The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Saddam Trap: Winning by Checkmate


The game of chess is not supposed to be a realistic simulation of a battle. But, on one point, it may provide a fundamental hint: wars are mostly a question of command and control. Killing or neutralizing the leader (the king) may cause the collapse of the country's military forces. But, in modern times, country leaders are rarely killed by their enemies, rather, they are controlled, sometimes in subtle ways that involve them engaging in foolish or counterproductive actions. 


If the world is a giant chessboard, then the leaders of the major powers are equivalent to the "king" in chess. It is a common perception that whatever is being done in the giant struggle, is done by specific orders from the great leader, be him Putin, Biden, Xi Jinping, or whoever controls -- or is said to control -- a country.  

This perception opens up a chess-like strategy that consists in eliminating the enemy leader. But that is rarely a good idea. Unlike what happens in chess, a dead leader may be turned into a heroic figure by propaganda, and then replaced by another one who may be even more warlike. So, a better strategy could consist in controlling the enemy leader(s), something that you cannot do in Chess. If you can convince your enemy to make poor strategic choices, you are halfway to victory (Sun Tzu never said that in his "The Art of War", but he could have). 

So, let's see if we can find historical examples of this strategy having been successfully applied in the recent past. I can propose at least three. 

1. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), 1808 – 1873. The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, turned Emperor of the French, is such a fascinating figure that I dedicated at least four posts to him (see below). The fascination about him derives from the fact that he was thoroughly, completely, and hopelessly incompetent. All his major decisions seemed to be aimed at ruining the remaining chances for France to become a world power, as it had been during the reign of his uncle, Napoleon 1st. One of these decisions was especially disastrous: when Louis Napoleon helped the Piedmont King, Vittorio Emanuele II, to defeat the Austrians and then unify Italy into a single kingdom. The result was the creation of a state that forever blocked all the attempts of France to expand in North Africa. Was Luis Napoleon controlled by the Piedmontese? It seems that he was: the control took the form of the work of the Countess of Castiglione, aka Virginia Oldoini, one of the most beautiful women of the time. She was sent to France by her cousin, the Prime Minister of the Piedmontese government, with the explicit purpose of becoming Louis Napoleon's lover and influencing his decisions. It is hard to say how effective Ms. Oldoini was, considering that Luis Napoleon took plenty of bad decisions even before knowing her. But we may at least suspect that she had a role in shaping the world as it is today. 

2. Benito Mussolini, 1883 – 1945. You could say that his first years of leadership went reasonably well. The turning point for him seems to have been the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Still today, we may wonder how it was possible that the Italian government engaged the country in the conquest of a territory that held nothing of interest for the Italian economy and that, much worse, was a gigantic burden for the state's coffers. It should have been obvious that the military forces stationed there could not be resupplied in case of a major conflict and were destined to be defeated. Which was precisely what happened. Was the idea of invading Ethiopia "planted" in Mussolini's mind by the British secret services? If that was the case, it was a remarkably successful trick that considerably weakened Italy's military power at the start of World War II. How could that have been obtained? It is hard to think that Mussolini could be controlled using women: he was a renowned womanizer and had plenty of them. But we know that the British secret services had paid him to push the Italian government to join the Allies during WWI. Then, in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." That opened up for Mussolini the road to put into practice a mad idea of his: that of rebuilding the ancient Roman Empire, maybe with him becoming emperor. Instead, he ended up hanged by the feet, but that's the way history works. Incidentally, Mussolini's removal from power in 1943 is a remarkable example of a Chess-like decapitation strategy in modern times. Without a leader, the Italian armed forces disbanded and ceased to fight in days. 

3. Saddam Hussein, 1937 – 2006. Hussein was another remarkably incompetent leader who engaged his country in a disastrous war against neighboring Iran, probably thinking of himself as the heir of the Arab leaders who had conquered Iran during the 7th century AD. His doom came when he took another disastrous decision, that of invading Kuwait in 1990. It is well known that, before invading, Hussein met the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, and discussed with her his grievances with the Kuwait government. We have the transcripts of their discussion: while she never explicitly encouraged Hussein to invade Kuwait, she also didn't mention that the US would have been strongly displeased. Then, surely, not everything that was said was also transcribed, and we may imagine that Hussein would not have invaded Kuwait if he had imagined the US reaction. On the contrary, he may have taken what the ambassador said as a green light. After all, the US had supported Iraq in the war against Iran, so Hussein could easily imagine that the US would continue to support him. We will never know, but we may at least suspect that Hussein was framed and pushed into making the mistake that would eventually lead to his death and the destruction of Iraq. 

There are surely more examples of absurd decisions taken by country leaders. That may be the case with Stalin's decision to invade Finland in 1939. It looked like an easy task, but it cost more than 300,000 casualties to the Soviet Union. Then, some people argue that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was, at least in part, a trap created by the American diplomacy to put them in a position from which they could not back down anymore. But the three examples I listed, I think, are enough to indicate that a strong leader can be pushed to take bad decisions by foreign forces, although the methods for doing so are not straightforward. 

Neither money nor intimidation can do much to control top-level leaders: they are riding the tiger, so, they afford to appear weak, or -- worse -- as traitors to their countries.  Sex may be a more effective tool, and the recent story of Jeffrey Epstein tells us that many politicians may have sex-related skeletons in their closets. But truly powerful leaders can intimidate their critics and afford to be womanizers or sexual perverts. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is a case in point. 

So, stroking an overinflated ego may be the best strategy to influence a leader. All country leaders are normally lone men (very rarely women) surrounded by people who have no interest and no convenience in contradicting them. Older leaders may be especially sensitive to this approach and, surely, in getting older, their mental capabilities do not improve. Lev Tolstoy gave us a remarkable description of how Napoleon (the first) made incredible mistakes simply by doing the things that had been doing before and then discovering in horror that these things didn't work anymore (see below). 

In this light, the best controlling technique to defeat a foreign leader can be called "The Saddam Trap" (we may also call it "Saddamization." It does sound bad but, just for this reason, it may be a suitable definition). The Saddam Trap consists in enticing the leader to engage the country in a military adventure that, in the beginning, looks like a cakewalk (what could go wrong with invading Kuwait?) Then, it turns out to have been a trap from which the great leader cannot extricate himself without losing face-- which for him is equivalent to admitting defeat. Leaders cannot admit defeat, they can only double down and hope that making a mistake bigger will turn it into a success. Except that it doesn't always work. And then history moves forward, unforgiving as usual. 

The study of history may tell us much about our present, but we have to be cautious in interpreting current events according to similarities with previous ones. And don't forget that the "great leaders" are few: most of our politicians can be bought on the cheap, we don't need to look for sophisticated strategies. So, we cannot say with certainty how exactly some recent events can be interpreted in terms of one or more leaders being trapped Saddam-style or, simply, paid to sell their country to a foreign power. With time, though, we will know. 


Lev Tolstoy: War and Peace.

Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy’s line, and a cavalry attack by ‘the men of iron,’ all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another’s eyes only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now with the fight balanced on such a strained center destroy him and his army.

When he ran his mind over the whole of this strange Russian campaign in which not one battle had been won, and in which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps had been captured in two months, when he looked at the concealed depression on the faces around him and heard reports of the Russians still holding their ground a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him, and all the unlucky accidents that might destroy him occurred to his mind. The Russians might fall on his left wing, might break through his center, he himself might be killed by a stray cannon ball. All this was possible. In former battles he had only considered the possibilities of success, but now innumerable unlucky chances presented themselves, and he expected them all. Yes, it was like a dream in which a man fancies that a ruffian is coming to attack him, and raises his arm to strike that ruffian a terrible blow which he knows should annihilate him, but then feels that his arm drops powerless and limp like a rag, and the horror of unavoidable destruction seizes him in his helplessness.

The news that the Russians were attacking the left flank of the French army aroused that horror in Napoleon. He sat silently on a camp stool below the knoll, with head bowed and elbows on his knees.


  1. Not only "Hussein was another remarkably incompetent leader...." - but rather ALL leaders, since James Watt, were humbled and reduced Incompetent by the overwhelmingly energy-dense fossil fuels - entering the Social Contract, effectively rendering the Social Contract and our Western Civilisation with it - Surreal and almost fake...

    Or, anyone really thinks that Tony Blair, George Bush, Khomeini, Mao, Stalin, Xi, Sarkozy, Putin - and all others - were/are any competent or any leaders - at all?

    The only competent leader since the steam engine - has been - Fossil Fuels.

    Real leaders will only return to societies around the world after the fossil fuels age is over and behind.

    Prior to that, all leaders have no competency other than misleading their people - that fossil fuels never deplete, the speed of Light can be squared, and Mars Colonisation is a step or two away - burning oceans of finite fossil fuels - in the process.

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most"


  2. If I follow your reasoning Ugo, you would like to say that Vladimir Putin was convinced that it was necessary to intervene militarily in Ukraine, and that this decision could lead to his fall.
    This is an interesting idea to which I see several objections, among others:
    The general evolution of the world order towards an atomization of powers. The era of the empire is over and even if some actors inside the empire wish to maintain or extend its influence, their strategy is doomed to failure. The scarcity of resources and the ongoing collapse will prevent any attempt to control a possible new world order.
    Secondly, Russia is a nuclear power, unlike Napoleon's empire, Mussolini's Italy or Saddam Hussein's Iraq. No one can predict the consequences if Russia, with or without Putin, were to be defeated.
    We can assume that Putin is right when he says that there will be no winner.
    To your credit, China might be interested in seeing Russia weakened in order to get cheap access to its resources. As Sun Tzu said: "To defeat your opponent without having faced him is the best conduct".

    1. That would be true if the leaders were acting rationally. And also if they had at least some humane feeling for their subjects. But I think neither statement is true

    2. Agreed! The popes themselves sent lords and kings, and many knights and young men, to the crusades in order to keep their power in Europe, did not they? Or did they really care about their subjects? We tend to see the wars as conflicts about resources, which is half true. The other purpose of wars is just to divert attention to a secondary objective while the real objective is being addressed.

    3. Well, I am pretty sure China sadamized V. Putin. They are in a win-win situation. Because of the sanctions, they can take control of the Russian economy, and if V. Putin wins, they can take Taiwan. If V. Putin looses, maybe they can get parts of Siberia or have a total control on the Russian energy sources.

  3. Regarding leadership structures and decision making - I think that safety valves are important, to allow for change-of-ruler once in a while to keep things dynamic. And to balance different interests in society.

    I am looking with horror on the situation in China, where the president Xi (or the vassals around him) has changed the constitution to enable life-time-rule. I think this is a major mistake, it would be better to have a new round of people on the top, not because they are better, but because they are different. In October we will see if Xi steps down or takes on a 3rd term...

    Another interesting structural change has been ongoing in most countries in Europe the last 40 years, where the academically schooled middle class (professional managerial class) has taken over all parliaments, and increasingly implement policies that give more and more advantages to this group (10-30% of the population gets all the gains). That is also creating more internal pressures, tensions and rifts.

    Leadership and integrity is scarce, and I guess it always was so.


  4. Ugo, you have to be sure who the leader is to be able to think about eliminating him.Your examples above are all autocrats if that's the right description. We don't even know who the leader is in the US. Biden is certainly no more than a figurehead for the Deep State. Maybe Kissinger has been the "leader" for a long time. Now we appear to have Blackrock et al pulling at least some of the strings behind the curtains...who knows who else and what factions are fighting it out. Again and again, the writers on Russia point out that Putin rules with the Duma...which apparently approved funding for the Ukraine a year before the Russians went in. Although saker says there can be no replacement for Putin, at least two are in line, and more warlike and hawkish than he is apparently. As for China, who knows who rules with Xi.

    I think FDR was a leader and that things went according to his plan...Eisenhower appointed the Dulleses and nothing has been the same since then in many regards. He said he regretted it, but even he...with his MIC warning in his last speech, didn't have the courage or guts to undo the worst, most destructive creation in American governmental history, the CIA.

    One thing I see with both Putin and AMLO is great communication to the public. I am amazed they have the strength and energy to keep going...(Lavrov is astonishing too). They strike me as the only real "leaders" in the world right now and both have over 70% public backing at the moment. I can see the men who might step in for Putin, but I see no one who can step in for AMLO.

    Thanks for writing this.


    1. Thinking more about this, in the US, it has been the Deep State that eliminated the US leaders in their way...watching the Kent State song and picture montages by Crosby, Stills and Nash state killed JFK, RFK, MLK, and they neutered Trump. Why they didn't kill him, I've always wondered. The second level in the US, the Cheney's, the Bakers, the Dulleses, Albright, the Clinton's are the decision makers and the big fish, Kissinger, were the ones who would have to be decapitated. Maybe the Russians will. They've said they will go for the decision makers...and take out NY, DC, et al, if they are pushed to for survival. That's how deep the decapitation will have to go to change things.

  5. Ugo, el articulo de la trampa de Saddam es extraordinario. Hace años leo tu blog pero creo que en este 2022, tan variopinto , ha sacado lo mejor de tu repertorio. A pesar que este es un blog de como las cosas se ponen mal muy rápido, también veo esperanza en que un puñado de hombres de talento, puedan por lo menos hacer la caída menos aparatosa.