In the early days of the air campaign of the 1991 Gulf War, the United States undertook a concerted effort to track and strike Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The effort was predicated on the belief that eliminating Saddam Hussein would have two effects — it would throw the Iraqi military hierarchy into chaos, and it would make the surviving Iraqi leadership more amenable to a negotiated solution.
The effort to kill Hussein was only one episode in the U.S. pursuit of “decapitation” as a politico-military strategy. In the post-Cold War era, the United States has faced a variety of tyrants and terrorists. U.S. leaders reasoned that steps to crush the head of the snake might make it unnecessary to kill the entire body, thus sparing much destruction and civilian death.
The 1991 decapitation attacks, and similar attacks launched in 2003, failed. What if they had succeeded? The former hold more interest than the latter, as Hussein made only a minimal contribution to Iraqi warfighting and resistance after March 2003.
But the question of eliminating in Hussein in 1991 is intriguing. How would U.S. interaction with Iraq have differed over the 1991–2015 period if decapitation had worked?
The U.S. and bad men
The United States has struggled, historically, with how to assess dictatorial leaders. Put bluntly, the United States government tends to overestimate the impact of individual regime players (such as Saddam Hussein), and underestimate the wider structure of regime power in authoritarian countries. The mind-numbing recurrence of the “time machine to kill baby Hitler” debate is perhaps the most trite manifestation of this struggle.
In part this results from the need for effective propaganda and messaging. U.S. media finds it far easier to understand the idea of an evil individual, than to grapple with the complexities of a wide-based governmental structure that has deep roots in particular societal groups. The United States also operates under the assumption that liberal democracy is a quasi-natural state, and that states will default to democratic governance once unpleasant actors have been removed.
This belief is deeply ingrained in American political thought, centuries of practical political experience and decades of academic work notwithstanding. The belief spans ideology — neoconservatives believe that the U.S. can create democracy by removing dictators, while leftist critics of U.S. foreign policy regularly imply that authoritarian regimes survive only because of U.S. support.
The belief manifested in military operational terms in the form of neoclassical airpower theory that took hold of the U.S. Air Force in the 1980s — John Warden’s “Five Rings” theory. Five Rings theory suggested that striking high leverage targets at the center of a regime (including the leader himself, but also facilities that enabled political and military control) could induce regime collapse.
Indeed, Warden argued that the United States should eschew striking the deployed Iraqi army, in preference for concentrating on regime targets. He believed that the army itself could return and restore order in Iraq after the destruction of Hussein and his inner circle.
Course of the war
How would the death of Hussein have affected the course of the 1991 Gulf War?
If Hussein’s killing resulted in a new leadership amenable to a negotiated surrender and withdrawal from Kuwait, the war perhaps could have been avoided. But then this outcome does not seem particularly likely. The invasion of Kuwait was relatively popular with the Iraqi people (which by many accounts had deep doubts of the legitimacy of the Kuwaiti state), and very popular with the military and political hierarchy.
While Hussein attempted to exert tight control over Iraqi military moves during the Gulf War, it’s not clear that these moves would have differed in any meaningful way from a notional successor, nor is it clear that Hussein made correct decisions in response to the success of the coalition air campaign, or to the threat of the “left hook” to encircle Iraqi forces in Kuwait.
Furthermore, there is little reason to think that the United States would have had a greater appetite for pushing towards Baghdad if Hussein had died in the initial hours of the war.
Effect on Iraq
The better question is how Iraqi politics would have continued after the war.
Hussein’s absence might well have been felt in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the Iraqi government needed to deal with uprisings in the north and the south. Any successor to Hussein would likely have come from the same Baathist, Sunni elite, and would have had the same interest in putting those uprisings down.
At the same time, a regime less focused on the survival of Hussein himself might have had more flexibility in dealing with both the international community and with domestic opponents.
Inside Iraq, the Baathist power structure would have remained largely intact, Hussein’s death notwithstanding. Power struggles between different actors — including his sons — might have ensued, potentially creating instability and more opportunities for the rebellions in the north and the south. However, without international support these rebellions lacked the capacity to overthrow the regime, Hussein or no.
Indeed, the death of Hussein might have given the international community considerably more flexibility with respect to how to manage Iraq.
As Charles Duelfer argued, the biggest problem that the United States faced in interacting with Iraq was its own inability to trust Iraqi claims. U.S. negotiators and inspectors could not establish beyond doubt that Iraq had not retained chemical, biological and nuclear ambitions, even as the evidence pointed to the destruction of Iraqi programs, and even as Iraqis claimed to have moved on.
Conceivably, the rise of an Iraqi leader who could not play the villain to the same extent as Saddam Hussein could have ameliorated that problem. In particular, a leader with a better sense of the temperature of international opinion might have responded with less tone-deafness to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, making it more difficult for the Bush administration to build support for an invasion.
As with any counterfactual, it’s difficult to grapple with the full implications of the death of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War. A successful decapitation strike likely would have had little effect on the course of the war, or on its immediate aftermath.
Over time, however, the replacement of Saddam Hussein could have had major effects on both sides of the Washington-Baghdad relationship. Most importantly, it might have given the United States an opportunity to accommodate itself to the survival of the Baath regime, which could well have prevented the disastrous 2003 war.
The article originally appeared at The National Interest.