Terror, misperception and America’s road to Iraq

  • Themes: America, Geopolitics, The Iraq War

For decades, Saddam Hussein confused and misled the United States. After 9/11, the fear of further terror attacks and the misperception of Iraq's support for al-Qaeda set in motion a war that would transform the Middle East.

Iraqi protestors set a fire at the base of a statue of Saddam Hussein, April 2003.
Iraqi protestors set a fire at the base of a statue of Saddam Hussein, April 2003. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

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

I first got involved in making US policy toward Iraq in February 2005. By then the country and its policy was already in a bad place, and soon to get much worse. I was the newly appointed counselor of the State Department, with deputies-level policy responsibilities. Before even setting foot in my new Washington office, I was sent to Iraq. It was the first of many such trips during the next few years, repeatedly travelling the length and breadth of the country to figure out what was really going on in the field.

One big takeaway was a lasting curiosity to figure out how the US had got itself into this mess. To the historian and the ex-official alike, the story is surpassingly strange. And the more one knows, the stranger it gets. Reading Steve Coll’s The Achilles Trap helps solve some of the puzzles.

The book does not spend much time on the immediate run-up to the 2003 war, a part of the story for which Melvyn Leffler’s recent book Confronting Saddam Hussein is a valuable benchmark in the evolving scholarship. Nor does The Achilles Trap dissect the disastrously incompetent planning for the foreseeable aftermath of the American-led invasion.

What Coll does do, though, is step back and review the whole quarter-century prior to the war. He zeroes in on the world of Saddam Hussein, especially as it pertained to his relations with the United States. In that intersection he focuses particularly on a few of the Iraqi scientists involved in clandestine work and on some of the principal Americans dedicated to uncovering what Iraq was up to.

Getting the necessary help, Coll has studied transcripts of the captured recordings of high-level Iraqi meetings. He has interviewed hundreds of people. He has tapped the growing scholarship on the Iraqi regime – a ‘who’s who’ of these scholars was on display recently at the Hoover Institution’s conference discussing ‘what we now know’ from Iraqi archives.

Coll knows the region. He has an excellent feel for the world of intelligence operations, already on display in his landmark works on American intelligence work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coll has that most estimable quality: good judgment in how to sift what people tell him.

The context for the story is a depressingly familiar depiction of a modern tyrant who seized full power in 1979. All the usual features are there: the ‘revolutionary’ branding, the occasional donning of green fatigues, the monstrous secret police and prisons, the creatures serving the dictator, the over-decorated palaces, and the obsessive paranoia, which in Saddam’s case was sometimes directed at the United States and always directed at Israel and Jews. Saddam’s sons were particularly loathsome, especially the deranged and homicidal eldest, Uday Hussein.

Distinctive in Iraq’s case were the quantity of oil money and the roving scope of Saddam’s ambitions. He saw himself as a ruler of destiny, later writing allegorical novels in which his avatar guides an ancient empire against its enemies. By 1980 he was mounting secret programmes to build nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, plans that were slowed, but not derailed, by Israel’s strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor complex in 1981. When the nuclear plans resumed, Saddam doubled down on them, secretly pursuing uranium enrichment, simultaneously using both the centrifuge and electromagnetic separation methods.

In the wars of religion across the Islamic world that ignited in 1979 and have not yet burned out, Saddam was a secular opportunist. He invaded Iran in 1980. The bloody war went poorly. The more conservative Arab regimes feared that Iran might overrun and break up Iraq so they supported Saddam. The United States pitched in with intelligence support to help Iraq stop Iran. The relationship was still dominated by mutual mistrust, alleviated only occasionally by the efforts of some Americans to get their share of Iraq’s foreign commerce.

Until 1990, the United States was not terribly important to Iraq, which usually did not have diplomatic relations with Washington, and Iraq was even less important to the United States. Iraq’s main foreign sponsors were the Soviet Union and France. West Germans often provided further technical expertise.

The Iran-Iraq War wound down in 1988. The great question was what Saddam – deeply indebted to foreign creditors – would choose next. His financial position required hard choices between guns and butter, counselling rebuilding and retrenchment. Instead, in the spring and summer of 1990, Saddam inflamed his confrontation with Israel and decided to solve his money problems by conquering neighbouring Kuwait, with its oil wealth, and at least cowing Saudi Arabia, or more.

Part one of Coll’s book culminates with the outbreak of the Kuwait war, usually referred to as the ‘Gulf War.’ Coll calls out what he regards as a momentous US failure to deter Saddam from carrying out this attack. Coll is good on what happened in Baghdad in those last days of July 1990, including a measured appraisal of what the US ambassador did or did not do. Coll is not as good on what happened in Washington.

At that time I was on the staff of the National Security Council, writing the briefing papers for President George H.W. Bush’s planned 1 August meeting, in Aspen, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I had seen the CIA’s warning of an imminent Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and was impressed by it. I checked with my colleague Richard Haass, who had the Middle East portfolio. Reflecting the conventional wisdom in Washington and among Arab leaders, Haass downplayed the danger. He analogised Saddam to the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. Brutal but pragmatic. Not likely to invade.

The US could not deter Saddam for the same kind of reasons it could not deter the North Korean invasion of South Korea in June 1950. First, it did not believe such an invasion would happen. Second, it had not prepared any serious military plans for such a contingency. Such plans required evident forces in place and evident readiness to use them, including the related political consultations with friends in the region. None of it was there. Deterrence is about more than sending a blustery instruction.

The CIA analysts who had warned of an attack were right. Those particular analysts, centred in a National Intelligence Office of Warning that no longer exists, knew little about Iraq. They did know how to assess its military movements. The political higher-ups, who knew a bit more about Iraq, thought they knew better. Perhaps leaders should have derived a different and more worried lesson from the earlier invasion of Iran, or from the then-still-fragmentary evidence of Saddam’s clandestine weapons programmes. Until 1990, they had not.

Those higher-ups would be shocked by their error. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, they would drop the Assad analogy and switch more to analogies to men like Hitler. This is not because they actually thought Saddam was like Adolf Hitler. ‘Hitler’ was a metaphor. ‘Assad’ was a shorthand for a tyrant who would nonetheless behave predictably, stay within certain lines. ‘Hitler’ was a way to convey that this was a tyrant whose ambitions went beyond what outsiders considered rational, beyond the bounds.

From Coll’s account, Saddam was tempted to use every weapon he could to stop the coalition onslaught that would eject his forces from Kuwait early in 1991. He tried frantically to get nuclear weapons ready. American threats may have deterred him from firing the many nerve gas warheads at his disposal. They did not deter him from bombarding Israel with ballistic missiles.

President Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, quickly resolved that, as Bush would soon say publicly and spontaneously, ‘This will not stand.’ That instinct was firmly reinforced by Prime Minister Thatcher when they met on 1 August. Misinformed by his sources, Coll repeats the old canard that, in Aspen, Thatcher warned Bush not ‘to go wobbly’ and thus shored up the wavering president. I was at Aspen. That caricature is false. Fortunately, Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, has carefully sifted the evidence on this episode and has published a reliable and perceptive account of it.

The second part of The Achilles Trap is about how each side overlearned the lessons of 1990 in the following decade. Building on the vital work of others, Coll’s synthesis of this period is a truly valuable contribution to understanding the Iraq War. It is this period, between 1991 and 2001, that set in place the combustible elements that would ignite into war after the events of 9/11.

The first ingredient was the Iraqi dismantling of their clandestine weapons programmes and then their frequent lies and gyrations to conceal that they had ever had them. The UN inspections programme from 1991 to 1996, led by the Swede, Rolf Ekéus, was actually a historic success. Ekéus and his colleagues half-sensed this, but did not quite realise how successful they were.

Thus, after 1996, that first premise – which was quite wrong – was a continuing, generally agreed, but mistaken, belief among Ekéus’ successors and Western intelligence agencies that Saddam’s programmes were still there, reduced perhaps, hidden perhaps, but still lurking. For his part, Saddam thought the inspection programmes were just schemes to undermine his regime.

The second premise – quite correct – was that Saddam was unrepentant and felt he was locked in a mortal struggle to defeat his American enemies and their partners. He sought to delegitimise the UN and all its works. The Americans, frustrated that Saddam was not overthrown in the aftermath of his 1991 defeat, authorised covert action programmes to help Iraqis overthrow him.

These CIA programmes, which Coll recounts well, were feckless and futile, but they helped lock in the posture of deadly confrontation. The covert action efforts had come to a kind of dead end by the end of 1996 and Iraq swept away the base of the American-sponsored covert movement inside Iraq. This became the hour when disreputable Iraqi entrepreneurs, such as Ahmad Chalabi, could peddle their wares in Washington salons. Saddam’s expulsion of UN inspectors was anticlimactic. The fruitless American air campaign against Iraqi sites in 1998 only hardened mutual hostility, created a kind of bipartisan consensus around Washington’s wish for Iraqi regime change (acknowledged in a congressional vote), yet was unattached to any concrete policy to make this wish come true.

Part three of Coll’s book is about what happened when these two premises – about Iraqi WMD and US-Iraqi confrontation – combined with the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Nothing really changed in the basic estimates about Iraq. Those were already fixed, except that the feverish post-9/11 period stimulated a market for freshly fabricated nuggets of information about Iraqi WMD. Saddam’s basic posture – of unrepentant hostility – did not change either.

What changed was the US attitude about acceptable risk. What also changed was the intensity of US anxiety about the relationship of the old premises to the fact that terrorist groups, linked to al-Qaeda, were operating in Iraq. It is the terrorism angle that Coll, like some others, glances over.

The confusion about how the terrorism threat connected to Iraq was personal for me in early 2002 and has stimulated my own curiosity about it since. In the spring of 2002, I had prepared – as a private citizen but member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board – a draft statement of the ‘national security strategy’ of the United States, at the request of the national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. Since my part of the work was done as a private citizen, I have publicly released the various drafts of the document and some related messages about it.

That ‘strategy’ document is now famous for its call for ‘preemption’ against gathering enemies. In my draft, that language was written to apply to al-Qaeda and affiliated terror groups already at war with the United States. In June 2002, Rice asked that the language be shifted to apply to weapons of mass destruction threats such as Iraq. I disagreed, writing that in this new context the language might instead seem to authorise ‘preventive war’. My dissent was overruled, the language was changed, and the NSC staff took over the job of finalising the document.

Later that summer, as momentum built for a possible war, I discussed this with Brent Scowcroft, who was the chair of the Intelligence Advisory Board. I was puzzled by this push toward war, since my attention then was intensely focused on the terrorist dangers, and I thought the administration had earlier agreed that Iraq could wait. Scowcroft knew more than I did. He assured me that the push toward war was real and we discussed our unease about it.

As I have pursued my own curiosity about what happened, I’ve concluded that it is important to focus on what the top officials of the administration were reading and hearing in the pivotal months when they settled into a view of the Iraqi threat, and the relation to the terror danger – between about December 2001 and June 2002. Even as late as March 2002, Vice President Cheney was openly questioning at NSC meetings whether military action against Iraq was really necessary. By June 2002 his doubts were gone.

To give one example: it is now well known that the allegation of Iraqi intelligence cooperation with a lead 9/11 plotter was apparently the result of a mistaken identification provided to the CIA by the Czech service. That allegation was then publicly discredited principally by the 9/11 Commission, whose staff I directed. Those who, in 2004, were still wedded to that allegation persuaded the right-wing columnist, Bill Safire, to write a column blaming me, personally, for knocking this allegation down.

The CIA lead about a possible Iraqi relationship to 9/11 was still regarded as credible within much of the administration between December 2001 and the spring of 2002. By the spring it was becoming discredited internally, but that was due more to the FBI’s patient work, not anything new from the agency that had originally circulated this report.

That kind of explosive information combined in those formative months with the growing presence in Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist organisation, which was affiliated with al-Qaeda and was indeed dangerous. Their presence was so concerning that the CIA dispatched a team of operatives into Iraq during the spring of 2002 to investigate. That team sent back troubling reports. By June 2002 the US government, at the highest levels, was very secretly considering the necessity of mounting a partial invasion of Iraq just to get at this threat. They shelved those plans, temporarily, pending how all the other Iraqi issues were going to be resolved.

Most scholarly and public discussion about the terror links in Iraq focuses on carefully negotiated later language in a National Intelligence Estimate that was later made public. But that NIE is not what formed the views of any of the leading officials.

Not ever made public, to date, is the material that did powerfully form the views of top American leaders every single day in this pivotal period, from December 2001 through June 2002, which was the not-so-carefully negotiated drumbeat of highly-coloured material being provided each morning in the president’s daily brief. Very few people saw and heard these daily briefings in their full, raw form. The only investigating body that examined this material, the Robb-Silberman presidential commission, was plainly shocked by what they found, but, constrained in what they could disclose, they only criticised this work in abstract, colourless terms.

It is not hard to see how this context about the intersection of the terrorist danger would interact with the premises about Iraq that had been inherited from the pre-9/11 era. Those premises included Saddam’s continuing hatred of Israel and Jews, and sympathy toward groups that would attack them. But these details about what top officials were told about the terror danger and Iraq in the pivotal months are still out of sight and out of mind. And that is true for Coll’s The Achilles Trap as well.

What will linger with me above all is the way Coll brought the world of the Iraqi regime to life, including two very different nuclear scientists caught up by its ambitions, and the way he also humanises the CIA officers and others tasked to explore that regime world and try to change it.

Analytically, what will also stick is the convincing portrait in The Achilles Trap of how the basic premises of America’s lasting confrontation with Iraq were locked in during the 1990s. It was the age when ‘rogue states’ became a new focal point for drifting American interests in the world. And Saddam Hussein’s image became fixed on the most prominent ‘wanted’ poster.


Philip Zelikow