyond intensifying Iraq’s divisions, it may have negative long-term consequences when the United States confronts nations with rogue regimes and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

It is often said that in a crisis rogue states with WMD are not deterrable. So the logic goes, such leaders when fearing regime change have nothing left to lose. They will threaten the use of WMD to deter U.S. attack or coerce U.S. actions and will not hesitate to use them if cornered.

States such as North Korea and Iran have acquired or are widely believed to seek nuclear weapons. They have rogue governments at odds with the United States and their regional neighbors. The tensions are not limited to WMD. But WMD proliferation has eclipsed some of the underlying disagreements, such as human rights, sponsorship of terrorism, democracy and respecting the sovereign rights of neighbors.

But there is some evidence to suggest the leaders of such regimes can be deterred or otherwise influenced, even when embroiled in a potential WMD or nuclear stand-off. Leaders — even dictators with near divine (immortal) standing within their regime’s system of belief (or enforced propaganda) — are fearful for their own lives. It may be apocryphal, but Kim Jong-il was rumored to have gone into hiding for three months in an underground bunker after the Battle for Baghdad. More definitively, he is reported to have avoided public engagements during tension after last year’s missile and nuclear tests. And after the Battle for Baghdad, Saddam — when captured — was, as described by the New York Times, “found hiding in a hole.”

In the prelude to the second Gulf war, Saddam was informed his neck was on the line in an attempt to deter his using WMD against U.S. and allied troops and regional neighbors. (It is easy to forget that we genuinely believed he possessed such weapons). Though U.S. and allied troops were prepared, equipped and expecting to operate in a chemical and biologically (CB) contaminated environment, the United States sought deter this illegal strategy by threatening personal retaliation.

This deterrence could be judged successful, although it is not clear why Saddam abandoned his WMD program and what happened to the Iraqi WMD munitions. He did not fight the Battle for Baghdad with CB weapons.

However, irrespective of whether the U.S. threat of holding him personally accountable influenced his decisions on that matter, his recent execution has not helped the reputation of the United States.

To my knowledge the U.S. administration did not make — or fail to act on — any assurances guaranteeing his safety if he refrained from ordering use of WMD, but this might be a logical inference on the part of a recipient of such deterrence threats. Therefore, it could prove a mistake that the United States did not do more to protest against Saddam’s sentence and execution by the Iraqi courts, particularly as U.S. adversaries regard members of the Iraqi government as U.S. stooges.

It seems regime leaders who believe they face the prospect of regime change — even if the United States denies this to be its intent, as in the cases of North Korea and Iran — may look at this example and conclude they have nothing to lose and thus will authorize WMD use in some future crises. U.S. deterrence may have been weakened by Saddam’s execution; some regimes may now be undeterrable.

What the United States does and says matters. Although maintaining it was an Iraqi decision, the U.S. reaction on Saddam’s execution could have been better. Presidents Bush’s criticism is too little, too late — a fumble.


A visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are his own.

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