The latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies is out with an article that Kevin Woods and I wrote, entitled “Saddam’s Perceptions and Misperceptions: The Case of Desert Storm.” “Victory” is not an objective concept. Both sides to a conflict can claim it and it is a pretty well-known fact that Saddam thought that he won Desert Storm. However, captured documents were able to give us a great deal of insight into the details of that perception. We go on to argue that the lessons Saddam learned in 1991 served him very badly in 2002-2003.
Saddam did not deny that his forces had suffered some defeats during Desert Storm. However, he took a holistic view of victory and his conclusion here was much more positive. He argued that America’s failure to remove him from power was a clear victory for Iraq: “After [America’s] experiences with us, which did not achieve its ends regardless of [our] withdrawal from Kuwait, they might wonder how much force they need to deploy this time to achieve what they failed to do the last time,” he told his commanders in 1992. Given the complete identity in Saddam’s mind between himself and the state, if he were still in power then he had clearly not lost. From this, it was a short step to ‘victory’, particularly for a man who saw one aspect of this war as personal: Saddam versus President George H. W. Bush. It appears that he made this step, noting before a group of Ba’ath party members in January 1993, “all the world is now saying, ‘man, why are we afraid of so much?’ Bush fell and Iraq lasted!”
There is also reason to believe that Saddam may have viewed the missile strikes against Israel as a major success, just as his missile force commander claimed in his 1998 book Forty-Three Missiles on the Zionist Enemy. In the mid-1990s, Saddam maintained privately that Israel had intended to expand into Arab lands, but that the missile strikes made them realize “that they cannot play their games with us.” In other words, he believed the strikes had deterred “Israeli aggression,” whatever the precise damage they might have inflicted. Indeed, while most of us thought the damage that Iraq inflicted on Israel was negligible, the Iraqi General Military Intelligence Directorate reported otherwise. In 2001, they claimed that Iraqi missiles hit:
- The Israeli Ministry of Defense
- The main communications station in Tel Aviv
- A power station
- A gasoline refinery and a technology institute, both in Haifa
- The Haifa naval base
- Haifa and Tel Aviv ports
- Ben Gurion Airport
- The Dimona nuclear reactor
Saddam also found a way to turn the dismal Iraqi performance in the air war into a victory. Or, perhaps it would be more correct to say that the Iraqi Air Force found a way to massage the data to tell him that. The Iraqi Air Force concluded:
- Of all combat and specialized planes, 75 per cent were “rescued,” though this did not include aircraft destroyed by Coalition ground forces or in the post-war civil uprisings. The study noted that by contrast, the Egyptians had lost 70 per cent of their air forces in the 1967 Arab–Israeli War to Israeli air forces that were much weaker than those available to the Coalition in 1991.
- The Air Force also “rescued” 92 per cent of all air weapons, including 98 per cent of the “expensive guided weapons.”
- The Air Force saved 76 per cent of the ‘very expensive electronic war equipment’.
- “The losses in [air force] personnel amounted to .096 percent and it is a small percentage.”
There is much more along these general lines, but suffice to say that Saddam simultaneously believed that he had met his objectives and the United States had not and that, furthermore, the US military had shown itself to be, if not a paper tiger, certainly less fearsome than it appeared.
Kevin and I then argued that these perceptions of the 1991 allowed Saddam to be much more sanguine about the threat he faced in 2002 and 2003. The documentary record, at least with regard to Saddam’s personal views, is rather more sparse toward the end of his rule. However, interestingly, he was quite clear and honest in his public pronouncements; they line up nicely with what appear to have been his private beliefs.
In 2002-2003 Saddam also labored under a security calculus that ordered his threats as follows: (1) internal threats (a coup d’etat, the Shia); (2) regional threats (particularly Iran and Israel); and (3) a US/UK conventional military force. He had been well served to date by organizing his security apparatus to contend with that hierarchy of threats, but he failed to realize in 2002-2003 that things had changed. He was the victim of his own lessons-learned.
I know that further work is going on with the captured Saddam records. There are two additional books beyond this and a couple of articles in the works. (I was involved with one of the books but none of the other projects.) Hopefully they will see the light of day, as I think they have the potential to make important contributions to the fields of military and diplomatic history and, furthermore, provide useful fodder to political scientists who deal with international relations. There is much to be learned about and from Saddam’s Iraq.