Steve Coll’s ‘The Achilles Trap’ shows Saddam Hussein’s practical side

Had the eminent journalist Steve Coll written his new book, “The Achilles Trap,” in 2002, his career might have ended. The rigor he displays in it wouldn’t have mattered, nor his analytical modesty, nor his unambiguous and appropriate distaste for Saddam Hussein. Coll would have simply been denounced as an apologist for Hussein, if not pathologized as suffering from what that censorious era termed Bush Derangement Syndrome. For “The Achilles Trap” presents Hussein as a human being, not a caricature.

Coll’s book, relying as it often does on newly translated Iraqi documents, couldn’t have been written back when it might have hindered a war. But it succeeds because of Coll’s willingness to reexamine the mutually reinforcing delusions of Hussein and four U.S. administrations. More than a decade after Iraq-related passions have subsided, his book is a cup of strong black coffee provided to a blacked-out drunk — the drunk being the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which first convinced itself that Hussein was a first-order threat to U.S. interests and more recently convinced itself that invading Iraq was an aberration that can be safely forgotten. It probably won’t induce the drunk to seek sobriety, but it might provide a bracing moment of clarity.

“The Achilles Trap” aims to answer the question that trailed the Iraq War ever since January 2004, when it became undeniable that Hussein did not possess the weapons of mass destruction that the war was predicated on destroying: Why didn’t Hussein demonstrate that he was a defanged tiger and save himself? There’s a Hussein-centric answer and an America-centric answer.

The Hussein-centric answer, Coll writes, with the benefit of access to portions of the dictator’s archive, is that the weapons were at first necessary in the 1980s for him to deter Iran and Israel. Then, after the destruction of much of his arsenal in 1991, the perception that WMDs remained was crucial to Hussein maintaining his rule after the United States humiliated him by evicting him from Kuwait, devastated Iraq’s wealth through sanctions, patrolled his airspace with warplanes and guaranteed an autonomous Kurdish region that served as a staging ground for American power.

The apparatus of fear that characterized Hussein’s Iraq created a trap for its architect. It ensured that the post-Gulf War destruction of his arsenal was not documented. The international crises that followed usually did not involve revelations of new weapons but the inability of Iraq to account for where the old ones had gone. Government official Amir al-Saadi tragically told United Nations weapons inspector Rolf Ekéus that the point of the scuttled bioweapons program was “to prevent a war from starting.” Coll reveals that in 1995, Hussein adviser Tariq Aziz offered Ekéus a false WMD confession if it would end the sanctions.

But nothing would be enough to end the sanctions, as then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright indicated in 1997. The sanctions were not a result of Iraq’s weapons intransigence. They were a result of a U.S. policy of containment and ultimately regime change, for which lingering weapons questions were useful; resolving those questions was not. This is the America-centric answer.

The U.S. experience with Saddam Hussein was shameful and contradictory. Coll wisely starts with the Reagan administration cultivating him as a bulwark against Iran. While the Iraqi ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, became the toast of Embassy Row, a U.S. intelligence program called Druid Leader fed Hussein targeting information as he bathed Iranian soldiers in chemical weapons and Washington pretended not to see his genocide of the Kurds. All these green lights contributed to Hussein asking the Americans, in captivity 15 years later, “If you didn’t want me to go in [to Kuwait], why didn’t you tell me?”

After winning the Gulf War, George H.W. Bush infamously encouraged doomed Iraqi rebellions to overthrow Hussein. Those failures left America, at the zenith of its geopolitical power, with Hussein as a holdout in an oil-rich region. Long before 1998, when Congress and Bill Clinton made regime change official U.S. policy, the elder Bush and then Clinton tasked the CIA with overthrowing him.

“The Liar’s Truths” is Coll’s clever subtitle for the section of the book that deals with the period between the Gulf War and 9/11. Intentionally or not, the phrase applies not only to Hussein but to U.S. policymakers, whose blindness was willful. Making news, Coll skillfully debunks the oft-told story that Hussein tried to have George H.W. Bush assassinated in 1993. But by then, Hussein’s placement as a U.S. adversary was a fixed idea. In 1996, Clinton candidly told Britain’s Tony Blair that he should negotiate with Aziz, but “that is such a heavy-laden decision in America. I can’t do that.” That type of cowardice, characteristic of U.S. foreign policy then and now, “deprived the administration of a chance to probe Saddam’s motivations and claims about WMD up close, ultimately contributing to America’s blindness to the truth,” Coll writes. In 2002, Blair’s intelligence chief concluded that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around [U.S.] policy.” As egregious as George W. Bush’s behavior was, it displayed more continuity than departure from well-worn patterns of U.S. policy on Iraq.

Coll is less effective at contextualizing the incentives that made the CIA a willing partner in this deception. The agency was bureaucratically humiliated after the 1991 revelation that Hussein had a (fruitless) crash nuclear-weapons program. This created what Coll calls a stake in never again “underestimat[ing] Iraqi scientists and Saddam Hussein.” It’s a generous interpretation. With policymakers fixated on Hussein as a threat — one that anchored the American presence in the Middle East after 1991 — CIA analysts had a powerful motivation to overestimate Hussein’s arsenal. The operations side of the agency acted similarly. While seasoned operatives like Frank Anderson were appropriately skeptical of engineering a coup, Anderson himself approved in 1993 a permanent CIA station in Kurdistan, one that he had rejected the year before as provocative, and put the adventurer Bob Baer in charge of it. Antipathy for the enterprise is not the same as obstruction of it.

Hussein’s miscalculations were ultimately fatal. But at times he showed insight, and Coll is gambling that an American audience is now ready to hear about it. Iran-contra reinforced to Hussein that the CIA was playing a double game with him. Ekéus permitted U.S. and Israeli intelligence deep penetration of his U.N. weapons inspection outfit, whose inspectors, Coll writes, “had the authority of occupiers.” That made Hussein’s defiance more rational than the Americans portrayed at the time. By the dawn of the Gulf War in January 1991, Coll concludes, Hussein had decided against using his then-real chemical and biological weapons — meaning the U.S. coalition had deterred him, something George W. Bush and many others would contend was untenable. Coll quotes a senior commander of the Iraqi air force as saying Hussein was “capable of diabolical evil, but he was also a very practical man.”

The U.S. foreign policy establishment considers it unfair for so much of the world to fixate on the mendacity of the Iraq War. Members of that establishment should instead recognize that the war and its preludes were not the unfortunate departure from the norm that they portray them to be. Just look at what is in front of our eyes right now: As Israel culls Gaza, the Biden administration calls “meritless” the charge of genocide that the International Court of Justice validated as plausible. The prerogative of hegemonic power is not to respect the truth but to make the truth respect hegemonic power. And the path to abandoning that hubristic prerogative can start with absorbing the lessons of “The Achilles Trap,” another triumph from one of our best journalists.

Spencer Ackerman, a Pulitzer Prize- and National Magazine Award-winning journalist, is a columnist for the Nation and the author of “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.

Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq

Penguin Press. 556 pp. $35

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