Jul 082017

So now you know: Saddam Hussein’s fearsome weapon of mass destruction was a novel.

Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein by John Nixon. 256 pages, Blue Rider Press, $25.


By Vince Czyz

We all know about the U.S. invasion of Iraq under George “Dubya” Bush. What we did not know is that trillions of dollars were spent and tens of thousands were killed to prevent Saddam Hussein from finishing the novel he was writing. Sound surreal? According to John Nixon, former senior CIA leadership analyst and author of Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein, you can leave out the “sur.” “I am a writer,” Hussein complained after he was captured at the end of 2003. “And what you are doing by depriving me of pen and paper amounts to human rights abuse.”

This is a disturbing—and enlightening—book, not for its revelations about the warped thinking of a “brutal” dictator (there aren’t any to speak of), but for its for revelations about how deeply dysfunctional the CIA is, how clueless and dishonest the Bush administration was, and how completely the U.S. lacked understanding of Iraq and the Middle East, which, according to Nixon, reflects “a serious flaw in U.S. foreign policy that has plagued us since our founding.”

Nixon, “an enthusiastic supporter of Bush in 2000,” was the first American to get a shot at in-depth questioning of Hussein. He had two weeks of daily one-on-ones with the deposed leader and “learned that the United States had vastly misunderstood” him. But Saddam had also misunderstood U.S. leadership. One of the many mind-blowing facts this book uncovers is that

while American neocons tried their best to link Saddam to 9/11 and al-Qaeda, Saddam thought that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would move the United States closer to his Ba’athist regime. In Saddam’s mind, the two countries were natural allies in the fight against extremism, and … he couldn’t understand why the United States did not see eye to eye with him.

Hussein comes across as surprisingly human in his conversations with Nixon. When asked about his favorite book, Hussein replies The Old Man and Sea. “Think about it,” he explains, “A man, a boat, and a fishing line. These are the only ingredients to the book, but they tell us so much about man’s condition. A marvelous story.” He also evinces a certain amount of wisdom, such as when he asserts that “any attempt to introduce religion into government and politics will lead to insult to religion and damage politics.” When he discovered that his son “Uday kept a fleet of Bentlys, Jaguars, and Mercedeses in a garage in Baghdad,”Hussein was furious. “What kind of message are we sending to the Iraqi people, who must suffer under sanctions and do without?” Hussein ordered the cars torched. “[D]umbfounded that the United States, with all its might and money, could be so ignorant of the Arab world,” he told to his interrogator that “there were countervailing pressures that he had to be aware of when governing—that even he had to tread cautiously in dealing with tribal politics in the Sunni heartland.” Hussein even proved prophetic. At one point he predicted: “You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.” Again and again in Nixon’s book, Saddam comes across as befuddled by the U.S. and its actions. The reason is clear: He thought the U.S. knew much more about the Middle East than it actually does.

Nixon concludes that characterizing the Iraq invasion as “a ‘cakewalk’—in the immortal words of Kenneth Aldeman, a former Reagan administration official and an admirer of Dick Cheney—was born of breathtaking stupidity and arrogance.” He also points out that even though there were experts who had impressive knowledge of how Iraq and a region such as the Middle East operated, Bush demanded yes-men, people who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Worse still, the CIA was all too willing to comply. Even after Nixon had debriefed Hussein, “the policymakers at the white House … didn’t want to hear that many of the reasons for going after Saddam were based on false premises.”

Nixon critiques all three administrations he worked under, though he faults Clinton and Obama far less and for very different reasons. His most damaging salvos are fired at the CIA itself, which he characterizes as hamstrung by careerism and bureaucratic ignorance. Most of all he blames the agency for cow-towing to President Bush and, in its attempt to “escape blame,” giving policymakers what they wanted—a trend that continued with the administrations that followed. The result is an agency that has largely abandoned deep, long-term analysis and instead focuses on “disseminating up-to-the minute intelligence to the policy world. This is the crack cocaine for consumers of classified information.” It should come as no surprise that “This approach sacrificed the strategic context that’s so critical when it comes to making clear-sighted foreign policy.”

One of the most interesting chapters, “The First Draft of History,” comes at the end of the book. Here Nixon shreds Dubya’s memoir, Decision Points, and spends a full two pages examining unsettling parallels between Bush and Hussein—complete with bullet points. Here’s a sampling:
• Both were fairly ignorant of the outside world and had rarely traveled abroad.
• Both surrounded themselves with compliant advisers and had little tolerance for dissent.
• Both had little meaningful military experience and had unrealistic expectations of what force could achieve.
• Both took countries that were enjoying peace and prosperity and drove them into war and debt.
• Both considered themselves great men and were determined that history see them that way.

Nixon sees Bush (and his father) as “the ultimate elitist, a product of Andover, Yale, and Skull and Bones,” who nonetheless hated experts and the “elite type.” One doesn’t need great powers of extrapolation to see that the U.S. is currently grappling with a similar phenomenon under Trump—an elitist who despises experts, calls global warming a hoax, surrounds himself with advisors who double as lapdogs, and has a zero-tolerance policy toward criticism that comes his way.

So now you know: Saddam’s fearsome weapon of mass destruction was a novel. While Bush and Cheney were busy fabricating a narrative about Hussein’s plans to bring about the fall of the United States, the Iraqi dictator was actually working out kinks in the plot of Zabiba and the King. Moreover, he was so disengaged from governing, having delegated most of his responsibilities to underlings, that he knew less than they did about what was going on in Iraq in 2003.

What has it cost to stop Hussein from pursuing his career as an author? Thousands of dead Americans. Tens of thousands of American wounded—some paralyzed, some with amputated limbs, many with devastating brain injuries or debilitating psychological disorders. Tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, mostly civilians, who were mostly women and children. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi wounded—again, mostly women and children. I was living in Turkey at the time of the invasion. One afternoon I glanced at a Turkish newspaper and saw a photo of an Iraqi fireman pulling a baby from rubble—still in pajamas, little booties on the feet—but the baby was headless. Another front page showed an armless boy photographed up-close in a hospital bed. So far as I know, these images of “collateral damage” didn’t appear in our sanitized media outlets. And those are just two photos I happened to see; how many atrocities went unphotographed entirely? When you realize that photos like these, along with eyewitness accounts, circulated all over the Arab world, you begin to understand the supreme naïvete of the question “why do they hate us?” Bush’s explanation—“They hate our freedoms”—is laughable; it’s much more likely they hate our freedom to use “overwhelming force.”
And then there’s the financial cost of the war, some “$3 trillion and still counting,” according to Nixon. Imagine what could have been done with $3 trillion dollars had the U.S. spent it on disintegrating infrastructure, inner-city schools, and health care. We should also bear in mind that ISIS, fallout of the Iraq fiasco, is costing the U.S. and the world ever more.

A great deal of information came out of the debriefing of Saddam Hussein, but in Nixon’s view “The most important question—‘Should we have removed Saddam from power?’—was never asked” by either the CIA or the Bush administration. This book is the resounding answer.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.


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  One Response to “Book Review: “Debriefing the President” — Ignorance is Tragedy”

Comments (1)
  1. I appreciate this review.

    I think if you want a capsule history of America’s huge misadventure in Iraq, John Nixon’s Debriefing the President is a key book to turn to. As is George Packer’s superb Assassin’s Gate. Neither Nixon nor Packer started off as Bush bashers. One was a Langley analyst, happy at his Iraq desk, until he was posted to the field, and faced with Saddam himself, recently unearthed from his hidey-hole, the other initially favorable to the war, swayed by the likes of Chalabi about its justice and inevitable rewards.

    Events, as they learned about and experienced them turned them around, completely.

    The history of the Iraq war is the best Bush basher.

    I would add to Vince Czyz’s review by saying that Nixon’s book tells us we delude and flatter ourselves if we think we are in the Age of Trump. As Czyz tells it, following Nixon, we are still very much in the Age of Bush.

    The wars Bush unleashed still define our time, nor are they about to end, the war in Afghanistan possibly never, that infinitely pointless infinitely endless war.

    The refugee crisis that has stormed Europe and helped turn it rightward is in a large degree a result of Bush having destroyed the nation states solidity, such as it was, of the Middle East.

    Please remember once again that Bush our ignoramus in chief did not know when he launched his invasion there was such a thing as a Sunni-Shiit split. So far as Bush that born-again Christian saw it, they were all Muslims to him.

    So, as Nixon tells us, Saddam at the end of his life wanted to be remembered as a novelist. His main complaint in prison was the lack of writing materials. And then there’s Bush, who even some of our best art critics commend as a painter.

    Have fun with that.

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