The Washington Times

The head of Iraq’s nuclear research program has spoken. Mahdi Obeidi, writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times Sunday, offers an insider account of what was going on in Iraq in the years before the U.S.-led invasion. In the absence of any compelling reason to doubt his credibility, what he says seems to offer the best answer so far to a truly vexing question: What was Saddam Hussein thinking?

For decades, Saddam ruled Iraq brutally but, as it were, successfully. Even under the weight of sanctions, the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program offered him sufficient capital to continue to build his palaces, to put down any domestic challenge to his power and to accommodate himself, his family and the favored few of his regime in high style, notwithstanding the misery of ordinary Iraqis. Today, his sons are dead, and he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. What happened?

Well, the United States toppled him, the Bush administration having made its case chiefly on his supposed possession of stocks of chemical and biological weapons and his program to acquire nuclear weapons. Yet the evidence now suggests that he did not have such stocks of chemical and biological weapons and that his nuclear program was moribund. Put aside the question of the implications here for the administration’s course of action. What about Saddam?

When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1441 offering him a “final opportunity” to disarm and to show that he had done so, why didn’t he avail himself of it? He had no such stockpiles, after all, nor was he at all close to acquiring a nuclear bomb, as Mr. Obeidi declares authoritatively. Why not make a showing to that effect to the U.N.? Had he done so and done it convincingly, he would likely be in power today – with the sanctions against his regime removed or drastically reduced. Instead, he chose half-measures of formal compliance with 1441 of the sort that his main antagonist, the United States, would certainly view with grave suspicion and that the chief United Nations weapons inspector himself would be unable to declare full cooperation and compliance.

The nuclear program had been active prior to 1991 but fell apart under the sanctions regime, Mr. Obeidi says. He believes that Saddam “didn’t want to risk losing” the oil-for-food “revenue stream by trying to restart a secret weapons program.” This sounds like perfectly rational calculation on Saddam’s part. But what happened at the end? Simple miscalculation?

No, something far more worrisome: “the West never understood the delusional nature of Saddam Hussein’s mind. By 2002, when the United States and Britain were threatening war, he had lost touch with the reality of his diminished military might. By that time I had been promoted to director of projects for the country’s entire military-industrial complex, and I witnessed firsthand the fantasy world in which he was living … By 2003, as the American invasion loomed, the tyrant was alternately working on his next trashy novel and giving lunatic orders like burning oil around Baghdad to ‘hide’ the city from bombing attacks.”

As for his nuclear aspirations, he “kept alive the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, staffed by junior scientists involved in research completely unrelated to nuclear weapons, just so he could maintain the illusion in his mind that he had a nuclear program. Sort of like the emperor with no clothes, he fooled himself into believing he was armed and dangerous. But unlike that fairy-tale ruler, Saddam Hussein fooled the rest of the world as well.”

So, on the testimony of Mr. Obeidi, Saddam acted like he had weapons and programs he was trying to hide because he himself wanted to believe he had such programs – just as he wanted to believe smoke could hide Baghdad. Those who argue that Saddam was a sufficiently rational actor to be deterrable owe us an account here.

I myself have argued here and elsewhere that the grounds for judging Saddam deterrable were dubious, because an actor might calculate based on different premises from those assumed to define rationality for purposes of deterrence theory. But it never occurred to me that we were facing a “delusional” Saddam Hussein – that “Macbeth” might be the model, Saddam’s own version of the Weird Sisters having whispered to him about his power and destiny, which he believed to the end.

As for the future, Mr. Obeidi notes, “our nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein’s fingers … Iraqi scientists had the knowledge and the designs needed to jumpstart the program if necessary. And there is no question that we could have done so very quickly … Had Saddam Hussein ordered it and the world looked the other way, we might have shaved months if not years off our previous efforts.”

A recurring nightmare for deterrence theory is that a madman somehow gets hold of a nuclear weapon. A rational Saddam Hussein would have been dangerous enough. A delusional Saddam? I’m glad we got rid of him while he was weak.