The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America's Invasion of Iraq

Image of The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America's Invasion of Iraq
Release Date: 
February 27, 2024
Penguin Press
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“As the U.S. continues to deal with the fallout of the Iraq invasion there are important lessons in this book about the pitfalls of Middle East diplomacy and how to deal with authoritarian regimes.”

The U.S. had a complicated relationship with Saddam Hussein and Iraq during his almost quarter-century rule. From de facto ally to international pariah to enemy number one, this evolving relationship was driven by misunderstanding, miscommunication, and missed opportunities. The ultimate question the author lays out in this compelling and timely new volume is: Was the 2003 invasion of Iraq justified and necessary? His answer is clearly no, but the narrative of how relations with Iraq came to the point that the second Bush Administration decided to go to war was complicated and ultimately tragic, both for the Iraqis and the larger U.S. foreign policy in the region.

When Saddam became the supreme ruler in Iraq in 1979, the country was not even close to a U.S. foreign policy issue. At that time Iran was the biggest concern, with the overthrow of a close ally the Shah, and the creation of a radical Shia cleric dominated regime determined to create its own foreign policy in the region. Combined with the embassy hostage crisis and Iran became the biggest adversary in the region. When Saddam launched his ill-fated war with Iran in 1980, the U.S eventually covertly sided with Iraq, providing Saddam with critical satellite and other intelligence information that U.S. officials felt made a significant difference in staving off his potential defeat by a resilient and resurgent Iranian military.

Unfortunately, Saddam’s desperation and ruthlessness soon bumped him up the list of unsavory characters as he used chemical weapons against both the Iranians and ultimately his restive minorities, primarily the Kurds, to maintain his power. His willingness to use these weapons quickly soured the U.S. on its relationship right as the war ended and Saddam faced the enormous cost of rebuilding Iraq after eight years of conflict.

This led to his fateful decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990, a move that both alarmed and infuriated the new Bush Administration, then grappling with the rapid demise of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact as a “new world order” started taking shape. Viewing Saddam as a threat not just to the world’s oil supply but to the overall stability of the region, Bush quickly assembled a coalition of powers to begin preparing for the liberation of Kuwait.

During this decade Saddam had a vigorous WMD program, including a determined program to develop a nuclear weapon capability. Although his program had more desire than capability, when Coalition forces started examining the extent of Iraq’s programs at the end of Operation Desert Storm, they were dismayed that Iraq had been working on these programs for almost a decade with little awareness by the West.

Although Israel took independent action in 1981 to bomb the still unconstructed Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, setting back Saddam’s goal enormously, the continued efforts by the Iraqis to build a bomb similar to the ones used by the U.S. in World War II completely caught the CIA off guard, setting the stage for nearly a decade of cat and mouse games as UN inspectors, aided by the CIA, attempted to determine both the extent of Iraq’s WMD program and their compliance with UN sanctions imposed after the Coalition victory.

This is the most eye-opening part of the book—Saddam, according to the author’s interviews and research, actually destroyed most of his stockpiles of chemical weapons and his nuclear bomb making equipment during the 1990s. But his paranoia and penchant for secrecy drove him to do all of this in secret so there were neither records nor evidence that Iraq had, in fact, complied with most of the UN mandates.

The author offers a variety of explanations here, mainly driven by Saddam’s continuing fear of Iran and his deep distrust and paranoia about the Western countries, led by the U.S., that were in fact trying to overthrow him. The irony of this era is that Saddam assumed the U.S. knew he had no WMDs, so all the posturing was just an excuse to attack Iraq and end his rule. Since the U.S. and Iraq had minimal diplomatic contact during this period, the U.S. belief that Saddam was hiding something continued to clash with his obsessive secrecy and as the author described the UN hunt for his WMD—“the absence of evidence did not satisfy that there was evidence of absence.”

Of course, when the second Bush Administration came to power the U.S. policy toward Iraq was firmly set on regime change and this moved into high gear after 9/11 when Iraq was elevated to an existential threat to the U.S. Although the UN and many allies were skeptical of Iraq having any WMD stockpiles, Bush ultimately decided that either Saddam had to leave, or the U.S. would invade and impose regime change. With his usual megalomania, Saddam assumed he could survive another U.S. attack just like he did in 1991, or at worse, lead a costly guerilla campaign to persuade the U.S. to ultimately leave with him still in power.

When the U.S. finally reached Baghdad, rather than a clear victory, Saddam and his senior Baath Party leadership went into hiding; the U.S. military eventually captured or killed most of them, including Saddam’s two sons and finally Saddam himself. The book ends with the quick trial and hanging of Saddam in 2006 by the new Iraqi government, a certain outcome by the new power brokers but not one that brought Iraq peace or stability.

The author concludes with a lot of questions for consideration: Could the U.S. have contained Iraq after Desert Storm? Why didn’t Saddam destroy his WMD more openly so sanctions could have been lifted earlier? Why didn’t more of the U.S. government express their doubts that Saddam still maintained a WMD stockpile? As the U.S. continues to deal with the fallout of the Iraq invasion there are important lessons in this book about the pitfalls of Middle East diplomacy and how to deal with authoritarian regimes.