Leadership: The Lessons of Saddam's WMD Policy


August 20, 2007: What are Iran and North Korea up to with their nuclear weapons programs? After dealing with the Iraqi "nuclear threat" for over a decade, that's worth considering. Iran and North Korea are in quite different situations than Iraq before 2003. Up until early 2003, the conventional wisdom was that Saddam had WMD, and just would not give them up. Some thought Saddams strategy was dumb. All he had to do was let the UN inspectors do their job, get Iraqi out from under the embargo, and then reconstitute his WMD. What no one brought up was what Saddam was actually doing. He was pretending to have WMD in order to keep the Iranians at bay. Horrendous casualties from Iraqi chemical weapons had forced the Iranians to end the 1980s war. The Iranians still wanted Saddam's head on a pike, and Saddam saw his imaginary WMD as a primary defense against Iranian attack. This did not come out until after Saddam was out of power, and some of his key aides could talk. Saddam kept the real situation (no real WMD programs) secret even from most of his closest aids and military commanders. Saddam trusted very few people. His deception worked, but got him killed anyway because the scheme backfired. But Saddam could not afford to keep his WMD program going while all those UN inspectors were around, and the embargo was choking his cash flow.

Iran apparently wants nukes for national pride, and to assure their continued status as a regional superpower. Iran cannot upgrade its conventional military forces, so it needs one powerful weapon, like nuclear warheads, to back up its threats and demands.

North Korea also requires nukes for national survival. But, unlike Iran, North Korea does not have oil wealth, or a market economy. North Korea is a basket case in so many ways. Nukes provide trade bait, to extort financial, material and diplomatic payments from neighbors, and the United States.

Iran seems determined to build nukes, having no reason to back down. North Korea is in a desperate economic and social situation, and appears willing to give up (or "sell") its nukes if the price is high enough. Most negotiations with North Korea are now, basically, over what this price will be.

All of that is the conventional wisdom. But as was recently seen with Iraq, the conventional wisdom can often be very misleading, and fatal to a lot of people.


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