Putin: Lessons from Saddam | Charles Duelfer

Putin: Lessons from Saddam

Is Lavrov the New Baghdad Bob? Saddam’s

Saddam’s last information minister and a former foreign minister was Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf–better known in Western Press as “Baghdad Bob”. He was ridiculed for his blatant incorrect statements about the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is making statements that have a similar truth quotient. Why? Maybe survival.

One of the good things that came out of the most Iraq war was the detailed recording of the decision processes of the Saddam regime.  We obtained incredible detail on how Saddam made decisions and why.  There are striking similarities between Putin’s regime and Saddam’s. 

This was plainly visible in Putin’s televised Security Council meeting with his advisors.  The image of Putin receiving a series of obsequious bobble heads was a mirror image of Saddam surrounded by his lieutenants at his Revolutionary Command Council.  They were there to reinforce the position of the leader and share the blame and guilt.   

Of course, the big difference is Saddam didn’t have WMD but Putin does.  So this is far worse, but we’ll come back to that.  

Saddam, in his post war debriefings spoke to many of the same problems that we now see in Putin’s regime.  Saddam correctly observed that his access to honest information and judgments was skewed by the fears of the people around him.  They did not want to present bad news.  He belatedly understood the system did not serve him.  Of course, he didn’t quite blame himself for the system.  

Likewise, the coterie around Putin constitutes the same problem. They too, are snared by Putin’s mixture of rewards and fears, and behave accordingly.  No one stood up and said, “Hey boss, this sounds a little wobbly to me…uhhh.”    Saddam’s leadership deliberations prior to invading Kuwait suffered from the distortions of a leader accustomed to few if any constraints and servants with no rights other than those given by the dictator.  Hence, discussions over invading Kuwait had a decidedly muted aura with respect to highlighting the downsides.  The script of Putin’s regarding Ukraine was, if anything, even more limited.   Those who surrounded Saddam accrued wealth and power, but were subject to the fear of sudden demise.  The only difference between Saddam’s inner circle and Putin’s was the inclusion of his family. Otherwise, Saddam’s bubble and Putin’s share similar characteristics in the effect on the leader.

Both leaders have existed in the absence of outside constraints.  No one said, “You can’t do that.”   Saddam’s worldview (as he acknowledged in debriefings) was incorrect and he partially acknowledged this was due to people around him fearing to accurately inform him.   Those around him were handcuffed to Saddam’s visions and illusions.  Saddam thought Iraq deserved be the dominant Arab country in the region.  He was the successor to Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and Saladin.  It was his destiny to defeat the Persians.  His aides did not constrain their “visionary” leader although some saw faults and dangers on the horizon.  The same seems true regarding Czar Vladimir Putin.

As for the aides, their fate is difficult to disconnect from the leader. A limited few escaped Saddam’s fate at the end. Those who left early did better. Putin’s inner circle confronts a similar dilemma.  They may see a looming disaster, but may not be able to affect it or escape it. They are chained to the decisions of Putin.  They may wishfully think Putin’s vision for a greater Russia will succeed. Those with younger children who have been schooled in the West and who anticipate a future beyond Putin’s life span or reign must harbor some gnawing doubts.

At the same time their options to affect their futures will shrink.  They are the frogs in the slowly heating pan of water.  It is a classic problem, realized too late by too many.   The fate of dictators soldiers is not good.

Years ago, a friend told me of advice shared between Saddam’s daughter and Qaddafi’s son during the uprising in Libya.  Reportedly she said, you have to get out now, while you can. Things will only get worse and end badly.  This was good advice.  The same may apply to those around Putin—but it may be too late.  Putin’s coterie has diminishing options to do things to improve their own and/or their family’s future.  

So what?   Why should we care?  The reason we must care comes back to the one essential difference between Saddam and Putin—nuclear weapons.  Putin knows the calculus of nuclear war.  The cold war period of his youth seems to be the world he wants to rebuild.    The “balance of terror” of nuclear weapons poses the insoluble dilemma that allows a fundamentally weaker nation to stand up to a larger more successful nation.  Putin can demonstrate that he is willing to risk far more than the US and its allies to achieve his objectives.  The old Cold War question resurfaces, “Will you trade New York for Paris?”  If Putin assumes the role of irrational actor plays chicken wearing a blindfold, we have an existential problem.  

Many have forgotten the complexity and delicacy of nuclear retaliatory response forces.   It is a global system of satellites, radars, warning systems communications, airborne command systems, submarines, missiles, etc. The safety and security systems for nuclear weapons are rightfully extraordinary.  To raise their alert levels is a major step.  Ultimately, the trigger pull at higher alert levels becomes extremely delicate.  If our sensors detect a long range ballistic missile launch, it must be seen and rapidly categorized in terms of type and impact prediction.  A threat judgment must be made and communicated to the President so that a response decision can be made—within the flight time of the missile and Washington—roughly 30 minutes.  Things can go badly wrong and nearly have in the past.  The potential for error in such complicated systems is not trivial.   The Administration postponed a regular test flight of an unarmed ICBM, presumably to reduce the risk of sending an inadvertent signal that could be misinterpreted by Moscow.  

In the past, some near calamities (besides the Cuban missile crisis) have occurred when intelligence, either technical or human, provided indications that were misinterpreted as threats.  In these cases, humans made judgments that a nuclear response wrong. 

For this reason, individuals in the chain of command or in a position to influence the command authority can be vital.   If Putin believes his supernatural boldness can restore the position of the former Soviet Union by risking a nuclear exchange, we may need those around Putin.  Those individuals may be extremely important—sooner rather than later.  They need to know that their interests and global security interests align.  We need to message those around Putin as well as Putin.

This entry was posted in Allies, Intelligence, Iraq, Lavrov, NATO, nuclear weapons, Putin, Russia, Ukraine, WMD and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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