ATLANTA - Saddam Hussein gave American politicians more credit than they deserved.
He thought any U.S. president would be able to see straight through his big bluff over weapons of mass destruction and know at once that he was aiming his fiery rhetoric not at us but at Iran. He thought we'd understand that he was pretending to have WMD in the same way that some homeowners pretend to have an electronic security system - they put a big sign in the front yard, but they don't actually wire the house.
While President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell were demanding that Mr. Hussein account for barrels and barrels of dangerous materials he supposedly had in his possession, Mr. Hussein was looking around his savage neighborhood knowing full well that he dared not appear weak. If Iran knew he didn't have unconventional weapons - heck, if the Iraqis knew he didn't have unconventional weapons - he wouldn't last another season.
So that's the answer to the puzzling question of why - as Mr. Bush pressed toward an invasion - Mr. Hussein didn't 'fess up that he didn't have any nukes or nerve gas and invite the U.N. weapons inspectors in to see for themselves. Mr. Hussein deliberately sought to keep up the impression that he had WMD, mostly to keep Iran at bay, weapons inspector Charles Duelfer told Congress last week. Mr. Hussein told aides, according to Mr. Duelfer's report, "The better part of war is deceiving."
Meanwhile, Mr. Hussein must have believed the Americans knew better. After all, during the 1980s, the United States backed Mr. Hussein in his eight-year war against Iran. The United States pledged to do "whatever was necessary and legal" to help Iraq defeat its larger neighbor, although Mr. Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. The Reagan administration provided Mr. Hussein with battlefield intelligence on Iranian troop movements and eased the way for him to purchase anthrax and bubonic plague cultures from U.S. companies.
Poor, confused Mr. Hussein. He must have had an unshakable faith in the omniscience of U.S. intelligence and the wisdom of our strategic alliances. How could the United States not know that sanctions had stripped him of the capacity to manufacture unconventional weapons? After all, they were our sanctions, imposed by the United Nations at the insistence of the United States after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Mr. Hussein was violating the sanctions at every opportunity - and pushing hard to get them lifted - but even less-than-rigorous enforcement managed to keep weapons components out of his hands. And he no doubt knew that as recently as February 2001, Mr. Powell had told reporters in Cairo that sanctions had worked to contain Iraq.
Mr. Hussein may be a madman - he was undoubtedly a mass murderer - but he was no fool. He never threatened the United States until we declared war against him. Was he supporting terrorists? Absolutely. He sent money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, not only as a way of undermining Israel's security but also as a way of gaining the stature among Arab leaders that he so desperately craved. Indeed, Mr. Hussein was a threat to his neighbors, especially to Israel.
In spy movies, cabals plot to provoke the United States into going to war against the wrong country. But a wily CIA agent is always around to pull the U.S. president back from the brink of disaster and prevent a war.
The movies, however, don't account for a president who has some strange pathological desire to attack the wrong country. And there is no CIA agent - and certainly no CIA director - to come in and forestall disaster. Mr. Bush invaded the wrong country, and Iran - on the verge of having nuclear weapons, the most deadly of all WMD - is more dangerous than ever.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.