Left Outside

Coercing Saddam and lessons for Iran

There are two ways to force someone to do something they don’t want.

You can use violence to make them do that thing, or you can credibly threaten violence on them. For this post, we must assume Meatloaf would do “that” if coerced violently or with the threat of violence.

In modern international relations the latter is usually preferred. But soft coercion did not work in 2003 despite the overwhelming military superiority that the US military had over the Iraqi forces.

Defining “work” is of course difficult. In March 2003 on the eve of war, Saddam remained belligerent, he continued to deny full UN access to his now obviously non-existent weapon’s facilities.

I suppose, we can inadequately define work as the supplication of Saddam to the will of the international community.

Saddam did not back down and this poses problems for people who think that people are rational. His conduct appears to reinforce the image of him as a psychopath.

However, the above formulation misses something important. Saddam’s belligerence was not irrational. The capacity to threaten violence is only available if you also have the capacity to refrain from violence.

Leading up to the war the bellicose pronouncements of those working in Bush’s regime and the man himself made it seem that war with Iraq was inevitable.

Saddam calculated that the US had “lost” the ability to refrain from violence. He  believed that if he submitted himself to all the demands of the US he would still not be able to avoid war.

This meant the US had lost the ability to coerce him with the threat of violence and the march to war became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Iran sadly springs to mind at this moment. It is clear that the world would be a better place with almost any other regime sitting in Tehran and the US has made it abundantly clear it shares this view.

The fall of the Shah in Iran was clearly one of the worst foreign policy events for the US since the end of the second world war. But if influencing Iran is your aim then it is vital to learn this lesson from Iraq.

War may be the continuation of politics by other means but it must never be an aim in itself. Blair may claim that invading Iraq has lessened the threat from Iran, but if the war drums begin to beat in the same way some years from now Iran may reason that it cannot avoid a fight and plunge the middle easy into another unnecessary war.

Filed under: Foreign Affairs, History

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