In 1990, the world community voted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions on Iraq as punishment for the invasion of Kuwait. Why would a leader engage in an action knowing that failure would lead severe to consequences? Further why would t hey do so knowing that the odds of succeeding were non-existent? Add this to the fact that Saddam Hussein has not accepted the consequences of his actions, but continues to defy international law and the directives of the international community. This pre sent's policy makers with an interesting puzzle - what to do about Saddam Hussein.


This puzzle raises many questions about Saddam Hussein. Is he a rational actor? What is his motivation in opposing the UN? Does care only about maintaining his power, or does he want to be seen as the "leader" of the Middle East? How does he perce ive the sanctions imposed upon Iraq? We will use rational choice theory (RCT), and various waves of theory to analyze this puzzle.


Rational Decision Making

By definition RCT assumes rational decision making of all parties involved. It makes a distinction between intrinsic, tangible interests and intangible or strategic interests. RCT assumes that leaders will value strategic interests such as th eir reputation less than intrinsic interests like the well being of their population. This however, is exactly opposite of what Saddam Hussein's actions show his interests are. Saddam Hussein has shown this through his choice to defy the UN and in particu lar the US, and thus maintains his reputation as a rogue actor. He makes this choice knowing that sanctions will continue to be imposed, thus causing even more suffering for his people, and his country as a whole.


Framing and the Endowment Effect

Framing refers to the way an actor defines losses or gains. This is often referred to as the reference point. This is critical in policy making because the way an actor defines the what is a loss and what is a gain has significant impact on h ow he makes his choices, regardless of what the probability of that event occurring is. [1] If Saddam Hussein is defining his reference point as the state of Iraq's autonomy before the Gulf War (prior UN weapons inspections and sanctions) then anything action short of returning to that state would be viewed as a lost. This is helpful in explaining the domain from which Saddam is operating. If this is indeed his reference point than he would be o perating from a domain of loss, and therefore would be more risk-acceptant. This would indeed appear to be his reference point when we look at how actors accommodate to gains or losses. An idea of an endowment effect is important here. The endowment effec t deals with how individuals or states adjust to a new status quo, in this case the reduced autonomy of Iraq. Theory implies that actors accommodate more quickly to a gain than they will to a loss. Therefore Saddam has not adjusted to the new status quo ( because it involves a loss for him), and consequently seeks to at minimum restore the old status quo. Saddam wants to return to the place where he has full control of Iraq's resources (primarily the sale of oil), and where there are no longer people "spyi ng" on his military and controlling what his capabilities are. The logical question here would be why not accept the consequences of his actions and comply with the UN resolutions, and thus have sanctions and weapons inspections over that much quicker? Th is seems to be the logical thing to do unless we take into account something known as the pseudocertainty effect. This is explained best by the "game" of Russian Roulette. You would be more willing to pay a high price to have the bullets reduced fr om 1 to 0, than you would pay to have them reduced from 4 to 3. [2] Saddam is not willing to pay the high price of having all of his WMD's (Weapons of Mass Destruction) destroyed as required by the UN Security council. This is because he perceives the bullets being reduced from 3 to 4 instead of 1 to 0.


Domain of Loss or Gain

This leads us to take a closer look at the domain in which the Saddam operates from. Is Saddam operating from a basement of fear or from a window of opportunity? If he is acting from a basement of fear then theory suggests that the policy shou ld be to reassure, embrace and accommodate him. If Saddam is actually operating in this domain then he defies the US because he feels he has nothing to lose, while at the same time not wanting to lose more. Theory says that the US should make promises in order to enhance his confidence in the US. However if Saddam in actually operating from a window of opportunity this would be the wrong policy to adopt. If Saddam is operating from this domain, then he would be viewed as an aggressor. This view holds that Saddam seeks to gain from noncompliance. The policy stemming from this view would be to contain or confront Iraq. The actual domain that Saddam is operating out of however is not just one of these domains, rather it is a mixture of the two - the opportun ity motivated aggressor and the need based madman. The question for policy makers is which domain is more dominant in his thinking. To determine this we must look again to Saddam's past actions. Saddam Hussein has continued to defy UNSCOM directives, wait ing until military action is eminent, then allowing inspections to continue. Saddam knows that he has nothing to lose by doing this because he is already seen as a rogue actor, and he knows that sanctions won't get any worse by doing so. He also knows tha t maintaining a certain level of tension ensures at least some popular support for the government, while at the same time this strategy does little harm to Iraq on the international level. In part Saddam is operating out of a basement of fear because he d oes not believe that anything he does will actually cause the sanctions to be lifted. However much of Saddam's actions make more sense when viewed from the window of opportunity perspective.


Saddam wants sanctions lifted, and inspections to end, however to give in to UNSCOM demands would be to admit defeat. Saddam views himself as the "Knight of the Arab Nation", and thus can not afford to admit defeat. [3] Rather he sees the sanctions and inspections as an opportunity to demonstrate his resolve and his willingness to stand up to the United States. Saddam is using the frequent standoffs as a tool to gain an increased solida rity with his Arab neighbors whom he hopes one day will help remove the sanctions. These frequent standoffs allow Saddam to shuffle his weapons to other locations when inspectors get close while at the same causing the US to threaten military action. This threat of military action is beneficial to Iraq because it causes other Arab countries to begin to sympathize with Iraq because they see the US as just trying to "control the neighborhood", and they themselves begin to feel threatened.


Perception and Misperception

Before we can answer the question of what should US policy towards Iraq be, we must first determine how each side perceives the other. Saddam perceives the US as the playground bully, and thus the enemy. Saddam feels that the US is out to 'get him'; that the US is determined, whether through military action or economic warfare, to destroy him. This causes Saddam to misperceive every action of the US as one he must oppose because he feels that if he complies he will be allowing the US to carry out its plan to destroy him. Saddam was quoted as saying "We seek to tell the United States and its agents that the Iraqi patience has run out and that the perpetuation of the crime of annihilating the Iraqis will trigger crises whose nature and consequen ces are known only to God." [4] This shows that Saddam believes that the US is out to "annihilate" him, while at the same time it allows us to see why the US perceives Saddam as they do. The US perceives Saddam as a troublemaker, someone out to get what they want no matter who they run over in the process. Saddam is perceived as a threat to the allies of the US in the region, and his constant testing of US resolve has not enhanced his image in t he eyes of policy makers. The US therefore perceives Saddam as an enemy who must be opposed. This presents a huge problem for international policy makers, because once the image of the enemy is set, the behavior of the actor is of little consequence. [5]


What to do About Saddam Hussein

This brings us back to the question of what should US policy towards Iraq, and more specifically towards Saddam Hussein, be? Should US policy change, or is it effective as is? We can see that American policy towards Iraq as is has been ineffec tive in the area of reforming Saddam Hussein, but for the time being has been effective in containing Iraq. However US policy in its current form will not last. The cost of constantly moving troops into the Gulf in response to each new standoff will event ually force policy to change. Recently Sandy Berger, assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs, commented that the administration had to move beyond a standoff with Iraq. This is primarily because "The longer this standoff continues, th e harder it will be to maintain the international support we have built for our policy... Even the toughest of all sanctions regimes in history becomes harder to sustain over time." Berger was quoted as saying. [6] Because of the perceptions by each side as noted above, it would be very difficult to convince Saddam that we will lift sanctions if he complies, and conversely it is very unlikely that the US will ever fully allow Saddam control over his military complex. This points US policy in only one direction, removing Saddam Hussein from power. This stems from what the US desires Iraq to be. "The United States is committed -- as are our friends -- to the victory of principle over expediency; a nd to the evolution in Iraq of a society based on law, exemplified by pluralism and content to live at peace." [7] This is an ideal which probably unlikely in this region, based on the other gov ernment systems in the area. The US has recently committed to the removal of Saddam from power by working step by step with those opposed to him. Berger commented that change in Iraq was necessary. "Saddam's history of aggression and his recent record of deception and defiance leave no doubt that he would resume his drive for regional domination if he had the chance," Berger said. The administration plans to strengthen the Iraqi opposition and support the Iraqi people in order to delegitimize Saddam, and then when the time is right help them achieve new leadership. [8]


The Future of US - Iraqi Relations (a war of wills)

The future of US - Iraqi relations will continue to be a precarious one in which current crisis will seem small. In the fall of 1994, Baghdad's official press, in essence, threatened that Saddam might use his remaining unconventional agents, b iological and chemical, for terrorism in America, or in missiles delivered against his enemies in the region if and when he became fed up with sanctions. [9] This type of rhetoric coming from Ba ghdad will continue to cause US policy makers to perceive Saddam as a threat, and thus will attempt to remove him from power. However causing an uprising in Iraq that would topple Hussein's government is going to take time, if it is possible at all. Sadda m maintains very tight control over the country and he is ruthless in maintaining his power. Even if an uprising were to happen the US would be unable to control the outcome, and Iraq may become another Cuba, except with WMD. The probable scenarios for th e future of the Middle East are not what many policy makers would like to see. Resolve will be the critical factor in all future dealings with Iraq. The US must put action behind these words spoken by Madeline Albright at Georgetown University: [10]


"Our resolve on this point is unwavering. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers put their lives on the line in the Gulf war. We will not allow Iraq to regain by stonewalling the Security Council what it forfeited by aggression on the battlefield...We know from experience that firmness is the only language the Iraqi Government understands."


The US speaks loudly in many cases: [11]


Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon spelled out that Iraq ``won't have the type of notice next time'' it had before and should ``allow the inspectors to do their job,''


But the size of the stick (resolve) they carry remains to be seen.






[1] Farnham, Barbara. Avoiding Losses/ Taking Risks. Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press, 1994.

pg 13


[2] Farnham, Barbara. Avoiding Losses/ Taking Risks. Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press, 1994.

pg 14


[3] Tanter, Raymond. Rogue Regimes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998

pg 2


[4] al-Jumhuriyah, October 8, 1994.


[5] Tanter, Raymond. Rogue Regimes. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998

pg 91


[6] Schweid, Barry. AP Diplomatic Writer. Tuesday, December 8, 1998;

1:57 p.m. EST


[7] Secretary of State Albright Policy Speech On Iraq, March 26, 1998


[8] Schweid, Barry. AP Diplomatic Writer. Tuesday, December 8, 1998;

1:57 p.m. EST


[9] Mylroie, Laurie and Adams, James Ring. "Saddam's Germs",

The American Spectator, November 1995.



[10] Secretary of State Albright Policy Speech On Iraq, March 26, 1998


[11] Raum, Tom. Associated Press Writer. Saturday, December 5, 1998;

11:25 a.m. EST