History, International Relations, Modeling

ISA Panel on Saddam’s Iraq

The second half of the International Studies Association (ISA) Conference covered some very interesting materials.  As always, there is more to see than one can, and I regret missing some presentations by people that really wanted to get to.

I’ll likely need to cover more of the conference, and particular lessons for ABM over the next several weeks.  For the time being, I’ve been thinking a lot about one panel on the documents being held at a new center at the National Defense University – The Conflict Records Research Center.

In a fashion similar to John Lewis Gaddis’s We Now Know, the panel discussed what they have learned about Saddam Hussein and his regime from documents that have been captured from Iraqi archives during the war.  While there are few major surprises according to the experts who were already highly informed and following his regime closely, the records provide valuable insights and clarity into particular cases and decisions that have always perplexed them.  Moreover, they acknowledge that Saddam Hussein evolved over the course of his regime, adapting his behavior and thinking as a result of victories and defeats, and even transforming from a atheistic or secular person into a quasi-religious person (with a very idiosyncratic interpretation of  faith and God).  Amatzia Baram provided one of the most engaging discussions of Saddam’s transformation on this topic, and suggested that while Saddam became a Muslim, his practice harkened back to a pre-Islamic version of religion.  I can’t do justice to his description, but if he ever publishes a paper on the topic it will be a worthy read.

The discussion’s Saddam’s Iraq interested me for reasons more than current events and history.  As a modeler, I’m struck by the tightrope that existed between strategic calculations, perception, misperception, inflexibility, learning and adaptation, etc.  Saddam was not rational according to the precepts of microeconomics, but he was logical.  He did consider alternatives, but these considerations were deeply bounded.  He was deliberative, soliciting advice from his inner circle and was remarkably consistent in his logic and rationale between his public speeches and recordings of private personal conversations with his advisors that were kept in his archives.  Returning to the prior question about John Mearsheimer’s Why Leaders Lie, this is an interesting case of someone who we always assumed was a liar but was surprisingly consistent.  Indeed, the panel generally agreed that Saddam’s biggest problem was the fact that he was an “incurable optimist” that always believed that things would break his way, making him prone to underestimating risk.

Even more interesting was Saddam’s view of Iraq’s relationships with international arms inspectors.  In a sense, it was a rationally played game all the way to a self-destructive end.  Saddam knew that because of Iraq’s prior practice of deception and shell games with inspectors – after the WMD programs were dismantled, but conducted out of fear that the inspectors were actually gathering intelligence for conventional military targeting – he would never be believed if he provided a complete set of records that showed the termination of the programs.  His fear was that once Iraq came clean and was not believed, they would have nothing else to present to inspectors.  Thus, because Iraq lied early in the game, it could never regain the confidence of the international system as was therefore committed to a strategy of deception.  This is interesting because for all of the talk of forgiveness and the superiority of the ‘tit-for-tat” strategy in iterated games, the reality was that the US was locked into a strategy that made forgiveness impossible – likely because of the fear of underestimating Iraqi capabilities a second time (the shock of how advanced Iraq was in 1991 left an indelible imprint on analysts and policy-makers).  I don’t know if Saddam could have gotten out of the hole that Iraq created for itself after 9/11, but it is quite interesting to learn about his reasoning from the archives.

Other discussions of the archives were frightening familiar and reflective of the subtle power that comes from seniority, title and reputation.  Several books on the US invasion of Iraq noted that analysts who did not see evidence of WMD programs or ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda nevertheless believed that they could have existed in other channels of information that they did not have access to – why else would the President or Vice-President say they were there?  This same effect happened in Iraq, where Iraqi officials were told that the programs were destroyed, sometimes by Saddam himself, but believed that Saddam was lying to them because the US President would not go to war unless they were there.

Returning to ABM, I’m struggling to find the right level of analysis for simulating real-world regimes and decision-making.  The evidence suggests that rational actor models are just too coarse and overly idealistic to get much traction from.  I can’t believe that the outcomes they predict can be achieved by real people and bureaucracies except in cases where other processes happen to converge with rational solutions.  But, if agents aren’t rational, what then?  Decision processes seem highly complicated, so where is the appropriate solution?  Do we model individual choices and forego the idea of a standard model of a regime?  If actors evolve from case to case based on lessons learned from past outcomes, does a model of a particular historical case have any relevance to the next case?  If a standard model of regime tries to track evolutionary paths overtime, how can we know we have good learning rules and are simulating our way along the right path?  Certainty, if an outcome is “good” from a strategic perspective, it would make sense that processes might not change much the next time, whereas a “failure” would promote change, but “good” and “bad” according to who?  Saddam had advisors and sometimes followed one and sometimes another.  In every decision, someone “won” and someone “lost” (or everyone lost if Saddam didn’t follow any of their recommendations) so even if Saddam was happy with his outcome, his advisors may be adapting.

All this suggests that structural theories of international relations are increasingly unconvincing because it is clear that individual choices matter, but we still seem far off from linking the design of models of decision-making processes in highly political and dynamic environments with what we can reconstruct from empirical records.  I guess this is why we do research.


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