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January 27, 2008

What Saddam Was Thinking
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

60 Minutes had an absolutely fascinating interview with FBI Agent George Piro, who spent months as Saddam's sole interrogator.  This was the money line:

"And what did he tell you about how his weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed?" Pelley asks.

"He told me that most of the WMD had been destroyed by the U.N. inspectors in the '90s. And those that hadn't been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq," Piro says.

"So why keep the secret? Why put your nation at risk, why put your own life at risk to maintain this charade?" Pelley asks.

"It was very important for him to project that because that was what kept him, in his mind, in power. That capability kept the Iranians away. It kept them from reinvading Iraq," Piro says.

Saddam was more focused on the neighbors and the regional players on his borders, who represented the most direct threats, than he was on the United States.  This pattern repeats itself again and again in American foreign policy.  As a global superpower, with military reach that stretches the globe, we consistently view things through the broader geopolitical dynamics as they relate to the United States (In this case the "War on Terror" and WMDs). In that process we tend to miss the trees for the forest.  Thinking only big, but never about the details.  Most countries don't have the luxury of thinking about broader geopolitical strategy. What they care about is protecting their borders and territorial integrity.  That means worrying about your neighbors first. 

This doesn't just apply to Iraq.  It applies to Pakistan.  Why does Pakistan and especially the military and intelligence services have a long history of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan?  It has nothing to do with the "War on terror."  It is all based on the one and only thing that truly concerns the Pakistani military - India.  The Pakistanis have always promoted friendly governments in Afghanistan - no matter what form the government takes - because the last thing it wants is an Indian ally on its Western border. 

This was also one of the tragedies of Vietnam.   The Johnson Administration always thought that letting Vietnam fall to the Communists would empower the Soviet Union and China and create a communist alliance across Asia.  But instead the opposite happened.  the Sino-Soviet split made clear that there was no universal communist movement and Vietnam and China fought a war in the late 1970s.  As usual, good old-fashioned regional security concerns trumped the broad strategic frame of the Cold War.

Of course, it's not just the U.S. that miscalculates.  Here's why Saddam didn't come fully clean on his weapons even as it became apparent to close observers that the U.S. would in fact invade.

"As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn't he stop it then? And say, 'Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction.' I mean, how could he have wanted his country to be invaded?" Pelley asks.

"He didn't. But he told me he initially miscalculated President Bush. And President Bush's intentions. He thought the United States would retaliate with the same type of attack as we did in 1998 under Operation Desert Fox. Which was a four-day aerial attack. So you expected that initially," Piro says.

The miscalculation on both sides is truly stunning.


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This is not new, by a long shot. This is in the Duelfer Report on the Oil for Food Program, released 4 years ago. Go check it out. The Duelfer report says, conclusively, that Saddam only wanted Iran to think that he had WMD, as a deterrent. The Duelfer Report also says that Saddam thought, despite the odds, that he could re-forge an alliance with the US, similar to what he enjoyed during the Iran/Iraq war. He desperately feared Iran and desperately wanted to be back in our graces. Threading the needle was impossible, though. He got caught up in his own conflicted agendas.

But we always knew that he didn't have WMD and we always knew why he'd pretend otherwise and that had everything to do with Iran and nothing to do with us.

Fair enough Mike. But it's still more interesting to hear it from the horse's mouth (i.e. the guy who interrogated Saddam for months). It's really a great interview. I also forgot to mention that the whole description speaks well to the effectiveness of non-coercive interrogation tactics.

Apologies, Ilan. I've long been frustrated that people have asked the question "Why didn't Saddam just prove he didn't have WMDs if he didn't?" when deterring Iran was not only the obvious reasonable answer but was the assessment of Duelfer when he did his work.

I totally agree with you that having the corroboration of one of his direct interrogators is an important piece of evidence. Guess I let my anger at the fact that this should have been an accepted answer long ago get in the way. Thanks for highlighting this, I only want people to know that it's confirmation of what they should have been told in the first place.

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