John Nixon’s book ‘Debriefing The President’ busts many myths around Saddam Hussein and a needless war.
Debriefing The President: The Interrogation Of Saddam Hussein, John Nixon, Random House, 224 Pages, Rs 524
One does not often get to read about the interrogation of a former leader of a country by an agent of another country’s intelligence agency. Normally, high-value targets prefer to avoid capture for reasons of honour.
America was not expecting anything less from Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman who ruled his country with an iron fist for 24 years. His capture was a surprise to Washington when they found him hiding in a hole in an unassuming compound near his hometown Tikrit.
What kind of a man was Saddam? What motivated him? What was his worldview? Who were his inspirations? How did he manage to rule a highly complex country like Iraq for decades? Though the Americans had their own theories, they were about to find out how wrong they were about him.
As per procedure, the interrogations, or what Americans euphemistically call “debriefings”, began soon after he was captured. Nixon, the first analyst to have a proper crack at the Arab leader has penned a comprehensive account of his interactions in Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein (Henceforth, DTP).
Before going to Iraq, Nixon had studied Saddam for five years as a part of his assignment on the Iraq desk in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It was he who officially confirmed the identity of the detainee by looking at tribal tattoo markings, a gun wound and a brief initial round of questions that only Saddam himself could answer. Nixon was surprised how easily Saddam had made himself comfortable to his new surroundings, even offering to teach some politics to Nixon! Saddam seemed hurt at how the US soldiers had physically abused him, one going as far as punching him for “9/11”. He also accused them of stealing money that was in his possession at the time of the raid.
DTP’s importance can be gauged from the fact that the author’s own caricature of the man changed as he went through the process of debriefing. The one constant irritation throughout the book is the black bars, or redactions applied by the CIA as a condition of publication. All employees of the agency are required to submit their manuscripts to the agency’s publication board so that no classified information is inadvertently published. Despite this small annoyance, one wouldn’t feel one is missing out on anything important.
Nixon does not spare anyone for the quagmire in Iraq, from the Bush administration to his own agency which he says was a “willing conspirator” and “slavishly sought to do the President’s bidding—as it usually does—in an effort to get a seat near the centre of power and justify its budget.”
Where did the US go wrong? Nixon says the US had “vastly misunderstood” Saddam Hussein. Far from being a conspirator in the 9/11 attacks as the Bush administration accused him of, Saddam had actually thought that the attacks would bring the two countries closer. In fact, during the debriefings, Saddam went as far as to call Iraq and the US “natural allies” in the fight against extremism and that he “couldn’t understand why the United States didn’t see eye to eye” with him.
Nixon found that Saddam had removed himself from the day to day business of governance and his top aides handled major foreign policy decisions. Saddam fancied himself a writer and was busy writing novels. If the US knew such details, a different course of action might have been charted.
Unexpectedly, the questions about the human rights violations that took place under his watch rattled Saddam. When pressed to reveal his role in the genocide of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988 where chemical weapons were used, he categorically denied that he “ma(de) that decision”. Nixon writes that Saddam first came to know of the attack from his brother-in-law and he had apparently “ceded control of chemical weapons to his local commanders”. On more than one occasion, Saddam professed his love for Kurds to Nixon and the Halabja incident really seemed to unsettle him. Nonetheless, he would not accept guilt or show remorse. More than the genocide, the fact that the Iranians used it as propaganda against Iraq troubled him.
Regarding the atrocities on minorities, there seemed a method to Saddam’s madness. The dictator justified such methods as necessary to rule a country like Iraq which required a delicate balancing of alliances and pleasing his Sunni support base.
Since the 1950s, Arab nationalists have been fearful of the seductive message of Islamists on the impoverished masses as well as the influence of communists in their local polities. Saddam reiterated these fears to Nixon, arguing that his brand of secular Arab nationalism was required to keep the clerics—who happened to be America’s enemies as well—under foot. He was concerned about creeping Wahhabism in Iraq and predicted that it “will spread faster than anyone expects” and “Iraq will be a battlefield for anyone who wants to carry arms against America”. He was right.
The American justification for war—Saddam’s alleged programme to manufacture weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—turned out to be a hoax. When asked about Iraq’s interest in WMDs, Saddam told his captors to face the fact that Americans were “ignorant hooligans...bent on (Iraq’s) destruction”. Nixon postulates that the Iraq war was waged for “highly personal reasons”, the misguided belief that Saddam tried to assassinate George W. Bush’s father and 41st US president, George Herbert Walker Bush. The administration also believed that Saddam was plotting to kill the junior Bush’s daughters as retribution for American forces killing his sons Uday and Kusay Hussein. However, Nixon tells us that this was hardly possible as Saddam could barely get reception on his radio while in hiding.
There was so much misunderstanding, genuine as well as irrational, that fuelled America’s misadventure in Iraq. Intelligence from the ground, or “humint” was so poor that agents did not even know what leaders Saddam admired, let alone get a track on his WMDs. They would liken him to Hitler and Stalin, but as Saddam later admitted to Nixon, he didn’t even like Stalin! Charles De Gaulle, Tito, George Washington and Nehru were some of the leaders Saddam looked up to. Though inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, this shows the US didn’t know what it was doing. What only mattered to Bush was capturing Saddam. There was near contempt for intelligence that went against the rigidly held views of the administration. Like a typical career bureaucratic set-up, the CIA analysts invested more in their promotions than the truth, and gave what upper echelons of power wanted to hear. Those who didn’t, found themselves out of favour quickly and were transferred.
The book busts many myths around Saddam. Apparently, there were no body doubles of him. When Saddam was asked about this, he laughed at the naivete of his conquerors. Their president himself was the epitome of ignorance. Nixon, however, defends his commander in chief, attesting that Bush was intelligent, read a lot and was very sharp in recalling information and events—it’s just that he had trouble processing the information properly. One anecdote from the book would suffice to mark the dangerous level of Bush’s ignorance. When a senior analyst explained to Bush the history of schism between Shias and Sunnis, confused, he shot back. “Wait, I thought, you said they were all Muslims?”
In Nixon’s account, Bush comes off as simple, reflexive, and with a short attention span. “Either with us or against us”, Nixon says wasn’t just a declaration by Bush as a frustration in response to 9/11, that’s how he thought, in black and white unlike his father who, having led the CIA in the 1970s, understood what the role of the agency should be and that there are many shades of grey in analysis and intelligence.
The book assumes immense importance in the age of Trump. The new administration’s paranoia on Iran and other strategic matters is reminiscent of the McCarthyesque days early in the George W. Bush administration. The current rhetoric against Iran is a little unsettling. Though Trump, his Secretary of State, and Defence Secretary all have said that the US won’t renege on the Iran deal, misunderstandings like the ones in Iraq can quickly spiral out of control and plunge the region into another bloody war.
Nixon laments that when it comes to foreign affairs, “the United States is constantly reinventing the wheel by quickly forgetting the lessons learned from the last war”. That’s why Nixon’s book is important to learn the lessons from past mistakes. Trump’s top three advisers, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Secretary General Kelly and his newly appointed NSA General McMaster have one thing in common: they all served in Iraq. One hopes that they won’t lead Trump astray.