I went to a totally fascinating talk at MIT given by Kevin Woods from the Institute for Defense Analyses.  Woods interviewed  Saddam’s key henchmen, like Chemical Ali and Tariq Aziz, who were captured after the invasion.  He also has access to documents in Saddam’s palaces and intelligence offices.  Saddam also has the “Nixon disease” and taped everything.  Woods and his team are busy listening to all of the tapes.  There were many fascinating anecdotes and I list all of them I can remember:

1. Delusions At a meeting in the mid-ninetees with leading generals and strategic thinkers, one officer offered a subtle and nuanced theory of how an invading army might be forestalled and defeated by an attrition strategy using small, fast-moving decentralized groups (a little like the fedayeen that plagued US troops in Gulf War II).  The officer compared this to the strategy used by the Russians against Napoleon.  ( I assume extreme heat replaces extreme cold as the weather component of the strategy.)  Saddam dismissed the strategy.  His argument was that the fact that he, Saddam, was still standing and alive meant that he had defeated the U.S. coalition in Gulf War I.  A coalition of thirty odd nations had been brought to its knees by him.  Therefore, since he had a winning strategy in 1991, there is was no reason to replace it for the next invasion.  Notice that Saddam also wants to learn from his mistakes – that is why he had the after-event analysis done, just like the analysis done for the US by Woods.  But Saddam is subject to so much overconfidence that he cannot use any useful information that might come out of the analysis.

From the U.S. perspective, Saddam was deliberately left in power to prevent a collapse of the country and the growth in the influence of Iran.  Saddam’s perspective was obviously different.

Saddam became more and more delusional over time.  Initially, he used to defer to his generals but by the end he started writing memos on how to organize even small groups soldiers.  Woods said that such memos are written by sergeants in the US Army so Saddam had reached this level of micromanagement.

2. Information

2.1 Every Thursday, all the cars used by the key players in the army and government had to be taken in for “maintenance”.  It was common knowledge that the batteries were being replaced in the “secret” recorders in the cars.

2.2 Saddam’s key fear was a coup.  He was suspicious if officers talked too much in case they were plotting something.  Officers at the same lateral level did not talk, fearing repercussions.  Vertical communication was OK, especially as the top brass were insiders who were most likely to have Saddam’s support.

2.3 A key player, the head of research into WMDs, was asked: Is it possible that there was a WMD program and you did not know about it?  He said it was quite possible.  First, information was compartmentalized and no-one knew anything.  After Gulf War I, many documents, resources etc were destroyed so inspectors would not find them and hold Saddam in contempt of various UN resolutions.  But this process was haphazard and no-one really knew what was and was not destroyed and whether some WMDs had been hoarded secretly.

Why did he believe that Saddam had WMDs?  Because “little Bush”, as Saddam called him, had said there were WMDs.  And if he invaded and there were no WMDs, Little Bush would be very embarrassed so he would make sure there were WMDs before saying it!

3. Nepotism, Cowardice and Stupidity

Saddam lived in fear of a coup mounted by the Republican Guard. His solution was to create the Special Republican Guard, whose main remit was to protect him against coups particularly from the Republican Guard.    You would think that the head of this outfit would be a fearsome figure who would terrify any budding coup plotters.  Woods asked other leading figures if this was indeed the case and the answer was a resounding NO!  Why?  Saddam was well aware of the “who monitors the monitor problem” – what is the head of the Special Guard mounted a coup himself?  Saddam’s solution was not original: appoint a relative.  Make sure the appointee is a coward so he would not dream of mounting a coup.  Just in case he is tougher than you might think, choose someone stupid so he cannot mount a successful coup and is too stupid  to recognize someone else’s good ideas for a coup.

4. WMDs

Saddam did not have them in 2003 and hid that fact and in 1991 he had them but did not use them.  Why did he not use them in 1991?  He thought the U.S.has lots of chemical weapons and would not hesitate to use them.  Ditto Israel.  Why did he not reveal that he had no weapons in 2003? That would embolden aggressors and leave him naked in the face of an internal coup or an external threat like Iran.  This is the part of Woods’ work I was familiar with and is cited in my paper Strategic Ambiguity and Arms Proliferation with Tomas Sjostrom.

For an economist, some of Saddam’s strategies are reminiscent of themes in the economics of organizations…promotion of dumb managers, though for quite different reasons, the difficulties of coordinating across divisions…

Another theme is also familiar to game theorists though we have no clear answer: it is very hard for one player to understand the strategic intent of another.  It is very hard for one player to communicate his strategic intent to the other indirectly: presumably Big Bush thought it was obvious which side had defeated the other and could not imagine that Saddam would even consider Gulf War I a win for the Iraqi regime!  This leads the players to have two quite different interpretations of the same event and creates room for future errors.

How should one player credibly communicate his strategic intent and beliefs to another?  This is the fundamental question for the US from this excellent and interesting study by Woods and his team.