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The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, The United States And The Middle East, 1979-2003

March 25, 2024 at 11:40 am

The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, The United States And The Middle East, 1979-2003
  • Book Author(s): Steve Coll
  • Published Date: Feb 2024
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Hardback: 576 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9780241686652

The 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is one of the most analysed events in the history of armed conflict. Although the US achieved a military victory against the regime of Saddam Hussein, few today regard the war to be a success. Indeed, it has come to represent the worst excesses of US foreign interference coupled with the widespread belief that lies were told, evidence was fabricated and the truth was covered up.

Whatever the truth is, most narratives about Iraq from outside the country tend to focus on the US perspective. Steve Coll’s The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, The United States And The Middle East, 1979-2003 aims to tell a different story and asks how Saddam Hussein understood events unfolding around him and saw the world. While Iraqis still debate about Saddam’s rule and legacy, many Westerners are scarcely bothered any longer, and yet to understand what led the US into the Iraq war we need to understand the late Iraqi president.

A unique aspect of Coll’s book is the fact that the author was engaged in a lawsuit against the US Department of Defence to release the “Saddam Hussein tapes”. Apparently, we know a lot about what Saddam was thinking because he tended to record all of his conversations, Richard Nixon style. These tapes have been unavailable to the public as the Pentagon has kept them under lock and key, and Coll was party to a lawsuit to get them released.

Saddam was exceptionally cunning

“Saddam believed — not without reason — that he was besieged by would-be assassins and international conspirators,” writes Coll. “He was very keen to remain in power. About this, he was exceptionally cunning.”

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The author makes the key point that, fundamentally, Saddam and successive US administrations misunderstood one another ever since he came to power in 1979. The US did not have a firm grasp on what motivated him and vice versa. According to Coll, this mutual misunderstanding was critical in the run up to the 2003 war.

Saddam Hussein’s behaviour was often a puzzle to Americans, even when he enjoyed good relations with Washington, such as during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) when the CIA supplied him with intelligence. Moreover, the Iraqi dictator did not trust the US, which he long suspected of helping Iran in some way via Israel. “Saddam mainly seemed to think that the Americans were congenital double-dealers and that, in this case, they were parcelling out secret aid to both Baghdad and Tehran as part of a scheme to keep the war going,” says Coll.

While the exact reasoning for what the US did is more complex than this, Saddam’s instinct was right. In 1986 it was revealed that the US had been secretly supplying arms to Iran through Israel and using the money from these sales to channel funds to Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras.

“Saddam Hussein was perhaps the world’s least surprised leader [at this news],” observes Coll. The sense of the US and the CIA being around every corner was key to Saddam’s thinking.

The near omniscience of the CIA was also a critical part of this. After the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq ended its biological, chemical and nuclear arms programmes. Although Saddam did this because he thought that they threatened his regime rather than protected it, he also decided against announcing the fact publicly for fear that his enemies, including Iran and Israel, would take advantage of the fact. To this end, while he allowed weapons inspectors into Iraq, his security forces routinely denied them access to key sites, and harassed and intimidated them. Details provided to the inspectors were sketchy at best.

There were layers of complexity to Saddam’s decision-making process, and his belief that the CIA knew everything was key to it all.

He assumed that the CIA knew that he had stopped the controversial programmes. In reality, the agency knew very little, as Iraq was a difficult country for them in terms of access. Saddam’s security measures meant they were often flying blind when dealing with Baghdad. Even in the1980s, when the US had intelligence officers on the ground to advise the Iraqi regime on Iran, they still had little idea of what was happening in his inner circles. Up until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Americans relied a lot on King Hussein of Jordan (1935-1999) to tell them what was happening in Saddam’s inner circle. The Iraqi leader’s intransigence over sharing information with the weapons inspectors convinced the Americans that he must be rebuilding weapons of mass destruction secretly. This misunderstanding and attributing the darkest of motives to his decision-making created an environment which made the 2003 invasion possible.

The Achilles Trap… is compelling reading as the author attempts to unravel the thought processes of Saddam Hussein. There are still questions about the extent to which the US intelligence community believed that he was continuing to build WMDs — as far as we know, none of the intelligence that the Americans collected showed he was doing so, and US and UK intelligence reports contained numerous misleading claims — and they need to be answered.

Coll’s book presents an interesting perspective and tries to make sense of the world according to Saddam Hussein. This alone makes it worth a read by anyone interested in Iraqi affairs.

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