Saddam's Last Secret

If he didn't have anything to hide, why did he act as if he did?


President George Bush has now agreed to appoint a commission to examine the performance of U.S. intelligence regarding Ba'athist Iraq, especially errors concerning weapons of mass destruction. Dr. David Kay, the retiring head of the team that has gone in search of such weapons, has credibly concluded that, notwithstanding confident administration claims—and a near-universal consensus—to the contrary, "we were almost all wrong" about Iraq's WMD stockpiles: There weren't any. Given how much time the commission will have for its inquiry—its report won't be due until 2005— I hope it takes up an aspect of this issue that apparently looms as a central mystery: Why, if Saddam Hussein had nothing to hide, did he behave as if he did?

For example, when the UN asked Saddam's regime for records proving that it had destroyed all caches of WMD that Iraq was known to have had in the past, Saddam failed to provide such evidence. Instead, his government offered records that indicated it had destroyed some of these weapons, but left open the question of what had happened to the rest. The distinguished journalist Timothy Garton Ash aptly pronounced the voluminous but inconclusive Iraqi report to be "the world's longest suicide note." If Saddam had indeed destroyed all his old WMD, why did he make no serious effort to persuade the UN of it? Why did he send the UN a report that suggested otherwise?

When UN inspectors returned to Iraq in 2002, they sought to interview Iraqi scientists in private. Most such scientists refused to grant any interviews unless a Ba'athist minder was present, or unless the interviews were taped. If these scientists had no knowledge of WMD caches, why didn't Saddam encourage private interviews? Dr. Kay and his team have since spoken to numerous Iraqi scientists, and Kay cites these interviews in concluding that reports of Iraqi WMD were mistaken. What prevented Saddam from encouraging interviews that would have helped exonerate him of American and British charges?

Indeed, UN arms inspectors received inadequate cooperation from the regime, as Hans Blix himself complained. Blix, in his reports to the UN, was clearly skeptical about U.S. and British claims concerning the nature and extent of Iraq's weaponry. But he was also openly critical of the lack of cooperation from Iraqi officials. "It is not the task of the inspectors" to find evidence of weapons destruction," Blix told the UN last February. "Iraq itself must squarely tackle this task and avoid belittling the questions."

In sum, the U.S. and Great Britain could not have gotten away with their WMD argument before the UN if Saddam Hussein had not behaved throughout the entire pre-war period as if those charges were legitimate. What lay behind Saddam's actions?

Of course, Saddam himself is in custody, but we've yet to hear what he has to say about anything. In the meantime, a number of theories have been floated to account for his pre-war behavior.

For example, there is the theory of self-serving machismo. According to this view, which David Kay himself considered, Saddam's public posturing toward the UN and the U.S. was guided by regional expectations of "Big Man" behavior. As a self-styled champion of the Arabs, Saddam could not appear weak. If an open admission that he had destroyed his WMD was perceived (by, say, the "Arab street") as tantamount to weakness, Saddam would risk his regional standing. Thus, he was compelled to act as if he was still armed with weapons of which the West disapproved.

Does this make sense? A devious machismo is actually implied in the U.S. charges against Saddam; it is consistent with secret stockpiles of proscribed weapons. But is it consistent with actually destroying your weapons and then pretending that you have something to hide? That seems less like machismo than what journalist Ash called it: suicide. It's posturing with a vengeance, since the posture involves placing a gun at your own head.

Besides, who says that Pan-Arabist machismo excludes weakness or even defeat? Don't forget that Saddam was able to claim victory of sorts in the 1991 Gulf War simply because he survived it. That's why he was still a Big Man. If Saddam had demonstrated that he had no WMD, he could have revealed George W. Bush as a liar while pulling Bush's UN justifications from beneath his feet. This time, Saddam would not only have survived, he would have added to his scimitar-wielding swagger.

But there are other theories to consider. For example, there's the possibility that Saddam didn't have any WMD, but he thought he did. According to this view, Ba'athist underlings created a Potemkin arms-program edifice that somehow persuaded Saddam that he had stores of proscribed weapons when he had nothing of the kind.

Could something like this have happened? If it did, it would make Saddam Hussein the biggest political farceur since Rufus T. Firefly was president of Freedonia. Like all retrospective conspiracy theories, however, this view makes more demands on credulousness than it can satisfy: Whoever is at the center of the plot has foreseen all problems, and no unanticipated consequences arise until Bush goes to the UN. Nevertheless, this thesis may well be favored within the intelligence community, since if Saddam thought he had proscribed weapons, what do you want from people sitting in Langley, Virginia?

One might add all sorts of variations. For example, Saddam's actions could be interpreted as reasonable, at least from his point of view. That is, he refused to cooperate with inspectors because he believed them to be spies. As for the incomplete records of weapon destruction that he offered the UN, that was just an everyday bureaucratic screw-up that could happen anywhere. (But Saddam's actions helped strengthen the case for a war that overthrew him, thus undermining any "reasonableness" scenario.)

Or maybe Saddam was just a disengaged loon, relishing the pretense that he was a great novelist and filling his palaces with unredeemable kitsch, and otherwise behaving irrationally. (But there's evidence, such as the "resistance" communications found with him when he was arrested, that suggests he was reasonably engaged. Even so, I'll stipulate that, whatever else turns out to be true, Saddam's political judgment had become as execrable as his taste.)

Of course, there's still the thesis that Saddam really did have WMD stockpiles after all. This would mean that it is not U.S. intelligence that is in error, but Dr. Kay. During his Meet the Press appearance Sunday, President Bush himself suggested that this may yet prove to be the case. (But if Bush brandishes an Iraqi vial of Something Dangerous in the middle of the presidential campaign, we'll be arguing about it for the rest of our lives.)

There's one last thesis to consider: Saddam acted like he had something to hide because he was hiding something. According to this scenario, "Iraq was in clear material violation of [UN Resolution] 1441. They maintained programs and activities, and they certainly had the intentions at a point to resume their [weapons] programs. So there was a lot they wanted to hide because it showed what they were doing that was illegal."

Who thinks so? Actually, these are the words of Dr. David Kay, testifying last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee. That would be the same Dr. David Kay whose conclusion that there were no WMD stockpiles set off this flurry of conjecture to begin with. Thus, the very man who opened this "mystery" about Saddam's behavior also offered a reasonably comprehensive solution to it. Yet while one conclusion ("we were all wrong") is quoted ubiquitously, the remainder of his remarks remain relatively obscure.

True, Dr. Kay's conclusions—among them, that "the world is far safer with the disappearance and the removal of Saddam Hussein"—don't exonerate bad intelligence, they don't justify administration exaggerations, and they don't address the damage that has apparently been done to U.S. credibility. But they do seem to provide an informed context for understanding and judging all these matters. Why, then, has there been so much conjecture over a matter whose apparent solution lies in plain sight? Turns out the world is filled with "mysteries" with seemingly obvious solutions.