How can the United States conduct a war to remove Saddam Hussein from power if Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them? Senator Edward Kennedy, echoing the standard views of political scientists, has questioned the wisdom of pursuing regime change in Iraq by military means. If a war to remove him is going well, the argument goes, Saddam will see that he, personally, is doomed, and will decide that he might as well inflict as much pain as he can on his enemies before he dies. The logic of pure reason says that you cannot deter a leader who has nothing to lose.
There are several things wrong this argument. The first is history. This is not the first time a war has been waged to effect regime change against a leader who had weapons of mass destruction. Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich had stockpiles of nerve gas and a weakened but still effective military chain of command to execute his orders. But when the Red Army was entering Berlin, there were no clouds of Sarin or Tabun unleashed against the Soviet soldiers who would, without doubt, deal out the roughest kind of justice to Germany and Hitler himself. Not only that, but earlier in the war, Hitler’s orders to destroy Paris as the Germans withdrew were not obeyed. As German defeat became more certain, even the killings of Jews and others in the death camps were halted, at least for some periods of time.
Tyrants do not commit mass murder with their own hands. They have subjects who carry out their commands. Tyrants are obeyed because they are feared, and go to great lengths to ensure that their subjects fear them more than they fear the external enemies of the regime. But when they begin to lose a total war, the balance of fear among those they have been oppressing begins to shift. People begin looking around them to see if it is safe to turn their coats, defect, or mutiny. If one prominent subordinate successfully disobeys orders, others learn the lesson and act accordingly, creating a cascade of increasing numbers of defections. This is why dictatorships that seem so solid can so rapidly fall apart when the first cracks in the regime become publicly visible. In a regime guilty of crimes against humanity, subordinates will not want to be taken prisoner while in the act of committing mass murder, defending a tyrant who is on the verge of total defeat.
Logically, this suggests that tyrants might unleash their stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction before it is obvious to their subordinates that they will be overthrown. If Saddam Hussein saw the inevitable coming early enough, he could order his remaining SCUDs loaded with biological weapons and launched against Israel, by generals who still feared him more than the American armies that might falter before they got to Baghdad.
This overlooks another major characteristics of tyrants. They tend to have hefty amounts of self-confidence. They have, after, all gained and held absolute power against all comers. They have survived attempts to kill or defeat them. They have difficulty believing that they can lose. Hitler, when hearing of the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April of 1945 cheered himself up with the thought that, like Frederick the Great, he would still pull through because a key adversary had died. In addition, tyrants are not surrounded by people who bring them down to earth. All the evidence we have from the Hitler, Stalin, and Mao regimes shows that their subordinates did not present, but rather concealed, information that revealed the ongoing failure of policies ordered by the tyrant. The subordinates of the tyrant know, long before the tyrant is forced to believe, that the game is up. The idea that men like Saddam Hussein will believe that they are doomed, and order apocalyptic action before the very last moment, is to ignore everything we know about the most basic part of their personalities.
If what is written above is correct, there are some clear policy implications for the United States as it plans its war against Saddam Hussein. First, we should say, publicly and often, that Iraqi commanders who commit mass murder will be found and executed, and that those who forbear will be treated mercifully. We should state publicly that we know that Saddam Hussein has given his commanders operational control of chemical and biological weapons, so that if the weapons are used, it is because of the actions of local commanders, who will be held accountable. We should state, finally, that the war will be waged to destroy Saddam Hussein’s secret police, so that military commanders will not have the excuse that they were acting under compulsion. If nothing else, this is sure to initiate a round of purges by Saddam Hussein of his military before the war starts that will weaken it, just as the Red Army was weakened in the years before World War II. When the war starts, inducing senior Iraqi military defections will be an objective as important as gaining territory or destroying Iraqi SCUDs, and the news of the defections should be broadcast continuously back into Iraq.
Second, the first American military actions should be massive. Saddam Hussein’s command structure and military capabilities should be hit as hard as possible with air and ground forces in the first days of the war, while he still believes that he will dodge the bullet with his name on it one more time. By the time he realizes that he is history, there should be as little possible left of his military and security structure. This will require a war very different from the war we recently waged in Afghanistan, in which logistical and legal considerations led to a tempo of war that built slowly to a climax. It should be even more different from the 1991 war in which the air campaign was waged for weeks before the ground campaign began. It should be a new form of lightning war, the purpose of which is to shock and paralyze the enemy leadership with air strikes, special forces, helicopter air assaults, and whatever special devices have been invented over the last year. It should be augmented by and coordinated with Israeli military action.
The problems associated with attacking a tyrant with weapons of mass destruction are real, but not insuperable. They do require new modes of military thought and action. And they will be even larger in a few years time if we do not act now.