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Iraq: Talking Peace, Bush Wages Psychological Warfare On Saddam Hussein

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The United States hopes to disarm Iraq without use of force. But as United Nations weapons inspectors prepare to return to Baghdad, U.S. leaders are already busy waging a different kind of "war" on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Washington, 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says he hopes to resolve the Iraqi crisis peacefully. Yet he is waging an all-out war on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- a psychological war, that is.

Last week, Bush used a news conference to send a direct message to the Iraqi military. He said, "Should [the Iraqi generals] behave in a way that endangers the lives of their own citizens, as well as citizens in the "neighborhood," there will be a consequence."

Analysts say Bush used this televised news conference to wage psychological warfare on Hussein, effectively telling Iraq's military leaders that if they use of weapons of mass destruction or slaughter civilians in the event of war, the consequences for them will be devastating.

Kenneth Allard is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and a leading U.S. military analyst. He told RFE/RL that Bush was also giving Iraqi military forces a chance "to be smart" and survive by not backing Hussein, because, he said, massive change is coming -- whether they like it or not. "The message, very simply, is: 'Saddam Hussein is dead, but is as yet unburied.' And that is a very wise perspective for the leaders of Iraq's military to understand. He's going, the only question is when and how much pain is inflicted in the process," Allard said.

In psychological warfare, information and messages are used to influence the behavior of an enemy, its military forces, or civilian population to more efficiently achieve a goal -- usually a military or political victory.

Using psychology to influence the enemy is as old as warfare itself.

Genghis (Chingiz) Khan, the Mongol leader of 1,000 years ago, is known for leading a marauding horde of horsemen in conquest across Russia and into Europe. But his success was partly due to "agents of influence." Sent in advance of his armies, they would persuade opponents to surrender by exaggerating the brutality and size of Khan's forces.

But psychological warfare isn't always deception. At its best, Allard said, it's grounded in reality -- as were Khan's ruses.

David Ignatius, the editor of the Paris-based "International Herald Tribune" daily, wrote in a commentary last Friday that the United States is trying to persuade Hussein's hard-core Republican Guard forces that they will be safe if they choose not to fight.

Allard made this observation: "I strongly suspect some of that is being communicated in more personal, direct terms to the individuals involved. And that, I think, serves to underline the fact that we know who these people are, we know who their families are, and if they care at all about themselves or their families, they'd be very well-advised to not come to the aid of Saddam Hussein right now."

Ignatius said part of this strategy is an attempt to persuade senior members of the ruling Sunni Ba'ath Party that they won't be held responsible for Hussein's crimes. But Ignatius acknowledges that even if officials switch sides, it may not prevent the Shi'ites of southern Iraq from tearing their local Ba'ath "representatives limb from limb."

But psychological warfare is not all always so dark. Sometimes it's about boosting a captive people's morale so that they can hold on until eventual liberation.

During World War II, the Allies sought to keep up the spirits of the Nazi-occupied peoples of France, Italy, and the Netherlands by dropping things like tea, coffee, cigarettes, and chocolate on them.

More recently, during Yugoslavia's 1999 bombing, NATO dropped leaflets on the people of Serbia and Kosovo explaining why they were being bombed -- and how they could stop it.

And last year, as U.S. forces began bombing Afghanistan after the 11 September attacks, they dropped leaflets explaining that a "Partnership of Nations" is assisting the people of Afghanistan.

Another leaflet called on Afghans "to drive out the foreign terrorists." Indeed, one common tactic is to persuade -- through leaflets, broadcasts, or direct communication -- a captive populace that it can have a better life by turning on an often-hated leader and helping the would-be liberators.

Bush has done that often, telling Iraqi citizens that he intends to liberate, not subjugate, them and hopes to do so with a minimum of suffering.

On Thursday, he again sought to address Iraqis directly on television. "The Iraqi people can have a better life than the one they have now. They can have -- there are other alternatives to somebody who is willing to rape and mutilate and murder in order to stay in power. There's just a better life than the one they have to live now," Bush said.

The next day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the main U.S. ally on Iraq, followed Bush's cue, telling Iraqis that Hussein's ouster would mean a better life for them. "Whatever happens, the territorial integrity of Iraq will be absolute. Whatever happens, we will work with you [Iraqi people] for a fairer and better future for the Iraqi people," Blair said.

Of course, the Iraqis know all about U.S.-British psychological tactics.

One campaign they will never forget came toward the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Hussein's forces were driven out of Kuwait and all but routed. That's when the U.S.-led coalition called on the southern Shi'ites and northern Kurds to rise up and overthrow Hussein.

And they did, only to see the coalition decide not to back the insurgency, leaving thousands at Hussein's mercy.

But Allard, the former army-intelligence colonel who served in Bosnia in 1996, said he believes things are very different today. "I don't think that we're about to make that mistake again, and I think that anyone looking at not only what is being said, but who is saying it -- and appreciating the history that now goes back to more than a dozen years -- understands that this time we mean it, that this time is for all the marbles, and the world will be a better place without Saddam Hussein," Allard said.

He'd better be right. After all, according to a psychological-operations website, there are several psychological-warfare rules that should never be broken. Among them: "Keep all promises; and if uncertain of ability to deliver, don't promise."