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How Iraq was lost

Steve Coll’s account of America’s relationship with Saddam Hussein reveals a series of devastating blunders.

By Robert D Kaplan

Steve Coll is the Thucydides of American journalists: dry, cold, strictly factual, and exhaustive. Reading his books on America’s Middle East wars, you have the sense that you are getting the final word on the subject. His interpretations of what transpired are not always obvious, but – as in Thucydides – have to be teased out of the minutiae of facts as he presents them.

In The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq, the story Coll presents is devastating, yet the presentation is so painstaking and low-key that there are relatively few gotcha moments. He doesn’t go after people, but instead allows them to emerge on the page. Rather than present merely a Washington tragedy of the George W Bush administration, Coll centres on Iraq and the problems with analysing what was actually going on there – all the way back to the Reagan years.

The chief protagonist in The Achilles Trap is Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who killed hundreds of thousands of people and imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands more. Coll’s portrait of Saddam is granular in the extreme, down to his family relations, the number of Cuban cigars he smoked each day, the novels he wrote and the leaders who fascinated him. The Western media made much of his obsession with Joseph Stalin, but Saddam was also absorbed by Mao Zedong, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nelson Mandela. Saddam was a great listener who unnerved his visitors as they talked to him because his expression was immobile and therefore his mind could not be read. He was also moody and arbitrary, and pardoned and executed with abandon. His top nuclear scientists could be imprisoned for months before being awarded with even more bureaucratic responsibility. In keeping with Coll’s style – the product of conducting legions of interviews and poring over countless documents – the lives, families, and personalities of Saddam’s nuclear experts are also chronicled in great detail.

Coll reveals that the Reagan administration and particularly the CIA offered Saddam as much support as they could to hold off Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and were frustrated by the poor generalship of the Iraqi army, caused by Saddam’s tendency to fill the upper ranks with Baath Party hacks. As for the US State Department Arabists in the Reaganite 1980s, they were aware of Saddam’s cruelty, yet rationalised their support of him on account of his being a secular moderniser. There was a lot to swallow here, as Coll reveals. There was the mass executions of Baath party cadres carried out soon after Saddam achieved total power in 1979, his use of mustard gas against teenage Iranian soldiers in the mid-1980s, the gassing and killing of tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians in 1988, and so forth. “The sheer arbitrariness of Saddam’s rule was an aspect of its cruelty,” Coll summarises.

As president from 1989 to 1993, George HW Bush not only continued Ronald Reagan’s policy of engagement with Saddam but actively sought to improve bilateral ties, again, because of Iraq’s role in holding off Iran for the benefit of the rest of the Arab world. Here Coll dramatically flips the conventional script in the story of the US and Iraq, simply by laying out the facts. On the eve of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, the Iraqi leader summoned the US ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, for a meeting. In the course of the encounter, Glaspie indicated that the US took no position on inter-Arab disputes. The news of this electrified the Washington nomenklatura a few days later, which immediately blamed Glaspie for a weak performance that, in effect, gave Saddam a green light to invade Kuwait. Glaspie’s career was in significant measure ruined. (Disclosure: I also blamed Glaspie in my 1993 book, The Arabists.) But Coll, in giving Glaspie a powerful measure of redemption, documents how she was merely reiterating the policy of the elder Bush’s administration. Coll explains that, because she wasn’t a special presidential envoy but only an ambassador, Glaspie had no authority to freelance in her statements to Saddam.

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Alas, it was that administration that abjectly failed at deterrence: neglecting to warn Saddam in the days and weeks before the invasion of Kuwait that he would face strong resistance from the United States if his armies crossed into another Arab country. That failure led to the first Gulf War, in 1991, without which there probably would not have been a second Gulf War in 2003.

Having been a potential friend to Saddam, George HW Bush and his government immediately cast the Iraqi leader as another Hitler, who had to be militarily defeated. During the first Gulf War the US military and intelligence apparatus even made attempts to assassinate him. But in the war’s aftermath, Bush flinched, realising he needed Saddam in power to prevent chaos in Iraq and serve as a buffer against Iran.

Thus was born the sanctions regime, in which economic penalties were inflicted on Iraq until Saddam came completely clean about his weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programme. And it wasn’t just nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological ones, too, that concerned the West. The elder Bush administration had much to be suspicious about, since, as Coll documents, Saddam at the time did have an active nuclear-weapons programme, run at times by his son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, which the Iraqis were trying to hide from United Nations inspectors. There were even cat-and-mouse chases that had a cartoonish quality between the UN inspectors and the Iraqis to find component parts stored on moving trucks.

Saddam’s obsession with nuclear weapons is normally ascribed to his fear of Iran. But Coll shows that this was a simplistic explanation. Saddam also believed that nuclear weapons would help secure his power base at home and give him a sort of a strategic parity with Israel, the only nuclear power in the region. There was also a side to Saddam’s personality that was rather subtle, and which the CIA therefore misinterpreted, where he simply wanted to be feared – by being assumed to be guilty of things he didn’t even do – thus granting him another form of insurance. For example, Coll reports that it was never proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Saddam attempted to have George HW Bush assassinated while the president was visiting Kuwait in 1993, but that Saddam was pleased when he heard that the world assumed it was true.

Bill Clinton’s eight years in office (1993-2001) were defined by supporting strong UN inspection regimes to find WMD, combined with half-baked plots hatched in Washington and abroad to remove Saddam from office. The Iraqis became increasingly enraged by the inspections because they saw no end-point to them, even if they fully complied. It was all sticks and no carrots. Although Clinton did not commit a history-making blunder like his successor would, he nevertheless completely lacked a vision regarding Iraq.

The 1990s were crucial in that the economic sanctions against Saddam were killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians through malnutrition and other hardships, even as the onerous inspections were actually working in preventing Saddam producing weapons of mass destruction: so much so that, as Coll writes, Saddam “assumed that an all-powerful CIA already knew that he had no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons”. Yet with all the on-site inspections, the laboratory test samples, and the U-2 spy planes flying overhead, the Americans were, in fact, not completely confident that the problem had been solved. And then Saddam kicked the UN inspectors out, a decision partly arising from his sheer frustration with the process.

By the time George W Bush was elected president in 2000, Saddam and his regime were weaker than they had been in decades past. As Coll writes of Saddam: “Age, isolation, and a decade of family struggles had sapped some of his fire.” The great irony is that just as Iraq was becoming less of a threat the Washington elite was becoming more obsessed with the danger Iraq posed. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, though not at all tied to Saddam, primed the Bush administration for focusing on him.

As the tragedy reaches its denouement, the author continues to expose popular myths. Of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi operator supported by Washington war hawks as a potential successor to Saddam, Coll writes: “Chalabi would later be credited with conning America into war. Yet he was pushing on an open door. To overestimate his importance risks scapegoating a foreigner with an accent and ignoring the responsibility – even eagerness – of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, aspiring cabinet members, and think-tank writers,” to go to war.

There was such an obsession with toppling a weakened Saddam in a demonstration of American power that there was comparatively little planning for how Iran and its security services would react. Even the CIA had been focused so much on the war and WMD that it had never truly grappled with the Iranian factor.

This sets up a further irony that Coll implies but does not directly address. The security vacuum that followed the end of the Baathist regime provided an historic opening for Iran to influence and subvert Iraqi politics. But what if the US had merely continued with the sanctions, as opponents to the war were essentially advocating? Iraq, its economy and its people would continue to have been weakened, and be open to similar Iranian infiltration as the years passed, especially as, Coll reveals, Saddam himself was becoming more introspective and given to novel-writing. Ultimately, we might have been faced with a similar situation as we now have: an Iran as a great regional power destabilising the region. Alas, it has been the very artificiality and fragility of the Baathist regimes in Iraq and Syria that created such a vacuum for Iranian imperialism to fill.

Hindsight is easy. Nevertheless, hindsight demonstrates that perhaps that the wisest, albeit most ruthless, policy the US might have adopted at some time in the 1990s was to offer Saddam a way out of the economic sanctions in order to strengthen his cruel regime against Iran. But, at least to my knowledge, few in Washington were advocating such a position. And it would have had virtually no public support at the time, given Saddam’s reputation for atrocities. What was really needed was politically undoable.

The story of America and Iraq is epic in its dimensions, of which Steve Coll has provided the most comprehensive blueprint thus far.

Robert D Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His most recent book is “The Loom of Time” (Random House)

The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the CIA, and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq
Steve Coll
Allen Lane, 576pp, £30

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[See also: How to kill a country]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

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