Another Perspective

Saddam’s Honor

Would he have lied about his WMD just to appear strong?

By 4.3.03

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Ten days into a war fought under the flag of disarmament, U.S.-led troops have found no substantial sign of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction... "All the searches have turned up negative," said a Joint Staff officer who is following field reports. "The munitions that have been found have all been conventional."..."The president has made very clear that the reason why we are in Iraq is to find weapons of mass destruction," [Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation John S.] Wolf said in a telephone interview yesterday. He added, "The fact that we haven't found them in seven or eight days doesn't faze me one little bit. Very clearly, we need to find this stuff or people are going to be asking questions."
-- Barton Gellman, in the Washington Post of March 30, 2003

Questions, eh? What kind of questions? Like maybe, why did we go to war in the first place? Yet even those opposed to the war rarely attempted to argue that there were no weapons of mass destruction -- only that Saddam would not use them, or would not use them on us. Does this entitle them to say "I told you so"? More seriously, if the coalition forces don't find any weapons of mass destruction, does this mean that the war was mistaken and that those who sacrificed so much, including those who made the supreme sacrifice, did it all if not for nothing at least unnecessarily?

These are hard questions. Of course there can hardly be any doubt that the end of the barbarous Hussein regime is a good in itself and a boon to humanity -- especially to the Iraqis themselves, many of whom chose to die in defense of it. Yet it would never have come about if only Hussein himself had been open and forthcoming about his weapons of mass destruction. Why would he not have been more honest and open with the inspectors in order to save his regime? Is he, like some liars, so accustomed to lying that he can't tell the truth to save his life?

I don't think this is the answer. We may yet find the nerve gases and the anthrax that President Bush promised us were there, but even if we do, I believe that it is not improbable that Saddam Hussein would have refused to give them up even if he hadn't had any. The point isn't that he wanted these weapons for their own sake, either to use or to threaten to use. He just couldn't be seen to accede to the demands, still less to the threats, of an outside power. This is because of the way an honor culture works. To see what I mean, consider Saddam's behavior in his interview with Dan Rather.

There, you may remember, Saddam pointedly denied that he had the al-Samoud missiles, or that, if he had them, he would destroy them. Yet he did have them and was already on the point of destroying them! How can we make sense of this, which sounds to us in the West like reverse hypocrisy: pretending to be more bad and intransigent than you really are. But to Saddam, admitting that he (a) had the missiles and (b) was willing to destroy them, even though this was in fact the case, would have made him look weak and craven on both points. And looking strong is all that he, like most of those brought up according to Arab and Muslim ideas of honor, really cares about -- more even than the continuation of his rule or, indeed, life itself.

About these things he cared enough at least to destroy the missiles -- but not enough to say that he was going to destroy them. In the same way, Iraqi troops may, like any other troops, fear death so much that they run away or fight poorly, but it is probably true to say that they would rather die than admit to any such fears or behavior. That is why the Iraqi leadership continues on with its bombast about how "We shall turn the desert into a big graveyard for American and British troops" even when it is patently obvious to everyone that their troops are the ones being slaughtered. The point is not to convey accurate information about the world but to make the gesture that is expected of a brave and honorable man.

For the same reason, it is always wise to treat with a certain skepticism all those reports in the media about the hostility of "the Arab street." I don't doubt for a moment that such hostility really exists, or that it may at some times break out into violence against Americans or Britons. But one simply can't rely on a direct correspondence between what people say to an interviewer and their real feelings, let alone their real intentions. Being angry and hostile against America and Britain for attacking their Muslim brothers in Iraq is the response that their honor culture demands of them, and they duly give it when asked. The reality is going to be harder to figure out, but will probably be more to our liking.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.