You Can’t Assume a Nut Will Act Rationally

Just to be clear about things, I am writing this small contribution to Slate’s debate while frantically trying to finish a book on Soviet concentration camps in general—and a chapter on World War II in particular. That perspective caused me to jump when I read Steve Chapman’s contribution. Steve points out that Saddam Hussein didn’t make use of his biological and chemical weapons during the Gulf War, because “President Bush had let him know beforehand that if he did, we would turn Baghdad into a smoking pile of nuclear rubble.” He went on to argue that Saddam’s nukes/chemical/biological weapons have been (or will be) acquired largely for the purposes of deterrence, and that there is no reason to believe he would actually use them against us, if he knew he and his countrymen would be blown to smithereens in response.

To assume that is to assume that Saddam operates according to the same rational criteria that you and I operate by—or that the United States and the USSR operated by (more or less) during the Cold War and that India and Pakistan operate by today. It is to assume, in other words, that Saddam would never make use of his weapons of mass destruction, simply because he would be too frightened of the possible consequences for his country. This is a big assumption, given that not every dictator in history has always had his country’s best interests at heart. As you might have guessed, Hitler, the man in the forefront of my brain, comes to mind here: Faced with defeat in 1945, he refused to let his countrymen stop fighting. He preferred, instead, to see them die in suicidal last stands, actively willing the devastation of his country. As his capital city was turned into a wasteland—the ground zero of its day—he hailed the arrival of Armageddon and committed suicide, leaving the rest of Germany to its fate.

Although I dislike the modern tendency to compare every mad dictator to Hitler, in this narrow sense, the comparison to Saddam might be apt. Are you sure Saddam would not risk the destruction of his country, if he thought, for some reason, that he or his regime was in danger? Do you want to wait and find out? In my view, Saddam’s personality—which I would really like to see more carefully and more frequently dissected by people who know him and his regime—ought to be as much a part of the debate about whether to intervene as his putative nuclear arsenal. We really don’t know whether deterrence will work in the case of Iraq. Megalomaniacal tyrants do not always behave in the way rational people do, and to assume otherwise is folly.

Moving away from substance, back to public relations: If I have any real qualms about the potential war in Iraq, they are not so much about the central issue—should we fight or should we not (I think, with caveats, that we should be prepared to do so)—but about the peculiar way in which the administration has until now gone about making its case for the war. There have, it is true, been a few statements from Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice made an appearance on the BBC. But most of the time, both the president and his Cabinet have acted as if they don’t really need to make the case for engaging in some kind of action in Iraq—and almost as if they expect the media, and Tony Blair, to make the case for them.

Within the United States, this is indeed, as Michael Kinsley wrote earlier, deeply undemocratic. Outside the United States, this is simply bad diplomacy, and I am mystified by it. If they don’t really have a case for intervention, then I don’t know what all the fuss is about. If they do have a case and aren’t making it because they think it is self-evident, then they shouldn’t be surprised when it turns out they have no allies. If they aren’t making it because they don’t want any allies, then that’s an even bigger error of judgment. The United States needs allies of all kinds—European, Arab, whatever. Maybe they can’t help us fight, but they can help with other things: espionage, finances, and explaining the rationale for the war to the rest of the world.

Obviously, this latter task looks set to be extremely difficult. If the administration isn’t committed to explaining the rationale for the war, then they can hardly expect anyone else to be either. In fact, quite a lot of the general debate about the war, in the United States and abroad, would be taking place in different tones of voice if President Bush himself were more than sporadically involved in it. His U.N. speech was a good beginning, but its effects were almost nullified by his off-the-cuff remark about Saddam, “the guy who tried to kill my father.” Perhaps Bush (like Clinton in his first years in office) hasn’t yet realized that every word he says—even if meant to be ironic, sarcastic, or light-hearted—is immediately repeated around the world in 100 languages and taken deadly seriously. By the same token, he may not yet understand the power of his presence on television in 100 languages: If he wanted to bring the world around to his argument, he probably could do it. It’s not as if no one is listening.

—Anne Applebaum is a journalist based in London and Warsaw.