Rebirth of Reason


A Retroactive Analysis of National Security Casus Belli for the Iraq War: Part 3
by Jonathan R

Was Saddam Deterrable?

For much of the last century, America’s national security strategy relied on the Cold War doctrine of deterrence. But deterrence only works if the deterree is rational, that is, if he appreciates that attacking America will beget our massive retaliation. Hawks argued that since Saddam was “crazy,”[1] we “could not afford to trust [his] motives or [to] give him the benefit of the doubt.”[2] For the tyrant was irrational and therefore undeterrable.


For example, in September 1980, about a year after he became president, Saddam invaded Iran. For the Third World the war reached unprecedented losses of blood and treasure—eight years cost 100,000 Iraqis their lives and Iraq nearly half a trillion dollars—yet ultimately Saddam gained no territory. Accordingly, Michael Sterner, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, contends that the invasion ranks “as one of this century’s worst strategic miscalculations.”[3] Surely such a catastrophic blunder shows that Saddam is too reckless to be deterrable.
Consider the context. On February 1, 1979, a tumultuous backlash against Iran’s ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, swept into power the Ayatollah Khomeini. A “fanatic whose judgments are harsh, reasoning bizarre and conclusions surreal,” in the description of Time naming him Man of that Year, Khomeini sought to export his theocratic order across the Islamic world. He was particularly keen to aid Muslims whose rulers he deemed corrupt, like the Arab gulf monarchs, or secular, like Saddam. Khomeini was also a Shiite, in contrast to the secular Sunnis who ran Iraq, marginalized Iraq’s Shiite majority, and governed Iraq’s six Shiite holy shrines. Additionally, as Dilip Hiro notes in The Longest War (1991), that Khomeini’s disciples had overthrown the omnipotent shah and his 415,000 troops, gave them reason to “feel that their example would inspire the oppressed masses elsewhere to rise up.”[4]
Realizing all this, Saddam strove to ingratiate himself with the Iranians, to tie Arab nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism and to preserve the status quo. By late 1979, he had made various public gestures of piety and invited Tehran to negotiate their differences, via arbitration for instance. The revolutionaries, however, spurned the diplomatic notes—Khomeini remained “impervious”[5]—and “reject[]ed resort to all means of peaceful settlement.”[6] Instead, they goaded the Kurds and Shiites to depose Saddam, as Iranian operatives tried to assassinate senior Iraqi officials. By the time they nearly killed Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on April 1, 1980, border clashes, including artillery bombardments and occasional air raids, were spreading and intensifying, largely at Iran’s instigation.
Furthermore, whereas Saddam was a tin-pot dictator in a region that knew only dictatorships, Khomeini uniquely instilled growing and global fear and loathing. The United States, theretofore Iran’s most important arms supplier, was particularly inimical, since rabid anti-Americanism had fueled Khomeini’s coup, which he soon parlayed into taking hostage, eventually for 444 days, fifty-two Americans from the U.S. embassy. With his ear ever attuned to world opinion, Saddam recognized such isolation, as well as his neighbor’s growing unemployment and rising disaffection among its professional classes and ethnic minorities. Iraq also maintained significant tactical advantages: its Arab and largely Sunni Muslim neighbors were unlikely to support Iran’s Persian Shiites; Iran had minimal defenses in the Shatt al-Arab; a Western embargo had caused Iran spare part shortages and lack of equipment maintenance; and military officers, whom Tehran had purged en masse, were now divulging their former country’s vulnerabilities to Iraqi authorities. The gulf’s once mightiest military was crippled, its readiness temporarily undercut, and Khomeini’s hegemonic ambitions unequivocal.
Conversely, Iraq’s economy was awash with money and record oil revenues. Given Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League following its 1978 peace accord with Israel, its prestige and relations in the Arab world were also at their highest and most cordial. Thus, after securing the backing of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Saddam seized a long-awaited initiative and invaded his historical foe. He aimed principally not to topple Khomieni but in a quick strike to snatch back a large slice of contested frontier territory.
Observes Shahram Chubin, coauthor of Iran and Iraq at War (1988), although Baghdad, not Tehran, struck the first formal blow, “What made war likely—even inevitable—was not simply Iran’s provocations, but also its neglect of, and disdain for, the (traditional) military balance obtaining between the two countries.”[7] In the analysis of Efraim Karsh, editor of The Iran-Iraq War (1989), Iraq’s invasion constituted preemption, or “an offensive move motivated by a defensive strategy.”[8] Explanation, of course, is not justification, but it behooves us to emphasize that immoral does not necessarily mean irrational. To the contrary, as Dilip Hiro identifies, the “opportunities for Iraq were immense; the risks, if any, minimal.”[9] “Objectively,” judges the military historian John Keegan in The Iraq War (2004), “the resort to force was a logical option.”[10]
Indeed, military force thwarted Khomeini and kept Saddam in power. “War with Iran,” international relations scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt conclude, “was not a reckless adventure; it was an opportunistic response to a significant threat.”[11]
Moreover, while Saddam severely underestimated the Iranians, their zealotry, not his, perpetuated the fighting. As Shahram Chubin explains, for Tehran, the war “came to represent a test of the revolution,” epitomizing “all the themes of suffering and martyrdom which the leadership seemed determined to cultivate. In time,” the war and the revolution merged, so that the war, like the revolution, was to be “unsullied by practical considerations,” like the ceasefires over the years Iraq offered or accepted but Iran snubbed. Indeed, Iran’s “definition of the absolute stakes that the war represented (which brooked no compromise) helped fuel it long after it made any sense.”[12]
That the war raged so statically resulted also partially from the complicity of U.S. foreign policy, which strove to ensure that neither side emerged victorious. While the Reagan administration, in violation of acts of Congress, secretly armed the ayatollahs, Saddam generously benefited from the infamous U.S. “tilt” toward Iraq. This was, after all, the Cold War, and official U.S. policy was to coddle anti-communists.

[1] Christopher Hitchens, “Taking Sides,” Nation, October 14, 2002. <http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml%3Fi=20021014&s=hitchens>
President Bush preferred the adjective “unbalanced.” George W. Bush, Speech, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, June 1, 2002. <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html>
[2] Condoleezza Rice, as quoted in James Risen, David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker, “In Sketchy Data, Trying to Gauge Iraq Threat,” New York Times, July 20, 2003, p. A1. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/20/international/worldspecial/20WEAP.html?ex=1095134400&en=0e16fd2c53ba2bf1&ei=5070&hp>
[3] Michael Sterner, “The Persian Gulf: The Iran-Iraq War,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1984. <http://www.foreignaffairs.org/19840901faessay8401/michael-sterner/the-persian-gulf-the-iran-iraq-war.html>
[4] Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 27.
[5] Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War (Boulder: Westview, 1988), p. 29.
[6] Majid Khadduri, The Gulf War: The Origins and Implications of the Iraq-Iran Conflict (New York: Oxford University, 1988), p. 102.
[7] Shahram Chubin, “Iran and the War: From Stalemate To Ceasefire,” in Efraim Karsh (ed.), The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications (New York: St. Martin, 1989), p. 13.
[8] Efraim Karsh, “Introduction,” in Efraim Karsh (ed.), The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications (New York: St. Martin, 1989), p. 1.
[9] Dilip Hiro, The Longest War: The Iran-Iraq Military Conflict (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 38.
[10] John Keegan, The Iraq War (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. 61. Also see Efraim Karsh, “From Ideological Zeal To Geopolitical Realism: The Islamic Republic and the Gulf,” in Efraim Karsh (ed.), The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications (New York: St. Martin, 1989), p. 30.
[11] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “Can Saddam Be Contained? History Says Yes,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 12, 2002. <http://bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu/publication.cfm?ctype=paper&item_id=361>
[12] Shahram Chubin, “Iran and the War: From Stalemate To Ceasefire,” in Efraim Karsh (ed.), The Iran-Iraq War: Impact and Implications (New York: St. Martin, 1989), pp. 14-15.

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