Dictators don’t usually leave behind good records of their time in office. Indeed, the more terrible the leader, the less likely a revealing paper trail. Over the decade since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the hunt for good material on Stalin has little to show for itself. The Third Reich left behind tons of paper, in good German bureaucratic style, but with the exception of notes taken at Hitler’s informal meetings with his advisers, his deliberations remain offstage. There is even less indictable stuff in Mao’s voice.
Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, left some very good records. Two weeks ago, in response to pressures from Congress and neoconservatives, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence permitted the release of some captured Iraqi materials. Among the many documents were recordings that Saddam had made of high-level meetings. The army’s Foreign Military Studies Office has transcribed and translated about a dozen of them.
As others have noted, the tapes have disappointed those still looking for evidence of a secret Iraqi WMD cache. Instead they show an angry, caged lion who hates the bars around him. “They only come to Iraq,” Saddam complains in a conversation from the mid-1990s. “Israel has WMD. Iran has WMD. Many other countries have many missiles, what’s their position on this?” Saddam and his inner circle believed that the United States and Great Britain were hoping to use the sanctions to provoke his downfall. “They wanted the economic situation in Iraq to reach a maximum crisis,” Saddam’s deputy Tariq Aziz sums up after the regime survives yet another domestic crisis in 1996, “so as to have an impact on the relationship of the people with the leadership.”
None of this is news. What is striking, however, is that the Iraqi weakness that is so palpable on these tapes was imperceptible to the American administrations, both Democrat and Republican, that dealt with Saddam after the Gulf War. Saddam never stopped growling, even after the destruction of his nuclear, chemical, and biological programs. And Washington fell for it. The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations could not tell the difference between the Saddam who invaded Kuwait out of arrogance and the Saddam who pretended to be powerful so he could fend off his enemies. Why didn’t we see that on the international stage he was the humbug behind the screen playing Wizard of Oz?
We should have learned from experience that some adversaries toy with us out of weakness, not strength. In the 1950s, the Soviets knew they lagged far behind the United States in military and economic power. Fearful that Washington would exploit any perceived weakness, the Kremlin—especially its leader, Nikita Khrushchev—systematically lied to exaggerate Soviet military power. At an air show in 1955, the Soviet air force flew a handful of long-range bombers in several circles over Western defense attaches to create the image of a huge force. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Moscow threatened to launch nuclear missiles at Paris and London if they did not stop their invasion of Egypt. The Soviets did not have any deployed intermediate-range missiles at the time. In 1958 and ‘59 Khrushchev asserted that the Soviet Union was producing intercontinental ballistic missiles “like sausages.” In fact, the first two such Soviet missiles weren’t in place until early 1960. In the end, this strategy backfired for Khrushchev. His scare tactics only spurred the United States to build more bombers and missiles.
Saddam’s tapes show the same self-defeating logic at work in Baghdad. By the mid-1990s, Saddam hadn’t any WMD capabilities to speak of; still, Iraq continued to harass and lie to U.N. weapons inspectors. Saddam wanted international sanctions to end and may have hoped to jump-start his WMD programs once they had, but in the meantime he just didn’t want the world to know how weak he was. Moreover the regime was trapped by the lies that it had already told. At the time of the Gulf War, Saddam had a biological-weapons program. By the mid-1990s, he didn’t. But Saddam continued to deny categorically that the program had ever existed, raising international hackles. In a conversation from 1995, Saddam’s officials discussed in his presence whether to admit to the biological program’s past existence. In arguing that the blanket denials should continue, one of Saddam’s advisers said, “The length of time is what caused the problem.” The truth could have been told in 1991 in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War. But to admit it four years later would have merely deepened the world’s suspicions about Iraq’s intentions and further delayed the lifting of sanctions.
Saddam’s regime grudgingly admitted to the biological programlaterin 1995, after U.N. inspectors acquired incontrovertible evidence that it had once existed. But for the next eight years, Baghdad never stopped obfuscating. Like the Soviet Union, Iraq decided that it was more secure as a black box, with the United States left to guess at its military strength. In 1955, Khrushchev opposed Dwight Eisenhower’s Open Skies proposal—which would have allowed U.S. and Soviet spy planes to crisscross each other’s territory to eliminate the threat of surprise attack—because he feared that if Americans knew how weak the Soviet Union was, the Pentagon would launch a first strike. Forty years later, an Iraqi official outlined the same strategy to Saddam, “We didn’t ban [the inspectors] because we have something; we banned them because of our concern about our security and our sovereignty.”
During the Cold War, it took photographs from the first generation of spy satellites, which showed only a few Soviet missile installations, to end American fears that the Soviets were far ahead in strategic nuclear power. Even then, the tendency to exaggerate Soviet power continued. And many of the policymakers and analysts who misread Saddam in the years leading up to war in 2003 were the same ones who credulously believed that Moscow had overtaken the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Is this a generational flaw that will disappear when the Cheney-Rumsfeld cohort passes from the scene? Probably not. Dictatorships are hard to penetrate. When they threaten, it is difficult for American intelligence to prove definitively that they can’t do anything too nasty.
What foreign dictators don’t seem to understand is that eventually, the strategies they employ to deter us often backfire. We don’t back down when we are scared. We build up our military, and sometimes we invade. Last weekend, Iran took a page out of the old, failed playbook in declaring that it had tested a sophisticated underwater missile. Tehran might do well to listen to Saddam’s tapes for a primer on the pitfalls of bluffing.