Suppose for an instant that no weapons of mass destruction ever turn up in Iraq. Of course, they might well still appear, but let's imagine that Saddam Hussein did not have an advanced program for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as the missiles to carry them.
What would that imply?
President Bush's Democratic opponents say it renders the decision to go to war a "fraud" or "hyped." But they miss the point, for there was indeed massive and undisputed evidence to indicate that the Iraqi regime was building WMD.
Defectors and other Iraqi sources nearly all agreed on his WMD program. The actions of Saddam's government - fending off United Nations weapons inspectors tooth and nail, hiding evidence, forgoing opportunities to have the economic sanctions lifted - all confirmed its existence.
Nor is that all: Rich Lowry of National Review has shown that the entire Clinton administration leadership - as well as the United Nations and the French and German governments - believed in the existence of Iraqi WMD.
If no WMD exist, the real mystery is not how the Bush administration made the same mistake everyone else did; the mystery is why Saddam created the false impression that he had them. Why did he put himself into the bizarre position of simultaneously pretending to build WMD and pretending to hide his nonexistent weapons?
Presumably, his goal was to enhance his position. As The Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Dana Priest speculate, he "may have put in place a double-deception program aimed at convincing the world and his own people that he was more of a threat than he actually was."
At a certain point, however, Saddam's charade became self-defeating. Pretending to possess WMD meant continued economic sanctions that deprived him of billions of dollars a year, debilitated his economic base and hollowed out his conventional arsenal. Worse (from his point of view), the fakery spurred his removal from power, the execution of his sons, and his own likely capture or demise.
Why would a leader who reached the top of a slippery pole through supreme guile, persist in so counterproductive a policy? His biographers, Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, describe Saddam Hussein's characteristics as "obsessive caution, endless patience, tenacious perseverance, impressive manipulative skills and utter ruthlessness." How could he not have cut his losses, acknowledged the nonexistence of his WMD program, and thereby have saved his dictatorship?
This mistake can best be explained as the result of Saddam inhabiting the uniquely self-indulgent circumstance of the totalitarian autocrat, with its two key qualities:
- Hubris: The absolute ruler can do anything he wants, so he thinks himself unbounded in his power.
- Ignorance: The all-wise ruler brooks no contradiction, so his aides, fearing for their lives, tell him only what he wants to hear.
Both these incapacities worsen with time and the tyrant becomes increasingly removed from reality. His whims, eccentricities and fantasies dominate state policy. The result is a pattern of monumental mistakes.
Two historical examples make this point. Hitler was winning World War II until he insisted, against the muted advice of his generals, to begin a two-front war by attacking the Soviet Union. Stalin responded to the buildup of Nazi forces along his border by pretending the whole thing was not taking place.
Hitler's mistake is seen as one of the turning points of World War II and a key reason for Germany's defeat. Stalin's error caused the deaths of many millions of his subjects. The Nazi-Soviet war was the largest, most brutal, and most deadly in human history, and it resulted primarily from the hubris and ignorance of two dictators.
Saddam Hussein already has a comparable record of mistakes (recall his disastrous invasions of Iran and Kuwait), so clinging to a nonexistent WMD program even as it led to his own perdition should come as no surprise. We on the outside can only imagine the ambitions and distortions that prompted his faulty decisions.
The propensity of totalitarian demigods to self-inflicted wounds has direct implications for dealing with North Korea, Libya, and other rogue states. Their rulers' vanity and isolation can lead toward a catastrophe that makes no sense to the outside world, but which has a vast capacity to do harm.