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Deterring Saddam Hussein's Iraq: Domestic Audience Costs and Credibility Assessments in Theory and Practice


The question of how leaders assess the credibility of threats and assurances is at the heart of scholarly literatures on diplomatic signaling, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy. It is also of enormous importance to policymakers. My dissertation addresses the degree to which leaders assess the credibility of others' signals based on their expectations of whether others will pay domestic audience costs for failing to follow through on their commitments. Leading scholars have written that only democratic regimes can strengthen the credibility of their commitments by generating audience costs. Scholars have also written that personalist regimes, exemplified by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, cannot send credible signals by use of the audience cost mechanism and are unable to grasp the audience cost logic. Recent attempts to identify the audience cost mechanism at work in historical records have come up empty-handed, casting doubt on the empirical validity of Audience Cost Theory (ACT).

I find important instances in which Saddam and his subordinates assessed the credibility of U.S. commitments within an audience cost framework. I also find that Saddam sought to increase the credibility of Iraqi messages by signaling that concerns about domestic audience costs tied his hands. American thinking and behavior were less consistent, though not always inconsistent, with ACT. My research draws heavily from captured audio files of private meetings between Saddam and his most trusted advisers. The thousands of hours of taped meetings involving Saddam and his inner circle provide unparalleled primary source material with which to test and refine scholarship on autocrats' perceptions and decision-making.

The first case study is on U.S.-Iraq signaling prior to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The conventional wisdom among scholars is that Iraq invaded Kuwait because April Glaspie, the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, gave Saddam a "green light" to invade during a private meeting. Scholars fail, however, to address why Saddam would consider this private assurance credible, especially given his longstanding, intense distrust of the United States. I find that the "green light" interpretation is a myth. Glaspie provide no assurance of U.S. acquiescence to an Iraqi invasion, nor did Iraqi leaders believe that she had done so. Saddam and his advisers recognized that public threats and deterrent deployments of tripwire forces are commitment-generating, and, therefore, sought to deter such behavior by signaling that it was unnecessary and that it would lead to a conflict spiral. U.S. Arab allies, Glaspie, and other U.S. officials agreed that to avoid a conflict spiral, American warnings should be private rather than public. Concerns about domestic audience costs were far from a primary reason for why the United States went to war with Iraq over Kuwait, yet neither were they entirely absent from American leaders' deliberations.

The second case study is on why Iraq did not use chemical or biological weapons against U.S.-led forces during the 1991 Gulf War. Many scholars believe that Iraq refrained from using such weapons because the U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, issued an ambiguous deterrent warning that the United States would respond to Iraqi WMD use with nuclear weapon strikes. They fail to explain, however, why an ambiguous threat would be commitment-generating. Moreover, nothing in Baker's ambiguous warning hinted of a U.S. nuclear response. Other scholars believe that Iraqi restraint stemmed from Baker's threat that the United States would retaliate by pursuing regime change. Baker, however, repeatedly threatened that the United States would replace the Ba'athist regime in the event of any military conflict, whether or not Iraq used WMD. When war ensued and the United States failed to replace Saddam from power, Saddam opined that the administration's public commitment to replace him, and failure to do so, led Americans to vote Bush out of office. Saddam also indicated belief that Iraq's massive WMD evacuation drills generated domestic audience costs, thus signaling resolve to foreign leaders.

The third chapter, on Iraq's coerced disarmament, consists of a mini-case study on the crisis over UN weapon inspectors' attempt in 1992 to inspect Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture, a mini-case study on Iraq's attempt to end the economic sanctions by deploying forces near its borders with Kuwait in 1994, and a review of how concerns about audience costs may have contributed to the ambiguous nature of Iraq's disarmament. Saddam expressed belief that Iraqi demonstrations signaled resolve to foreign leaders and described U.S. calls to replace his regime within the context of American domestic audience costs. The U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and other senior Western diplomats expressed belief that Saddam could credibly commit to recognizing Kuwait's sovereignty and borders by doing so publicly and unambiguously. Albright also predicted that if Saddam were to formally recognize Kuwait, thus clearly reneging on his longstanding commitment to incorporating the "Nineteenth Province," that Iraqis would remove him from power.

Considerations about domestic audience costs frequently played a less important role in my case studies than other factors. Even in Saddam's Iraq, however, which supposedly exemplifies the type of personalist regime that can neither signal that it has generated domestic audience costs nor correctly assess the credibility of others' signals within the ACT framework, audience cost considerations were far from irrelevant.

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