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Saddam’s Iraq: A Strangely Conceived Strategy

Three APCs driving towards us on a road with Iraq's Victory Arch in the background

Insight into the strategic calculus of an opponent is a rare commodity. Intention is often inferred indirectly from an adversary’s actions, giving rise to misunderstanding, miscalculation and misfortune. Following World War II, Sir Basil Liddell Hart interviewed German Generals facing trial at Nuremburg, recorded in The Other Side of the Hill, which offered insight into the calculus informing decisions to execute particular actions at given times. This account critically forced review of British views of success, deception efforts and occasionally, hubris. The opportunity to inadvertently emulate Sir Basil’s example presented following the 2003 Iraq War.

After Saddam Hussein’s fall, Australia joined the United States and United Kingdom in a trilateral activity known as the Iraq Survey Group (ISG). Its mission was to locate Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), these being the ostensible cause of the war. As it rapidly became clear Iraqi WMD did not exist, the ISG mission evolved into accounting for WMD known to have existed previously and explaining what Saddam wanted to achieve in confronting the West over non-existent WMD.

The ISG answered both questions in the Duelfer Report. This blog’s author was an ISG member and covered Australian outcomes of the mission in a recent book titled, Meeting Saddam’s Men.

The interviewing of high-profile detainees illuminated that Saddam pursued two contradictory strategic objectives. The first involved convincing the UN that Iraq had disposed of its WMD in order to have UN sanctions lifted. These were crippling Iraq. Consequently, Saddam gave UN weapons inspectors largely unimpeded access.

But Saddam had a second objective. He wanted regional adversaries, notably Iran, to suspect he retained hidden capabilities. He saw Iran as an existential threat and believed WMD was decisive in holding off Iran in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. He succeeded in creating such suspicion, but not just in Tehran.  It was through the gap between these two mutually-contradictory objectives that President Bush drove an invasion.

Broader lessons subsequently emerged from ISG’s analysis of Saddam’s strategy. These included understanding the strategic perceptions of opaque dictatorial adversaries. From interviews with four of Saddam’s lieutenants - Vice-President Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, ‘Chemical Ali’ the regime enforcer and Finance Minister Hikmat Mizban - all described a culture of fear. At an earlier stage of the regime at least one Minister who gave frank and fearless advice was physically dismembered. Tariq said fear extended to the army leadership who told Saddam what he wanted to hear — that the army could hold off Western intervention.

Saddam’s world-view was thus distorted. He never travelled abroad and received few senior visitors. Strategic assessment was confined to the top. The foreign ministry was not expected to give advice, but rather deliver messages that Saddam often dictated personally.

Saddam’s strategic judgment was dated. He missed the significance of the end of the Cold War and the transformational impact on US temperament of 9/11. He assumed Washington saw Iran as its core regional threat because of the Carter Administration’s 1970s experience with the Tehran Embassy hostage crisis.

Assuming Washington saw the regime as a bulwark against Iran, Saddam’s men, notably Tariq Aziz and Ramadan, found it inconceivable that Washington imagined that their regime’s overthrow would lead to a Western-friendly Shia democracy that would still restrain Iran.

It is in this context that Saddam pursued a policy that placed his nation on a collision course with the United States (and Australia, as a troop-contributing nation). Understanding how such policy choices are made is inherently complex, a dilemma illustrated by Graham Allison’s classic work on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision

Prior to hostilities, the United States had relied upon economic sanctions as its primary coercive tool against Iraq. Iraq was able to adapt to this constraint and gained some sanctions relief in 1995 when it was allowed to exchange oil for food and medical imports under the Oil for Food (OFF) scheme. Iraq quickly found ways to corrupt OFF to the tune of $3 billion, divided between bribes to influential foreigners and gaining scarce foreign currency kickbacks from food suppliers.

The scale of corruption of sanctions jeopardized a key US strategic tool. The US has exploited post-Cold War globalisation — which involves most global trade being exposed to US financial instruments such as banks and the SWIFT system — to build a capacity to sanction aggressors. Washington had a reason for war with Iraq to ensure corruption of the sanctions power did not become an international norm.

The Australian wheat supplier, AWB, was the largest kickback offender, demonstrating Australia’s need for a strong financial intelligence capability. AWB’s corrupt payments undermined a national objective, that of disarming Iraq, were detected by AUSTRAC through that agency’s transactions analysis. AUSTRAC’s legislation at that time, however, meant that it couldn’t tell anyone, certainly not DFAT or DIO. The resultant lesson is that more coherent financial intelligence capabilities are needed to affect a whole-of-government approach to policy.

The backdrop to these strategic misunderstandings was that the invasion of Iraq spawned yet another miscalculation in the form of an insurgency. The political objectives of the invasion, overthrowing Saddam’s dictatorship and introducing democracy were advanced with no anthropological assessment of the consequences. The revolutionary impact of potential land reform, for example, was unassessed before the invasion, despite its being a key variable to a century of Iraqi politics.

The Iraq war is replete with unintended consequences, politicised by the decision to go to war. What is most important, as interviews with Iraq’s deputies reveal, is the need for close attention to understanding how and why Iraq was left without recourse.


This blog post draws upon the published account of Australian participation in the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) in Baghdad 2003-2005, and discussed as part of the Australian Army Research Centre Seminar Series


The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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