Iraq, US Politics

Stand still so I can shoot you.

International signaling is a very complicated language sometimes. I have wondered for a long time about a European good-cop, bad-cop strategy behind the different approaches to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. And reading the following excerpt (pp 7-8) from a policy proposal by the conservative/libertarian US think tank CATO Institute you might well come to the conclusion that the European “NO” is not weakening the world’s threat concerning Hussein’s use of WMDs but actually strengthening it – while at the same time allowing both parties involved to speak loudly in their home markets’ preferred rhetoric. With a US government clearly signaling that the issue is much less disarmament than getting rid of Saddam, it might well be the more balanced European position to regime change – in conjunction with the American military build-up – that could prompt the Iraqi dictator into cooperation with the UN. In this interpretation, even the extreme German position does make at least some sense.

“On the other hand, the signals that the current administration has been sending may have dire ramifications. By holding meetings with the Iraqi opposition groups, by leaking plans for conducting an invasion, and by the strident rhetoric in which his administration has engaged, President Bush has strongly communicated his intent to get rid of Hussein. A recent issue of The Economist quoted John Bolton, under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, as saying, ‘Our policy at the same insists on regime change in Baghdad and that policy will not be altered whether inspectors go in or not.’ So the message to Hussein is, no matter what you do, the U.S. government is coming to eliminate you. That only gives Hussein more incentive to plan a counterattack – in the event of a U.S. invasion – using WMD against U.S. forces, Israel, or Saudi oil fields, or perhaps even smuggling such a weapon onto U.S. soil. In the face of a threat to his own survival, Hussein will have little incentive to do anything but lash out.

Imagine that a burglar breaks into a house and, while he is rooting through a closet, the owner of the house pulls a gun on him. He is startled and caught off guard. The owner might say, ‘Don’t move or I’ll shoot.’ That is a deterrence message, and it is likely the criminal will heed it because he can avoid an extremely undesirable outcome by doing something that is much less objectionable. He is likely to disobey only if he questions the credibility of the owner’s commitment, believes the owner will shoot him regardless of his obedience, or is suicidal. Alternatively, the owner might say, ‘Put your hands on your head or I’ll shoot.’ That is a message of coercion, and it will also probably be followed, unless the same set of conditions as before applies. Instead, what if the owner said, ‘Stand still so I can shoot you’ – the burglar is likely to fight, or try to get away, because he has nothing to lose by doing so. At least if he takes action, he might have slim odds of survival; if he stands still he has no odds of survival whatsoever. That is the position in which Hussein is being put by the Bush administration. There is no ‘less painful’ option that he can follow to avoid the thing he dreads most – the loss of control of his political regime and maybe his life. Under those circumstances, Hussein is very dangerous.”

However, such an interpretation does not help to clarify the deeper issues – regarding different visions of common security as well as the international system – that have emerged more clearly than ever on both sides of the pond in recent months.