Did America’s Misreading of Saddam Hussein Lead to the Iraq War?

Once Saddam survived the Gulf War, it was reasonable for the United States to try to contain him without getting sucked into another full-scale conflict.

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Vintage photo of Saddam Hussein during a press conference with his daughter Hala


Gideon Rose, a Senior Fellow and deputy director of National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations from 1995 to 2000, was appointed managing editor of Foreign Affairs to replace Fareed Zakaria. On June 3, 2010, it was announced that Rose would succeed James F. Hoge Jr. as editor of Foreign Affairs, a position he took up on October 1, 2010. In an article, Rose wrote about the importance of technology in the modern world, given the complex situation today.

The rise of China and its ambition for a seat at the table that dictates the ‘rules-based’ world, previously the sole prerogative of the US for almost fifty years, has ended. The US, having replaced the United Kingdom as the dominant power, outsourced regional security to local contractors. This strategy collapsed in 1990 when Iraq seized Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia. At this point, the George H. W. Bush administration stepped in to manage the situation directly, leading an international coalition to reverse Iraq’s aggression and restore Kuwait’s sovereignty. But Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, managed to survive the war and regain control of most of his country. Thus, the administration adopted a policy of sanctions and containment, continued by its successors for a decade.


Then came the 9/11 attacks. In their wake, the George W. Bush administration decided to address not only the terrorism problem but also the Iraq problem by conquering the country and forcibly eliminating Saddam’s regime. The conquering part went largely as planned, but the aftermath proved chaotic. Liberation turned into occupation; local uncertainty turned into insurgency and then civil war. U.S. troops ended up staying in Iraq, fighting various foes for almost two decades. The Iraq war was disastrous, costly, and an unforced error. In retrospect, it seems to be the hinge of the entire post–Cold War era, the moment when American hegemony shifted from successful to problematic, from welcomed to resisted.


Two decades on, the unipolar moment has faded, along with dreams of a better Middle East and the American appetite for active international engagement. Recent historiography shows that Bush administration officials believed containment was falling apart and feared what Iraq might do afterward. What they did not know, and would not have believed, was that Saddam’s regime had destroyed almost all its WMD programs in the early 1990s but continued for a decade to give every indication of having kept much of them. Based largely on captured Iraqi records and interviews with former officials, Saddam’s behavior after the Gulf War was dangerously provocative and irrational. After 9/11, a new administration in Washington brought its own confusion to decision-making.


Saddam Hussein himself was a hitman in his 20s and a prolific novelist in his 60s. He thought people’s loyalty could be judged by eavesdropping on their children and checking where his picture was displayed in their homes. His sons, Uday and Qusay, were monsters. In the 1990s, Saddam bribed Russian, French, Chinese, and UN officials to gain their support, and his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, could not understand why the UN’s chief weapons inspector, the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, would not get with the program.

The result was a dialogue of the deaf, with little comprehension by either side. In the 1980s, for example, the Reagan administration worked with Israel to provide military support to Iran in hopes of gaining the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon, using the proceeds of the arms sales to support anticommunist rebels in Nicaragua. When this intrigue came to light, Saddam was bitter but not surprised, telling his team that the Iran-contra affair was an Israeli-sponsored conspiracy to destroy him.


The Achilles Trap spends a lot of time on covert operations but little on the debates that went on inside each administration over how to handle Iraq. Saddam Hussein emerged as a paranoid, self-deluded megalomaniac, someone almost impossible to deal with constructively. These traits emerged in the actions the Iraqi government took during the 1990s, which are even more astonishing now that the full story is known. Having largely reconstituted his domestic position following the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had no regrets about anything and was determined to wait out his enemies, regain his military strength and full freedom of action, and continue taking on the world. He recognized that being caught with WMD would be problematic, so in mid-1991, he got rid of most of his programs—but without telling anybody or keeping records of what had been done. Having thus guaranteed utter confusion, and while continuing to deny any charges against him that had not already been proven, Saddam then acted as if everybody should have understood what had happened. He assumed that an all-powerful CIA already knew that he had no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.


The Achilles Trap paints the Iraqi leader as an unrepentant serial aggressor determined to rebuild his military power. Several of those in the West who advocated for lifting sanctions, meanwhile, were on his payroll, making their arguments suspect. Even without the faked evidence peddled by charlatans such as the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, there were ample grounds for believing that someday Saddam Hussein would once again plunge his strategically critical region into conflict.


Nor did 9/11 have to lead to such an outcome, since what happened that day had nothing to do with Iraq. What produced the war was the underlying challenge of maintaining Gulf security, combined with Saddam’s bizarre behavior, and the psychological impact of 9/11 on a handful of idiosyncratic, unconstrained American officials. The Clinton administration did not like the messy containment policy it inherited from its predecessor, but it could never find a better alternative. As vice president, Gore was on the hawkish side of the Clinton administration’s Iraq debates, but he never came close to advocating an unprovoked invasion, and there is no reason to think he would have launched one as president.

Iraq was strong enough to pose a threat but weak enough to be conquerable. A similar scenario might have played out had George W. Bush appointed different Republican national security grandees to key positions in his administration, such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates instead of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, or had chosen to empower different ones among those he did appoint, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. Yet even with Bush elected and his administration stocked with hard-liners, there was no move to attack until 9/11, which set the administration on a path to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq as well.


During the Clinton administration, independent radical Islamist terrorist groups had emerged as an increasingly worrisome threat. They bombed the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. During the presidential transition, outgoing Clinton officials told their incoming Bush counterparts that such groups constituted the most urgent threat the country faced, but the Bush team discounted such warnings—along with those of its own increasingly frantic intelligence officials—because it believed that rogue states posed much greater dangers.

When al Qaeda struck New York and Washington on 9/11, therefore, the administration’s senior figures were devastated by grief, anger, and guilt. Rather than trying to learn why they had been wrong about this attack, they looked for future ones they could prevent and in so doing recast themselves as prescient heroes. “Your response isn’t to go back and beat yourself up about 9/11,” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice would put it. “It’s to try to never let it happen again.” From this perspective, Iraq represented not only a danger but also an opportunity. Two weeks after the catastrophe, Bush asked Rumsfeld to review war planning for Iraq. By the end of 2001, Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, had delivered a blueprint for an invasion. And by mid-2002, Bush had decided to strike unless Saddam Hussein indisputably confirmed his disarmament.


Other administrations had dreamed of being rid of Saddam, but none had gone to war for it, because none wanted the responsibility of managing his country afterward. The George W. Bush administration got around that problem by ignoring it. Its war plan lacked an ending—and so, unsurprisingly, the war never really ended, with the conflict lurching from one battle to another for years to come. It is now clear that several people were responsible for that glaring omission. But the buck has to stop at the incurious commander in chief, who didn’t think through the foreseeable consequences of the decisions he was making. Last year, in his book Confronting Saddam Hussein, the diplomatic historian Melvyn Leffler revisited this ground. “Bush disliked heated arguments, and, therefore, did not invite systematic scrutiny of the policies he was inclined to pursue,” Leffler wrote, adding, “He was unable to grasp the magnitude of the enterprise he was embracing, the risks that inhered in it, and the costs that would be incurred.”

When that kind of thing happens in dictatorships like Saddam’s Iraq or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, observers naturally assume it is because of the terrible costs of dissent. The American invasion of Iraq shows that no such coercion is necessary. Two sets of lessons emerge from this sorry spectacle, one about process and the other about policy. At no time did the administration force itself to officially state the war’s objectives and the strategy for achieving them—a failure that allowed the huge gaps in its planning to remain unnoticed and unchallenged.


Good process does not necessarily lead to good policies, but it can help weed out obviously bad ones, which is something. Even Zen masters following best management practices, however, would have found it challenging to deal with Saddam. In December 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured in a hole on a farm near Tikrit, and he died on a scaffold three years later. President Bill Clinton once told his staff that he found Iraq “the most difficult of problems because it is devoid of a sensible policy response.”

Once Saddam survived the Gulf War, it was reasonable for the United States to try to contain him without getting sucked into another full-scale conflict. But that approach was costly, risky, and hard to sustain. The George W. Bush administration refused to accept that such an unsatisfying course was the least bad option available and blindly plunged into the abyss. Had leaders in either Baghdad or Washington behaved less recklessly, the war would not have happened. But the challenge of protecting the global economy from Baghdad’s own Tony Montana would have remained.

(The author of this article is indebted to Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of How Wars End.)

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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