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Book review: The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the United States and the Middle East, 1979-2003 by Steve Coll

26 April 2024

Malcolm Evans looks back at the troubles of Iraq under Saddam

THE final paragraph of this book recounts how, on 30 December 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging. It is fitting that this book concludes with so uncontested a fact, the reader having been tossed on a sea of uncertainties for the previous 500 pages.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was rarely far from the headlines, and sometimes centre-stage: the Iran-Iraq War; the Anfal massacres; the invasion of Kuwait and Operation Desert Storm; the repression of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs; the “no-fly zones”; the threat of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction — all this and more, against the background of a torture and terror-strewn state, so unable that it was unwilling to shake itself free of the tyranny into which it had fallen.

And then, after the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda, there were the invasion and occupation of Iraq itself, spawning a new progeny of evils and violence — the reverberations of which continue to this day. We may think we know so much about all of this today, but this excellent book highlights just how little was really known at the time, and the catastrophic failures of intelligence which underpinned this.

It is important to be clear what we mean by “intelligence” here: there was no shortage of information. For example, after nearly ten years of UN inspections, there rarely had been more evidence — or more opportunity to determine whether there was such evidence — of Iraq’s possesion or non-possession of weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion in 2003.

But evidence is not enough: evidence has to be believed. If the US and the UK could not believe that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction in 2003, it was at least in part because, for years, Iraq had successfully given the impression that it did. From one of the most astonishingly successful liars of his generation, his truths were just not going to be believed. No one wanted to be fooled by such lies: and the lack of evidence was merely evidence of just how cunning and dangerous Saddam was — a problem as old as time.

This book guides the reader effortlessly through the complexities of the Iraqi nuclear programmes of the 1980s, the changing pattern of US engagement with Iraq, from its being a bulwark against Iran to its being a threat to be countered. It highlights Saddam’s fatal miscalculation that, in the early years of the post-Soviet era, he could invade Kuwait with impunity. It points to the unrealistic expectations that, in the aftermath of defeat, he would be overthrown by the Iraqi military rather than be challenged by internal uprisings that would be repressed with such brutality.

It reminds us once again that statecraft rarely registers the realities of the terror and human tragedies that underpin the rule of such as he — possibly because it helps to insulate us against it: “just another massacre”. Above all else, the book subtly and unemotionally peels back the layers of one of the defining moments of the late 20th century. It is a masterpiece, laden with implications for current controversies that beset our world.

Sir Malcolm Evans is Principal of Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and a former Professor of Public International Law at the University of Bristol.

The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the United States and the Middle East, 1979-2003
Steve Coll
Allen Lane £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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