The Acme of Skill: Can Saddam Hussein Win by Propaganda?

Posted By November 24, 1990 No Comments
Even as the build-up of united Nations military force in the Gulf reaches its climax, doubts are being expressed over its utility. Are the possible tactical gains of open warfare likely to outweigh the costs, and what will be the longer-term consequences of a bloody war against Iraq? Underlying such doubts is the unspoken question: can Western publics withstand the combined psychological impact of economic downturn and possible heavy battle casualties?
The purpose of conflict is to make one’s opponent change his mind – to withdraw rather than hold ground, to compromise at the expense of principle, or to surrender instead of continuing to fight. All too often, it takes years of war and millions of casualties before one of the warring nations’ leaders changes his mind. In the Emperor of Japan’s case, two atomic bombs were necessary. Sometimes, however, warfare is excluded altogether because the opponent is persuaded to change his mind without violence. Twenty-five centuries ago the Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu advised: ‘To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill’. This, it would seem, is Saddam Hussein’s preferred strategy.
Mobilizing propaganda invariably consists of three components: the virtuous cause to be defended at all cost; the evil enemy to be destroyed lest he banishes virtue; and confidence that victory is within reach. Often, one side’s ‘trinity’ of beliefs is simply the other party’s turned on its head. In revolutionary warfare, all three components are up for grabs and, indeed, ideological conflict consists essentially of a struggle to see which of the rival trinities shall prevail as the established wisdom. As the Gulf crisis has many of the attributes of revolution, played in the international arena, we can expect attempts to change all aspects of our Middle Eastern mindset.
President Bush was successful in rallying his countrymen and the united Nations by dressing Hussein in the black hat worn by evil enemies for his brutal aggression against Kuwait. While this identification of evil remains valid and fully justified, it lacks the desired sharp contrast with the white hat of a virtuous cause. ‘International law’ is supposed to wear this hat, but who in all the world wants to die for so desiccated a concept, particularly when the war that will claim lives is itself an abandonment of law? The Kuwaiti leadership is benign rather than inspiring, and by destroying the city and dispersing its population, Hussein has erased the underdog who might have worn a shining white hat. That brutality was neither random nor wanton: it was calculated and instrumental.
Finally, there is the price of oil. This is a practical matter with massive implications for economic and political stability. But, in motivational terms, who wants to die for the oil corporations? As in the mid-1930s, the evil enemy is clear enough, but the cause for which we may have to fight is hazy.
Hussein has gone to great lengths to keep lines of communication open to his opponents. Like other subtle terrorists, he holds hostages more to discourage hostile action than to threaten murder – although what is unspoken is abundantly clear to western decision-makers. He wishes us to see his hat as grey, not far different from our own. His tactical allies in the united States, the new peace movement, stress this theme. To increase our uncertainty about our cause, Hussein and his unofficial spokesman, Yasser Arafat, warn of the destruction of Gulf oil resources. This might undermine any UN mobilization based on protecting supplies. Additionally, Iraqi-based terror tyrants, such as Abu Nidal and George Habash, have warned the West of dire consequences in the event of war.
To his own people and the wider Arab audience, Hussein poses in the white hat of a new Saladin, saviour of Iraqi pride and pan-Arab nationalism. Although a secular dictator with the morals of a skunk, he also postures before devout Muslims as the defender of Islam. His propaganda depicts the UN force as imperialists plundering Arab oil and infidels defiling the Holy Places. The contrast between white and black is total.
The cement that holds Hussein’s trinity of beliefs together is Israel. Arabs have been in a constant state of anti-Israeli mobilization for two generations. This fact weakens the united Nations alliance because Syria for certain and others perhaps would desert the alliance the moment any linkage between the UN Force and Israel became apparent. And in Iraq it provides a solid base of frustration, hatred and fanaticism to repel outside propaganda, a base that permeates much of Arabia, whatever the political elites say.
For the UN, confidence in victory rests on hopes that the blockade may topple Hussein, on the strength of world reaction, and on the threat or use of superior military technology. Saddam Hussein’s confidence is founded on the military strength of Iraq including its unconventional assets such as chemical weapons, on his daring and experienced leadership, demonstrated in the war with Iran, and on his willingness to sacrifice lives, escalate hostilities, and fight indefinitely.
In an early propaganda attack on the UN’s confidence, Hussein claimed that history had proved that his army could absorb massive casualties and go on to win, whereas the united states had withdrawn from vietnam and the Lebanon because domestic opinion would not tolerate the cost of war.
In fact, both sides’ themes of expectant victory are weak – the UN’s for precisely the reasons given by Hussein; Iraq’s because although the West’s technological edge may be thin, and represents a dangerous substitute for mass, nevertheless the field army, unlike the miserable Iraqi citizens, can if it wishes exercise the option of surrender if a fast-moving armoured battle gives it the chance. Our psychological warriors should plan accordingly.
The problem for the West is that we are vulnerable now, and the problem will likely worsen, whereas Saddam Hussein seems relatively secure unless and until his army is hit hard. It narrows the options for the UN and opens opportunities for Iraq.
The Arab psyche re]01CeS in the art of negotiation, whereas the West looks for the quick fix. We may expect elaborate, extended and possibly indirect negotiations designed to divide the UN alliance, settle the Kuwait issue on terms that Hussein can present as a victory, and rid the Gulf of all foreign forces – leaving the moderate Arab leaders to their fate.
We must hope this does not happen, because next time there is a Middle East crisis, Iraq will have nuclear weapons.