The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 has suffered a frustrating fate in the American consciousness. Although the war was launched to broad approval, it went terribly wrong and soon became held up as a ruinous ideological crusade. Clear analysis was subsumed by a tide of myths about neoconservative warmongers, a lying president, and “blood for oil.” Today, the war is barely discussed in a foreign-policy context at all. Rather, it comes up in our domestic politics as yet another detail in the case against a blundering Washington establishment. All this motivated hysteria has made it difficult to look back on the invasion of Iraq with the kind of seriousness that such investigations require.

The first, most important, thing to note about Melvyn P. Leffler’s Confronting Saddam Hussein is that it makes an effort to do just that. The second is that it succeeds. Leffler has written a plain, old-fashioned history. That is to say there is no partisan or ideological argument to contend with. And, not coincidentally, there are no writerly flourishes. Leffler, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, is strictly after the facts of the matter and seems to have undertaken the project with a genuine sense of curiosity about “the most consequential U.S. foreign-policy decision of the 21st century.”

He states his aims at the outset: “I want to examine why the United States decided to invade Iraq and why the war went awry so quickly, leading to tragedy for Iraqis and Americans.” To do this, he conducted extensive interviews with Bush-administration policymakers and read as much official documentation as was available. The result is a kaleidoscopic but clear rendering of a long-misunderstood administration that hoped to avoid, then prepared to fight, and finally initiated war.

Leffler frames the decision to invade Iraq as the last stage in a long developing showdown between Saddam Hussein and the United States. And in his opening chapter on the life of Hussein, the accurate recounting of the facts is more than sufficient to create a lurid portrait of a life-long monster. There’s much here that the “Sure, Saddam was bad, but” crowd would do well to learn.

Hussein was raised in a mud hut outside of Tikrit and took to tyranny in childhood, “fighting, stealing, lying, and inflicting cruelty on little animals.” It’s clear that we’re in the world of the psychopath. By adolescence, he was a gun-wielding street fighter. By 21, he was in jail for murdering a Communist who had insulted his uncle. He initiates numerous murder plots and strong-arm maneuvers and rises through the ranks of the Ba’th Party, landing in an unofficial position in the Iraqi cabinet. At his new perch, Hussein honed his methods of terror. He invented infiltration plots, blaming Jews, Iran, and Communists, and disposed of the “plotters” in horror-movie fashion. “His victims might be dropped in buckets of acid,” Leffler writes. “Others might be forced to witness the rapes of their wives, daughters, or mothers.” When Hussein became president of Iraq in 1979, he organized a meeting at which he accused 66 members of his own government of a “painful and atrocious plot.” He then handed pistols to government delegates and instructed them to shoot the supposed conspirators in the head. Leffler writes, “Hussein filmed this entire event as meticulously as he filmed the conference itself.” That was merely the inception ceremony of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The murder and madness grew, traversed national borders, and endured for 24 years.

Leffler’s characterization of George W. Bush’s path from first son to president is pedestrian by contrast, since the facts of Bush’s somewhat wayward youth and his religious redemption are already sufficiently known. But Leffler’s take is valuable in demonstrating that, upon taking office, neither Bush nor most of his foreign-policy team had any interest in toppling Saddam Hussein or establishing democracy in Iraq. Contrary to popular imagination, this was no neoconservative cabal. “For the most part,” Leffler writes, “they were pragmatists who wanted to sustain the country’s military superiority, strengthen its alliances, promote open and free trade, and nurture better relations with America’s neighbors in the Western Hemisphere, especially Mexico—something the president cared a lot about.”

What changed everything, of course, were the attacks of 9/11. But even after that, Bush was slow in coming around to focusing on Iraq. In the days immediately following 9/11, “he repeatedly rejected suggestions from [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz that Iraq become a target for initial action. ‘We’ll get to Iraq at the appropriate time,’ he declared.”

And, for their part, what interested Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz about Iraq was not its dearth of democracy or the prospects for regime change, but rather its capacity to hit the U.S. even harder than al-Qaeda had. This wasn’t the position of the Defense Department alone:

If 19 Saudis with boxcutters could do what they did on 9/11, [National Security Advisor Stephen] Hadley said, “think about Saddam Hussein who’s developing WMD and supports terror—what he could do, and what he could give the terrorists, and what they could do with it.” [Condoleezza] Rice explained her thinking this way: “We’d failed to connect the dots on September 10, and never imagined the use of civilian airliners as missiles against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; that an unconstrained Saddam might aid a terrorist in an attack on the United States did not seem far-fetched.”

What’s been thoroughly buried in the years of “Bush lied, people died” propaganda is the sheer deluge of daily intelligence linking Hussein to terrorism and, yes, asserting that he had an active WMD program. This was the opinion of intelligence services not only in the U.S. but everywhere. There were reports that Iraq was training terrorists to hijack U.S. ships, reports that Hussein sought uranium in Niger, reports that Iraqi Special services were lending support to al-Qaeda. Czech intelligence told the CIA that 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague two days before 9/11. An Iraqi defector in Germany told the U.S. that Hussein was working on biological weapons. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak told Commander of the United States Central Command Tommy Franks, “I tell you the truth. Saddam, he has the WMD. He told me he will use it on you.”

Covert U.S. agents were told by virtually everyone in Iraq itself that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. British intelligence claimed that Iraq had “31,000 chemical munitions, 4,000 tons of precursor chemicals for chemical weapons, 610 tons of precursor chemicals for the nerve agent VX, and very large quantities of growth media acquired for the production of biological weapons.” It was all wrong—which was a monumental scandal in itself. But it wasn’t a lie.

At the same time, Hussein was making jihadist speeches and supporting Hamas. He had kicked weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and the international sanctions regime against him was falling apart. And he had duped inspectors in the past. “The lesson of 9/11 was simple,” Bush himself later wrote. “Don’t take chances.” When he came around to the notion that Iraq was a massive threat to the U.S., it was simply because that was the most likely scenario given the intelligence and Hussein’s known history. And Bush couldn’t take the chance of a deadly attack on America.

Even then, however, Bush didn’t want war. His emphasis was on “coercive diplomacy.” That’s why the U.S. sought multiple UN Security Council resolutions aimed at getting inspectors into Iraq. The idea was to give Hussein a choice: Come clean or face American arms. And the latter was not at all preferred by the Bush administration. When French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder publicly opposed a second UN resolution authorizing American force should Hussein not comply, they were standing in the way of Bush’s effort to avoid war, not wage it.

But Hussein resisted all diplomatic efforts, hoping to call Bush’s bluff, and we went to war. Leffler details the many ways it went wrong. And he readily faults Bush as the man who made the wrong decisions. But none of it has to do with allegations of lying, religious messianism, or being led around by a gang of ideologues.

Dispelling those myths, Confronting Saddam Hussein focuses on the administration’s genuine failings. First, Bush let infighting between the Pentagon and the State Department fester without resolution. Eventually, the sides were barely talking to each other. Second, Donald Rumsfeld, who comes off believably as the worst player of the bunch, was obsessed with a maintaining a small military footprint in Iraq. Third, there really was a shocking absence of postwar planning. When officials turned to talk of democracy promotion, it was because the country the U.S. had invaded had ceased to exist as any kind of governed entity at all. It needed to be rebuilt, and we weren’t about to establish a dictatorship. And finally, of course, the intelligence leading up to the war was garbage—and everyone had believed it.

Leffler’s book is crucial. The problem with erroneous criticisms of historic decisions is that we take away erroneous lessons. Confronting Saddam Hussein, however, is necessary in both correcting the historical record and offering a map of the mistakes that we should never repeat. That, after all, is the value of old-fashioned history.

Photo: AP Photo/Jerome Delay

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