I learned of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on the morning of Aug. 2. I was aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2, having just come through the bottom half of Hurricane Bertha, and about to disembark into the wilds of New York City. I had five days earlier pronounced that such a conflict would not happen. Well, That put me right up with every intelligence service in the world--wrong.
We need to understand a few things. Saddam Hussein, whatever he may be, is not a lunatic. He is, rather, a cold political operator with a ruthless streak sufficiently wide that the shedding of innocent human blood carries no more import than crushing a spider against the bathroom wall. People like this used to be fairly common in the world. A hundred or so years ago there were Americans who felt that way. They were not considered mad. The successful ones are often remembered as “great men” whom history goes on to justify.
Saddam Hussein wants to lead a superpower. This is not a foolish ambition. He controlled a noteworthy fraction of the world’s oil before entering Kuwait. His attack rapidly doubled his net worth at minimal cost. A further extension of his rule into Saudi Arabia (plus the United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Qatar, etc.) would have redoubled his control of the world’s energy reserves and given him a large amount of territory, along with potential control over two valuable shipping lanes. That is not madness. That is strategic ambition.
But it would not stop there. Sooner or later, the Soviet Union will relieve itself of its Muslim republics. They would be at least as likely to join up with Iraq as with Iran--perhaps more so, given the secularization of their societies and the economic promise of all that oil money. Hussein is probably two to four years away from the ability to fabricate nuclear weapons (but for a few Israeli F-16 pilots he would have them already.) He has already demonstrated ballistic-launch capability. He can manufacture his own chemical munitions. With these objectives reached, Iraq would be a superpower.
The difference between megalomania and cold calculation is simply whether or not one has the ability to make his vision a reality. Hussein does--more properly, did--have that ability. Calling him typically Arab in his thinking is racist rubbish. He is acting along lines that would have been familiar to Octavian Augustus or Niccolo Machiavelli, but he miscalculated.
He should have kept going. He appeared to choke August 4-6, poised at the Saudi border. Maybe he didn’t plan his expansion as a two-phase operation. Maybe he lacked the logistics train to press on. He must have considered going on, since to do so would make such logical strategic sense. Perhaps he was surprised by the vehemence and unity of international reaction. Even smart operators have their limitations.
Hussein is the product of a brutal, Darwinian process in which he has survived by being smarter, tougher, and more ruthless than his rivals. The downside of this is that smart, tough, ruthless people sooner or later stop listening to advice. Remember Caesar, thou art merely a man. But overconfidence is not the same thing as madness.
What if he had pressed his attack into Saudi Arabia on the night of August 4? He would have won. The Saudi air force is reportedly excellent, but it’s small, as is the Saudi army. Both would have fought, but they would have lost, because the only help we might have offered was air power, and air power alone cannot stop a field army.
At that point, Hussein would have told the West: “Sure, you can take me out, but if you do, I can destroy all these oil fields, and initiate a multi-year global depression--or, maybe we can reach a modus vivendi. " Might we have replied that Saudi Arabia was not ours to lose? There is historical precedent.
Fortunately, for reasons yet unknown, Hussein did choke.
So, now what?
The allied land forces in place are not yet sufficient to be certain of stopping a determined attack by heavy mechanized forces. The first troops we have moved in are “light” (non-mechanized) troops with limited anti-tank capabilities. That they do not have the ability to stop tanks in open country is a disgrace, but it’s too late to worry about that. We lack the fast sea-lift capability to move more than two and a half heavy (mechanized) divisions simultaneously. We will get troops over there, but it will take several weeks to deploy a force sufficiently large to put military muscle behind the bluster we’ve been displaying. Sea power is the one thing that we have and can use to hurt Iraq. It is not enough, but it’s something.
On the plus side of the ledger, it’s hard to see how President Bush could have rallied international support with any greater effect than he has displayed. More important still, the Soviet Union and the United States, if not quite allies, are not antagonists in this first post-postwar strategic confrontation. Finally, no other nation could even attempt what America is now doing. We are projecting more power, at greater distance, and with greater speed than has ever been done before. If we are able to resolve this conflict peace will be the dividend of judicious military investment.
What will happen? Anyone who makes pontifical predictions at this point is an ass. There are many possibilities for Hussein:
1. He can sit tight and try to wait it out. But his country is not self-sufficient in food, and though he appears to be firmly in place politically, he must recall Nicolae Ceausescu. Is Hussein the sort to be cowed into inaction? He’s killed too many people for us to assume that.
2. He can try to defeat the trade embargo, but so long as American sea power remains unchallenged (which seems likely), we can make it stick.
3. He can double his bets and attack into Saudi Arabia before we have enough combat power in place to stop him. How good is the Iraqi Army? It did not distinguish itself against Iran, remember, but it does have what on paper looks like a lot of raw power. If he wants to do this, it will have to be done within the next 14 days or less. The U.S. Army planned for years to take on and defeat the Soviet army while on the wrong side of 3-1 odds. When we get the odds to 2-1, we will start planning offensive operations. Under a sky dominated by friendly aircraft, a mobile American tank force is a fearsome instrument of war. For Hussein to wait for that force to grow large is not militarily sound.
4. He is already using his other bargaining chips, American and other foreign nationals under his control. We must remember that this is a man who has used chemical munitions against his own civilians. Already an exceedingly ruthless man, what might he do if he becomes desperate?
5. He can try to back out gracefully. But to do that is personally dangerous. Hussein is alive only because his domestic enemies have lacked the luck and will to assassinate him. Were he to concede Kuwait back to its rightful rulers, the personal aura of invincibility would evaporate. Make no mistake, Hussein’s life is on the line, but the possibility of his own demise will not make his actions more moderate or predictable.