The United States' chief arms inspector in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, has reported that nearly all of America's assumptions about Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities were wrong. Saddam was nearly powerless in his region but did not want to let his chief rivals, particularly Iran, know how effectively he had been de-clawed after the 1991 Gulf War.
Saddam was engaged in a complex game of deterrence, which he achieved with sleight-of-hand and bellicosity -- though apparently not with real weapons systems. He needed to make the big powers and the United Nations think that most of his prohibited weapons systems had been dismantled while not revealing to his powerful arch-enemy neighbor that his arsenal was in fact empty.
The fundamental question the United States needs to ask itself is why this scenario was not patently obvious. In his classic book on the origins of America's post-World War II strategic doctrine and the RAND Corporation, "Wizards of Armageddon," Fred Kaplan tells the story of Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, Henry Rowan, Andrew Marshall, Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling and a whole class of other strategists and game theorists who constructed an artifice of strategic realities that tried to account for exactly the kind of shell game and duplicity among rivals that Saddam engineered.
In one of the simplest interactive games taught in strategy classes in the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the prisoner's dilemma, two players are required to make assumptions about the other's strategic intent and weapons capabilities. If one side feared the other might annihilate it in a first strike, it might be prompted to strike first. On one hand, wiping out one's adversary might get this player the very best outcome -- but in reality, the chances of a second counter-strike from the other party could produce the very worst outcome. Survival then depended on each side being rational enough to choose the second-best outcome. This end point in the game is called the Nash equilibrium after Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash, popularized recently in a film about his life, "A Beautiful Mind," starring Russell Crowe.
Mutual Assured Destruction, the United States' long-running strategic track with the Soviet Union, depended on both a blurry and big threat, such that the Soviets could never think they could successfully wipe out America's weapons capabilities, coupled with communication and some exchange of information -- like the famous hotline phone from the U.S. president to the Soviet premier -- to prevent escalation or serious miscalculation.
Saddam behaved quite rationally, given his circumstances. He didn't want to prompt an Iranian attack and didn't have the ability to counter-attack, so the only rational course for him was to make it look like he had some ability to inflict nasty consequences on Iran and any invaders.
Any junior-level strategist with the vaguest knowledge of the ferocity of the Iran-Iraq War and the competition between these two rivals for regional hegemony would have known that Saddam perceived Iran as a clear and present danger. After the United States, the United Kingdom and other powers pushed Saddam back to his borders and disarmed him -- coupled with sanctions, no-fly zones, and U.N. weapons inspections (ad hoc though they were) -- Saddam's objective was to be a troublemaker just enough to keep Iran deterred but not enough to prompt another punitive engagement by the world's great powers.
What is ironic is that Saddam may have tried to communicate with President Bush to explain his situation through his famous interview with Dan Rather just before the U.S. invasion since there was no hotline available. But our strategic class -- Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice, Zalmay Khalilzad and others -- were not interested in preventing miscalculation and escalation. That makes their complicity in cherry-picking intelligence and drawing bad conclusions about Iraqi intentions even worse. Nearly all of these people have been in and out of RAND or are deeply familiar with RAND-type thinking about strategic threats and their management.
If the same kind of mistakes now revealed in America's invasion of Iraq were made during the Cold War, thermo-nuclear annihilation for both countries would have been the result. That is why America and the Soviets worked so hard to add layers and fail-safe protocols to the decision to go to war, why they invested so heavily in systems to prevent miscalculation.
Albert Wohlstetter -- a brilliant mathematician and tough Cold Warrior who wrote the famous essay, "The Delicate Balance of Terror" -- pioneered the notions of "second-strike" and FAIL-SAFE as ways to help prevent the worst outcomes in superpower rivalry. It is ironic that his son-in-law, Richard Perle, became one of the chief proponents of a war so riddled with all of the things that Wohlstetter worried about in the escalation of conflict.
The real tragedy of the Duelfer report is that it makes even more evident that miscalculation and escalation were what America's new wizards of Armageddon wanted. These people were the best trained in America at thinking through -- via games and calculations -- what kinds of natural deceptions a rival might try. We didn't see what Saddam was up to because we decided we didn't want to.
Copyright 2004, United Press International