Thursday, October 20, 2022

Review Hide And Seek, The Search For Truth In Iraq

Duelfer, Charles, Hide And Seek, The Search For Truth In Iraq, New York: Public Affairs, 2009


Charles Duelfer was the deputy head of the United Nations inspectors in the 1990s and then in charge of the Iraq Survey Group which investigated Iraq’s WMD programs after the 2003 invasion. His book Hide And Seek, The Search For Truth In Iraq is about those two experiences plus his work with the CIA in between them. He made three main points. One was that the weapons inspections in the 1990s and 2000s were never going to get to the bottom of things because Iraq would never cooperate with something imposed upon it. The second was that he supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but then acknowledged that the Bush administration destroyed Iraq afterward. Third he tried to explain why Iraq wanted WMD and acted like it still had them after they were destroyed. Ultimately his goal was to explain what both the U.S. and Iraqis were thinking during their years of confrontation when almost all books are just about the Americans.


The first half of Hide And Seek is about the 1990s U.N. weapons inspectors which he thought were never going to work because they were forced upon Iraq. After the Gulf War the U.S. and its allies pushed through weapons inspections to disarm Iraq. If it didn’t do so sanctions would not be lifted. Given that situation Saddam Hussein was never going to cooperate. Not only that but interviews with Iraqi officials and Saddam himself after 2003 showed that Saddam believed the U.N.’s work would only last a few years so there was no incentive for Baghdad to divulge everything that it did. Saddam thought it would be a transactional process where Iraq would provide some information and the U.N. would give something back. Instead, it turned into a series of confrontations with the inspectors becoming more and more obtrusive as the years went by. Iraq created a committee to hide and deceive its programs which the inspectors thought was evidence that Saddam was hiding his weapons. In fact, by the end the U.N. was looking into the deception campaign rather than looking for WMD. This led to more reliance upon the CIA and Israel. Unlike other accounts Duelfer didn’t think those agencies took over the inspectors but rather they used them since they were in Iraq and the intelligence groups were not. The book gives a very interesting take because it argued that the inspections were doomed from the start. He even acknowledges that when they ended in 1998 they knew Iraq was hiding something but they didn’t know what it was. It turned out to be documents which Saddam hoped could be used to restart his programs when sanctions were lifted which never came. Because of his experience with inspections in the 90s he thought the new ones in the 2000s would turn out the same and he was right.


The book’s next major point is a contentious one. Duelfer said that he believed Iraq was a rogue state and a growing threat because the sanctions were collapsing in the 2000s. Therefore overthrowing Saddam was the right decision. Then he has whole sections on how the Americans wrecked Iraq after the invasion. He condemns the decision to disband the Iraqi military, fire Baathists and rely upon Ahmed Chalabi and other exile groups who hadn’t been in the country for years, who just wanted power and tried to dismiss the Iraqis who had been living there. There are two problems with this argument. First he has no understanding of what the sanctions did or how they worked. He brings up how Iraq was manipulating the Oil for Food program and bringing in millions illegally but that was a flash in the bucket for the country’s needs. He never mentions that the U.S. and U.K. blocked almost everything going to Iraq from pencils to clothes which destroyed the economy and middle class. One time he talked about Iraqis suffering but put it into quotation marks dismissing it as simply Iraqi propaganda to try to get rid of sanctions. His point that Iraq was just on the doorstep of becoming a regional power again and thus a threat to the U.S. and world was hollow given its state under the embargo. Second, how could he say that removing Saddam was right when he knew full well what happened afterward? Duelfer spends far more time on how the Bush administration destroyed Iraq than why he supported the war. It doesn’t seem logical to back a war that had the complete opposite affect the author was hoping for.


Finally, Duelfer turns to how he wanted to make the Iraq Survey Group’s report into a history about Iraq’s WMD. This section is a bit muddled because he didn’t really lay down the how and why but rather just parts of the story. For instance, he got Saddam to talk about how he wanted WMD and acted like he still had them after they were destroyed because he believed they were necessary to counter Iraq’s two main rivals Iran and Israel. The Bush administration talked about how Iraq was a threat to the United States but that never really came up in Saddam’s thinking. He was more concerned about the Middle East. That is the main insight the book provides while the nuts and bolts of the programs are not discussed. That might actually have been for the better because the narrative could have gotten lost in the details. On the other hand, he goes on for pages and pages about how the FBI interrogator tried to win Saddam’s trust and what the day to day routine was like with the Survey Group. That wasn’t very interesting and makes the finish of the book very up and down.


Hide And Seek is a worthwhile read because of the information it provides about the futility of the inspection process. Iraq was never going to comply with a system forced upon it and if the 90s inspectors didn’t work it was going to be even more futile in the 2000s. His work with the Iraq Survey Group is all over the place however and his standing behind overthrowing Saddam simply doesn’t make much sense given the consequences that he himself explains. Despite those issues the coverage of the U.N.’s work is very important for those that want to understand that period in Iraqi history.


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