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Jeff Maurer's Politics Blog
Sunday, 12 March 2006
Inside the Head of Saddam Hussein
Topic: Foreign Policy

  Slobodan Milosevic has died.  I guess the fact that he - unlike Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot - died in prison counts as something of a victory.  I was hoping for a conviction so as to at least introduce the possibility that perpetrators of genocide would be held responsible for their crimes.  But word from his trial was that an acquittal was a real possibility, so I guess it's good that he died before the world was forced to swallow that monstrous verdict.

  There was also an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about how Saddam Hussein was more worried about the threats posed by the Shiites and Iran than by the threat posed by the U.S.  This was still true even as the U.S. invasion was beginning.  There are a thousand interesting things about this article, but I think the most interesting things relate to the implications that this information has for how we should think about nuclear proliferation.

  There's an ongoing debate in International Relations about whether nuclear weapons make the world more or less stable.  Most people reflexively assume that nuclear weapons make things less stable, and that seems intuitive.  But the argument that nuclear weapons promote stability has some powerful evidence supporting it, namely that there has never been a war (not just a nuclear exchange, but even a war) between two nuclear powers.  Furthermore, the logic behind the argument makes sense; nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, and rational actors recognize that it is in their interest to avoid escalating a conflict with a nuclear power.  To get both sides of this argument in a nutshell, I recommend reading this book.

  While I understand and respect the "nukes = stability" argument (i.e., nuclear proliferation is not so bad and possibly even good), I generally fall on the "nukes = instability" (i.e., nuclear proliferation is generally bad and possibly disastrous) side of the argument.  The reason is this: we cannot assume that those who possess nukes will act rationally.  Now, IR nerds will want to drag me into a debate about the meaning of the word "rational" and attempt to demonstrate how instrumental rationality can explain actions including and beyond the ones that Hussein took in the run-up to the war, but I'm going to cut that debate off by saying that a liberal definition of rationality makes it possible to categorize any action as rational.  When I use the phrase "rational actor", I mean that that actor is not only pursuing their own interests, but also that that actor is at least minimally competent at recognizing which actions will and will not help him or her achieve those interests.  And what I take away from the NY Times article is this: Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor.

  It's hard to imagine things working out much worse for Hussein; he was ousted from power, went into hiding, was caught, is now on trial, and will almost certainly be executed or permanently jailed.  I've often though that if he had played his cards differently - if he had publicly abandoned his WMD programs and played ball with the UN - Bush wouldn't have had significant public or congressional support for the war, and Hussein might still be in power today.  But, as it happened, Hussein - who already had a reputation as a chronic miscalculator (see: invasion of Kuwait) - miscalculated so badly that his worst-case scenario ultimately came to pass.  Which I find very disturbing: here we have actual evidence of the way in which a head of state might have such a distorted view of reality that he vastly underestimates a very real threat to his security, thus rendering the assumed deterrent effect ineffective.

  Without a deterrent effect, nuclear stability theory breaks down.  More disturbing still, the two states we worry about most when discussing nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran) are both led by guys who have a propensity for the same sort of paranoid delusion that led to Hussein's downfall.  North Korea is already nuclear, and it seems that we might not be able to stop Iran from someday going nuclear.  I worry that the people who shape our foreign policy often don't take paranoid delusion - by not only the leaders of states but by general populations as well - into account as much as they sometimes should.  People who identify themselves a "realists" often claim that constructivists and liberal institutionalists see the world as they would like it to be, not as it is.  That might be a fair criticism, but it should also be recognized that the assumption that the world is comprised of rational actors is likely as fanciful as any of the assumptions made by other schools of thought.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:45 PM EST
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