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Making Sense of Saddam Hussein's 'Exit Strategy'
Published on Tuesday, November 23, 2004 by the Baltimore Sun
Making Sense of Saddam Hussein's 'Exit Strategy'
by Barry Levinson

As President Bush purges the CIA and the State Department of any who may disagree with his views on foreign policy, the reasons for the Iraq war will drift further int obscurity and the one great question regarding the war will never be analyzed, scrutinized or discussed openly: How did Saddam Hussein end up in a hole in the ground with a rug and a fan? How is that possible? How could anything so absurd happen?

This question may very well hold the key to all that has happened in Iraq.

When his time was up, Uganda's Idi Amin sneaked away to Saudi Arabia. When the shah of Iran was overthrown, he went to Egypt. When push came to shove, other dictators left their respective countries to live in comfort. But not Saddam Hussein. He decided to hide in a hole in the ground with a rug and a fan. Here was a powerful man with an estimated $10 billion in his personal account who came up with an exit strategy that completely lacks any logic.

Was it members of Mr. Hussein's inner circle who thought this up or agreed with his hiding arrangement? Did they debate the pros and cons of living in a hole with a rug and a fan? One of them must have suggested, "Why not have plastic surgery, live on a yacht and enjoy the rest of your life? Travel." There must have been other proposals considered.

It was widely thought that Mr. Hussein might pay up to $4 billion to live a luxurious life in exile. In fact, there were all kinds of rumors and various scenarios as to what he might do. Everyone assumed there must be some ingenious plan. But Mr. Hussin finally said, "Get me a house in an average neighborhood, dig a hole, get me a rug and a fan ... and a million dollars in case I have to order out."

And no one in his inner circle disagreed with him?

Could there have actually been a worse plan? In all the years, with all the enemies and all that time to consider the worst-case scenario, is this the best they could come up with? This was the best exit strategy?

Is that possible?

I don't think so.

Why? Because I don't believe Mr. Hussein ever entertained an exit strategy. He never believed he would have to leave. He never believed the United States would ever attack Iraq. Why? Because he was complying with the United Nations. He was destroying his weapons. He had no choice but to comply. The threat of attack was clear. There was resolve. His weapons had to be destroyed. He got the message.

The only thing he hung on to was his puffery. He needed to strut and look defiant. He needed the appearance of being the military power in the region. But it was all an illusion to keep his neighboring enemies at bay. And he thought we knew that. The inspectors couldn't find the weapons of mass destruction because they didn't exist, and the threat that they did exist gave him power in the region. He was afraid of an attack by Iran. Afraid of being attacked by terrorists if they smelled weakness. So the shell game continued. The United Nations inspected. Mr. Hussein complied. And yet he remained defiant to the outside world.

It was a game. It was political face-saving.

Was Mr. Hussein afraid the United States would ever attack? No. There was nothing there, and he thought we knew that. Would the United States ever launch an attack without world support? No, he thought. Would the United States ever topple his regime and risk a power vacuum in the region? No, Mr. Hussein thought.

After all, with him gone, the region would erupt into a firestorm of destabilization. Kurds against Shiites, Shiites against Sunnis, the entrance of terrorists, his Baathist followers fighting for power and the average Iraqi fighting anyone who invaded their country. Such chaos would never be allowed to happen, he thought. It would be too absurd. The United States would never make such a colossal mistake.

And Mr. Hussein had precedent on his side. President George H. W. Bush, during the Persian Gulf war, with a large coalition and a massive army pushing toward Baghdad, stopped. He understood the terrible risks of toppling Mr. Hussein's regime in that way.

So if Bush Senior understood the dangers, reasoned Mr. Hussein, so would Bush Junior. After all, Mr. Hussein had two despicable sons just like himself, so by that logic Bush Junior would show the same restraint as Bush Senior. After all, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. It made sense to Mr. Hussein that Bush Junior would be as informed about Middle East politics as Bush Senior. Besides, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who was a general in the gulf war, was influential with this administration, and he had explicitly advocated against regime change, warning, "If you break it, you own it."

So Mr. Hussein thought he was safe to play his shell game. To continue to posture, to show his bravado and to live the lie as the powerful Menace of the Middle East. A war was simply too illogical. Too absurd. But sometimes the absurd happens. And that is how Saddam Hussein ended up in a hole in the ground with a rug and a fan.

Barry Levinson is a writer, film director and native of Baltimore.

© 2004 Baltimore Sun


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