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Staying Alive - Saddam's Samson Option
by Tom Holsinger's
June 20, 2002
Fear is the dominant element in Saddam Hussein's life. He rules by fear, he lives in fear, fear has protected him against America to date, and fear protects him now.
Saddam’s primal fear is that he already knows his assassin. Assassination by an insider has been a well justified fear of Oriental despots for millennia. Saddam's possible defensive strategies against looming American invasion should be analyzed in light of his primal fear.
That produced a style of rule which dramatically reduced his ability to defend against invasion. Saddam's cruelty has over the years antagonized so many Iraqis that his most limited, valued resource is competent people who can be trusted out of his sight. Everyone else, even Saddam's relatives, must be controlled by fear - fear of torture, of execution, of having one's family murdered.
Few Americans have thought through the implications of this, which is curious in the case of generals familiar with Desert Storm. Iraq's armed forces were then being purged of competent officers who Saddam saw as a threat once he no longer needed them against Iran. Continual purges have since ruined what little effectiveness Iraq's armed forces had. That, coupled with physical decay of Iraqi equipment and improvements in America's ground forces, has made Iraq wholly vulnerable to American conquest.
But Saddam hasn't relied on his military for defense. He has instead relied on his most trusted weapon – fear. The fear which has protected him from America to date has been the U.S. government's fear of a power vacuum after his regime is destroyed.
Saddam has other fearful weapons to defend against American invasion – weapons of mass destruction (WMD – nuclear, biological & chemical - the latter are irrelevant at this strategic level). They have limitations, though. The biggest is timing – the shaky nature of his fear-driven regime makes Iraqi WMD use, or threats of use, problematic after an American invasion starts.
Saddam's security forces would then have major incentives to shoot him, to produce a better outcome for themselves. Fear of Saddam would decrease, fear of us grow, and the chances of Saddam's assassination increase, at exponential rates after the invasion starts. The Iraqis learned to think of us as supermen during Desert Storm, with the Taliban's recent demise reminding them. There is no reasonable expectation of Iraqi survival once a U.S. invasion begins, even if Iraq then uses WMD.
Saddam's best chance of survival is therefore deterrence of invasion. He might also pre-emptively use his WMD, though that is less likely.
Saddam might have designed/built-in-Iraq nuclear weapons, and probably has some still-working xSoviet ones (if anyone outside the xUSSR has those, it's him). He almost certainly has some fizzly xSoviet nukes suitable as radiological weapons. But he dare not use any to pre-empt an American invasion because the U.S. would then blast Iraq and him to oblivion with its vastly superior arsenal. Mere threats to nuke U.S. forces create a significant risk of his own people killing him first – some threats are suicidal in more ways than one.
Biological weapons have similar limitations, and greater ones for smallpox. While a worldwide smallpox epidemic would certainly disrupt prospective U.S. attack, other nuclear-armed countries (Russia, China, etc.) would nuke Iraq even if the U.S. didn't. They know who'd be responsible.
Anthrax presents somewhat different issues. Saddam Hussein has weaponized anthrax. Even if you believe that an American mad scientist was responsible for last year's anthrax mailings, Iraq with all its industrial resources and xSoviet consultants can do what one American could purportedly do. And if a mad scientist didn't do it, the attacks were done by Al Qaeda using a vial of Iraqi anthrax delivered to WTC attacker Mohamed Atta in Czechoslovakia.
A few dozen pounds of Daschle-grade anthrax, properly delivered, could kill millions of Americans. Distribution is a problem, though, as anthrax isn't contagious. Iraq definitely has enough bullets to shoot every American in the head, but those can't be effectively delivered to our heads. The delivery issue also applies to Iraqi nukes being smuggled into the U.S.First, smuggled WMD aren't useable as instruments of state policy, for security reasons. Deterrent use by a state requires that the WMD be covertly stored in or near the targets for extended periods, which maximizes the risk of discovery. Terrorists would use them almost immediately after delivery.
Second, discovery of smuggled nukes/anthrax in a nuclear-armed power's homeland invites immediate nuclear attack against an identified state perpetrator. Saddam risks that if he smuggles those into the US in anticipation of imminent invasion, only to have prospective US invasion forces sit in place without attacking for a few months, as in Desert Shield. This tactic, if employed again, would also maximize the risk of his assassination, both because those of his scarce competent, trustworthy underlings hiding out in or near the U.S. with WMD would not be protecting Saddam's precious self, and because it would focus their less loyal brethren's minds on the prospect of inexorable doom if they keep Saddam alive versus the joys of American gratitude if they don't. We'd be very generous.
A more credible Iraqi threat would be to give nukes, smallpox and weaponized anthrax to Al Qaeda in the event of US invasion - the "Samson Option". Delivery to Al Qaeda would still be a problem, especially for nukes (we might outbid them once the invasion starts, etc.), but feasibility is less important when the objective is deterrence as opposed to actually doing it. It is likely that much American hesitancy in attacking Iraq is due to implied threat of the Samson Option. Saddam's optimum survival strategy against prospective American invasion seems to be deterrence through fear of Al Qaeda use of Iraqi WMD. Those who would be so deterred should consider why we want to conquer Iraq.