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Iraq War failures can be boiled down to miscommunications, according to this author

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How did the U.S. get it so wrong in the run-up to war in Iraq, insisting that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was hiding secret stashes of weapons of mass destruction? And why didn't Saddam set the record straight, especially as it looked increasingly certain in the months after 9/11 that the U.S. and its allies were about to start a war he was likely to lose? Well, Pulitzer Prize winning author Steve Coll takes on those questions in his new book, "The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, The CIA And The Origins Of America's Invasion Of Iraq." Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

STEVE COLL: Thanks for having me back.

KELLY: Why does the world need another book on the origins of the Iraq War? I'm just thinking there are so many wars, so many crises demanding our attention right now in 2024. Why did you feel it was important to go back to this?

COLL: Well, because the Iraq War was one of the biggest events in American post-war history, and I think there's a much wider story to tell about why it happened. I was hoping that enough time had passed from the kind of traumas that we all endured around the war, about the discovery that Saddam did not have WMD, that we could go back and ask a question that really wasn't asked at the time, which is, why did Saddam create the impression that he had WMD when he did not? Why did he sacrifice his long reign and power, ultimately his life, for weapons he didn't possess? And the question is answerable because it turns out that he tape-recorded his leadership conversations more assiduously than Richard Nixon, and that was the basis...

KELLY: Like, 2,000 hours of them, right?

COLL: Yeah, he had the tape running for decades in these meetings. And, you know, sadly, the materials aren't publicly available. But with help from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, I filed a FOIA suit against the Pentagon, got a batch of them. And that became a way to really enlarge our understanding of the origins of the war.

KELLY: What's that like all these years later, to hear Saddam on tape as he's leading meetings and making decisions?

COLL: Well, it was eerie to be inside his head for what amounted to years of research. And he was more charismatic. He had more of a presence, even a sense of humor than I expected. He was - rambled a lot. Of course, his comrades didn't dare to interrupt him, so he would talk uninterrupted for 10 or 15 minutes about world affairs. And the striking thing about him over and over was that he could be incredibly shrewd about power, which he managed to retain in a very difficult environment for a long time. And then in the next paragraph, he could be completely confused about how the world was organized and where he fit. And so this kind of toggling between insight and kind of confusion was part of the experience of being inside his room and inside his head for so long.

KELLY: So to the central question you just told us you set out to answer - if Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction, why on earth would he subject himself, his country to a war he was going to lose? Understanding the answer is complex and that you're, you know, answering it over the hundreds of pages of this book, can you give us the top lines?

COLL: Yeah. I think partly it was that he was afraid that if he admitted he didn't have the weapons, he would be attacked, attacked by external enemies - Iran, Israel. He feared that perpetually - also perhaps attacked by his own generals because he feared a coup and spent much of his life trying to prevent one successfully. Pride was another factor. He sought glory in the Arab world. He saw himself as this necessary and sort of world historical leader, and to admit that he had disarmed himself almost voluntarily just was humiliating. And he wasn't going to do it. I think a more interesting reason for us as Americans, looking back on the history, is that he also thought, especially toward the end, that the CIA and American intelligence knew already that he didn't have the weapons because, of course, they know everything. They are omniscient. And because he figured that they already knew this, he interpreted the accusations that he was harboring WMD as just a game, a plot, an excuse to overthrow him. And he thought, you know, why should I play their game?

KELLY: Fascinating. So it's a case of both sides overestimating what the other knew, what the other had?

COLL: Yeah. I mean, the idea of a CIA that was capable of a big analytical mistake, like saying that Iraq still possessed WMD, it's just not part of his worldview. He wouldn't have believed it if you told him that it was true.

KELLY: Speaking of living in a somewhat alternate universe, you also note that Saddam spent much of his time in the run-up to war, including, like, two days before American bombs started falling - he was focused on writing a novel?

COLL: He was. Yeah, he wrote four novels in the last few years of his regime. I mean, it was a remarkable thing to encounter in the research that after 9/11, we didn't recognize that he was, in some respects, not the same Saddam that we had known back when he invaded Kuwait in 1990 and turned the world upside down. He was in his 60s, and he had decided that his legacy lay in literature. And he was writing novel after novel. He published the first couple to great fanfare and wonderful reviews in Iraq. Of course, nobody dared say anything other than that he was brilliant. And I talked to one of his editors who would get these handwritten pages from him in Arabic, and he would ask, please turn the pages back to me with notes about improvements. And they would occasionally correct his rambling sentences, and then he would not take their suggestions.

(LAUGHTER)

COLL: I mean, at a certain point, they decided, maybe we should just stop making suggestions and just clean it up and get it to the printer.

KELLY: As you've reflected on all of this history, any lessons you would take from the trouble that U.S. leaders had in trying to predict Saddam's unpredictable decision-making that might be useful today, you know, to current U.S. leaders trying to deal with unpredictable decision-makers in Russia, in North Korea, beyond?

COLL: Yeah, I think the paradox is that you do have to make an effort to understand how the world looks from behind their eyes. It's uncomfortable. These are difficult people to empathize with and even to collect enough information about to accurately assess. But the effort is necessary, and I think contact is necessary in order to collect information about what their motivations are, what their intentions may be. But the other side of it is they're erratic enough - Saddam was erratic enough - that you wouldn't want to rely on your judgment about his intentions to protect American national security on that basis. You really have to focus on somebody's capabilities not their intentions because you may well get their intentions wrong.

And trust in deterrence. The most striking thing about the history with Saddam is that for all of his bombast, for all of his reckless actions, he invaded two countries without provocation - Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990. For all of that, he was deterrable. If you sent him a clear message that if you do this, you're going to lose your regime, your life, your liberty, he would take notice. He didn't want to sacrifice his power. And a lot of the failure was about not sending clear and credible deterrence messages to him. He said in prison afterwards, you know, if you didn't want me to invade Kuwait, why didn't you tell me?

KELLY: We've been speaking with Steve Coll. He's an editor at The Economist and author of the new book, "The Achilles Trap." Thank you.

COLL: Thanks for having me.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.