The Irrationality Of Saddam Hussein


To the bitter end of his rule (and perhaps his life), Saddam Hussein wanted to leave behind a legacy that would be on a par with Salahuddin Ayubi’s. Yet, as events of the past few weeks have shown, there are no similarities between the legacies of these two native sons of Tikrit. In the year 1187, Salahuddin defeated the Crusading armies under the command of Richard, King of England, and restored Muslim rule to Jerusalem. Eight centuries later, Saddam twice fought a war with western armies that he should not have fought to begin with; both times he fought them with the wrong strategy; and both times he lost them because of wrong tactics.

After his first defeat, Saddam’s irrationality was written up into textbooks on decision theory. For example, in “Negotiating Rationally,” Max Bazerman and Margaret Neale discussed his failure to pursue a negotiated settlement of the Kuwait invasion.[1] In an error of grand strategy, he entrapped himself by invading Kuwait, and then compounded it by refusing to take an offer that would have made him better off than he was prior to the invasion.

The Arab League offered him three major concessions were he to withdraw from Kuwait.

First, he would be allowed to maintain possession of Bubiyan Island in the Gulf that blocks most of Iraq’s short shoreline. Second, Iraq would be given Kuwait’s Ramaila oil fields, a site Saddam contended Kuwait had appropriated when it inched its oil wells on the Iraqi side of the unmarked border. Third, Iraq would be forgiven the better part of the $14 billion war debt to Kuwait that it had rung up during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam rejected all three conditions.

Ultimately, under UN auspices, the US told him to withdraw from Kuwait or face war. Saddam refused to withdraw, because he misjudged the resolve of the Americans. Massive disaster ensued in the war that came, and even more disaster followed when UN sanctions were imposed on Iraq.

Had he not lost his goodwill with Kuwait in August of 1990, the US would not have been able to use Kuwaiti soil for launching an invasion of Iraq last month. Once again Saddam erred in his grand strategy. When the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 1441 with a unanimous vote, he should have cooperated fully with the UN inspectors. When Hans Blix found that Iraq’s cooperation was less than expected, the US and Britain were able to say that Iraq was in material breech of 1441.

Saddam misread the global opposition to a US-led invasion by thinking that global public opinion had the muscle to stave off such an invasion. Finally, when President Bush gave him the option of going into exile, he declined and chose instead to fight a war that he knew perfectly well he would lose. An Iraqi victory was unlikely for several reasons. First, his forces would have to fight without any air cover. Second, much of his military equipment was obsolete. Third, he was low on spare parts because of 12 years of sanctions. Fourth, his troops were poorly fed. Fifth, morale was low, and the security agencies would have to shoot soldiers or threaten to shoot their families in order to force them to fight. Sixth, no supplies would be forthcoming from a third country. And, most dangerously, his intelligence apparatus had been compromised. The enemy would be aware of his personal movements while he knew none of theirs.

After he had made the wrong decision to fight a war, all was not lost, if he had chosen the right strategy. This would have involved fighting a protracted war with guerilla tactics. He and his commanders had had 12 years to study the lessons of the First Gulf War, and to study American military tactics in Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. The invading armies would most likely conduct round-the-clock aerial bombardment of his fixed army dispositions, so it was critical that he not concentrate them in one place. His land forces should have been dispersed throughout the land, and converted into bands of guerilla fighters that would harass and demoralize the invading armies, who would be unfamiliar with the language, the people, and the terrain.

Even if he was going to fight a conventional war, he could have used conventional tactics to slow the advancing armies so that diplomatic initiatives could be used to bring about a cease-fire. The Arab countries were in the process of gathering support to implement a UN-sponsored cease-fire when Baghdad fell without a fight. There was no re-run of the Battle of Stalingrad, as his forces simply melted away.

Saddam’s tactics were characterized by carelessness, lack of planning and bad execution. First, he failed to create obstructions along the border with Kuwait. The coalition forces simply cut an opening in the barbed wire fence that allowed M-1 Abrams tanks and smaller military vehicles to roll into Iraq. Second, he failed to set fire to the oil wells in southern Iraq. Thirdly, he failed to blow up key bridges along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Some of the bridges were primed with explosives, but his troops were not authorized by their superiors to detonate them. Fourth, he failed to mine the key approaches to Baghdad. Fifth, he did not blow up the big dam near Baghdad that would have converted much of the land between the rivers into a marshland and impeded the movement of heavy armor. Sixth, he did not destroy major airfield runways. His air force was grounded, so there was no point in making the runways available to the enemy. Seventh, he did not barricade the key motorways into Baghdad. Eight, he left more than a hundred thousand troops deployed far to the north of Baghdad. Maybe he feared a military coup, but then what was the point of going to war at a time when he could not even trust his own army to fight for him. Ninth, he talked about carrying out suicide attacks but failed to deliver except in two instances. Often times these failed because the attackers failed to load themselves with explosives or made a frontal attack that was easily detected. Tenth, his troops failed to carry out a large number of ambushes.

When the war began, Saddam’s forces were pulverized by round-the-clock bombardment. The invading forces then proceeded to slaughter his demoralized and poorly equipped and led troops, like they were “clubbing baby harp seals.”[2] If Saddam becomes a legend in Arab history, it will not be for his military genius or bravery but for his irrationality.


[1] Max H. Bazerman and Margaret A. Neale, “Negotiating Rationally,” The Free Press, 1992.

[2] Quoted in TIME, April 14, 2003, p. 63.

The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California.  He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars.  He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to  Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.” He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California.

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