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Sunday Book Review: Hide and Seek: Searching for Truth in Iraq

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This is the third installment of a seven part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. World of Nations, William Keylor
  2. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  3. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer

Charles Duelfer worked for UNSCOM, the agency that investigated Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions mandating the elimination of chemical and biological stockpiles during the 1990s. He later came to fame as the head of the Iraq Survey Group, which turned in the final administrative report on the state of Iraq’s unconventional weapons programs at the time of the invasion. The former job meant that he was uniquely suited for the latter, as he had more experience with Iraq than most living Americans. He has now penned Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, an analytical memoir about his experiences in Iraq. Duelfer isn’t a natural writer, and the seams are visibile; in some places Hide and Seek seems a touch incoherent. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the Iraq War.

Duelfer continues to believe that the decision to invade Iraq was sound, but that the execution of the war was fatally disrupted by US ineptitude. This isn’t quite the incompetence dodge; he doesn’t attempt to excuse his support of the war by suggesting that he thought it would end up better than it did. Rather, he favored war because he believed that the other options were even worse. He argues that continued disengagment with Iraq would, in fairly short order, have resulted in the reconstitution of its unconventional weapons programs and itsbthreat to US interests in the Gulf. Direct engagement with Iraq could have borne fruit, but was impossible given the domestic situation within the United States. War, thus, was the only remaining option. Interestingly enough, Duelfer was largely indifferent to the central justification for war. He thought it possible that Iraq had retained stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, but was by no means certain. He didn’t, however think that the presence of such weapons was a key element of the case for war.

I found Duelfer’s argument that Saddam was a threat that required action uncompelling. It’s entirely correct to say that Iraq wanted out of the sanctions regime, and that elements of the regime wished to preserve the capability to produce unconventional weapons. It’s also true that some parts of the sanctions regime were untenable. This doesn’t, however, add up to very much. In four years of absence of inspections, the Iraqis had not reconstituted their unconventional weapons programs, in spite of the belief that the United States wasn’t playing fair. Moreover, Iraqi conventional capabilities had deteriorated substantially relative to the United States, and to every other state in the region. Without conventional capability, even a robust chemical program would have had only a limited effect on regional politics. Finally, I simply don’t believe that the sanctions regime was dead; an energetic, enthusiastic, and intelligent US administration could have used the political capital generated by 9/11 to reinvigorate and restructure the sanctions regime, such that it allowed Iraq to develop its economy while seriously restricting Hussein’s ability to reconstruct his conventional army. This, as they say, was the road not taken. To his credit, Duelfer gives absolutely no creedence to the notion that Hussein could transfer WMD to terrorist organizations.

Duelfer discusses Iraqi entreaties toward the United States on several occasions. Saddam and the rest of the regime believed that the United States and Iraq could cooperate on several fronts, and that the US and Iraq were natural allies. It seems that the Iraqis believed this during almost the entire period between 1991 and 2003, although the feelers became more serious after 1996. Hussein suggested collaboration on the Palestinian issue (including an offer to resettle Palestinians in Iraq), the growth of Islamic extremism, and Iran. It’s not quite true that none of this was taken seriously by the US government; rather, it’s more accurate to say that no one was listening. Duelfer, who worked in Iraq for much of this period, was sometimes the conduit through which such feelers were made. The Clinton administration, however, had not the faintest interest in reconciling with the Iraqi regime. Duelfer argues that the Iraqis could have offered the world and the moon, but that the balance of power in the US government precluded the possibility of diplomacy. Clinton wouldn’t pursue rapproachment with Iraq because of fear of Congressional criticism. This effectively foreclosed the “reconcile with Iraq” option.

I think that Duelfer is broadly correct; it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United States government, at least in the short term, could have pursued reconciliation with Iraq. The problem was primarily (although not wholly) with Congressional Republicans; I suspect that even the Bush administration would have taken heat for openings with Hussein. Human rights advocacy groups would also, correctly, have denounced any rapproachment with Hussein’s regime. I think it’s also true that the blame for this situation fell on both sides. Had the Hussein government made a series of strong statements of denunciation of the attacks of 9/11, followed up by concrete and public offers of assistance, a dialogue might have been easier. The rehabilitation of Qaddafi demonstrates that anything can happen. Hussein, however, lacked vision.

As an unreformed war advocate, Duelfer is understandably agitated at the amazing ineptitude with which the war was conducted. He compellingly argues that the two biggest mistakes the US undertook following the invasion were the disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the process of de-Baathification. These moves alienated two groups that the United States should not have alienated; large formations of heavily armed young men, and Iraq’s technical and bureaucratic elite. Duelfer was familiar and friendly with much of the latter from his time in Iraq in the 1990s, and is confidant that it could have been co-opted. In effect, the United States gutted the Iraqi state while simultaeneously creating a motivated resistance. Obviously, I don’t think that these moves were entirely responsible for the creation of the insurgency, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t make the situation much worse. Duelfer blames both decisions on the influence of the INC and on ideologues within the Defense Department. Neither group understood anything about modern Iraq, and the latter had only the faintest notion of what a state was.

Duelfer makes a tepid defense of the administration and the intelligence community against charges of lying and intentionally deceiving the American public, but doesn’t do a very good job. He makes the point, correctly, that pushing for a particular interpretation within a bureaucracy and intentional deception aren’t quite the same thing. He fails, however, to acknowledge the aura of absolute certainty that surrounded the administration’s insistence on the presence of chemical and biological weapons. In other words, it’s possible to imagine an administration that was forthrightly erroneous rather than intentionally deceptive, but the Bush administration ain’t it. Moreover, Duelfer fails entirely to discuss the most egregious deception undertaken by the administration, the implication that the Hussein regime was in league with Al Qaeda and could potentially supply the latter with effective WMD. A man with Duelfer’s expertise and experience in Iraq must have known that this was utter nonsense, both in terms of the likelihood of such a relationship and in terms of its fruits for either side. It is particularly disappointing that Duelfer ignores this deception, as it provided the logical foundation for linking the September 11 attacks to the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution that Duelfer makes is insight into the bureaucratic machinations of the UN, Iraq, and the United States government. He details his slow realization that bureaucratic organizations depend on the production of their own internal realities, and that the realities that one organization requires to operate do not necessarily coincide with the realities of others. He discusses how the US, UNSCOM, and Iraq could have completely (and often wildly) different interpretations of the same event, and how these interpretations precluded meaningful cooperation. Duelfer is pretty hard on all of these bureaucracies; he faults the US bureaucracy for having an incoherent approach to Iraq, the Iraqi bureaucracy for perpetuating an unrealistic set of expectations, and the UN bureaucracy for limiting the scope of his investigations. On the latter, Duelfer falls into a common trap that afflicts UN critiques; he sees only how UN politics hindered the operations of UNSCOM, without thinking too much about how the Security Council enabled the investigations in the first place. This is classic trees-forest thinking. Without the Security Council, and without the will to conquer and occupy Iraq in 1991, there would have been no inspections whatsoever, and no investigation of Iraqi weapons program. Duelfer is fond of comparing the containment of Iraq post-1991 to the post-Versailles containment of Germany, but misses out on how the existence of the Security Council provided the former with far bigger teeth than the latter. Duelfer’s account will hold some interest for science and tech geeks, although not as much as I expected; Duelfer shies away from detailed discussions of the technical aspects of his work, although he does make clear that the details are, well, detailed.

This is a useful volume. There is much to disagree with, but that’s not really the point; read, disagree, and at the end you’ll still have a better understanding of how what Iraqis and Americans did after 1991 led to 2005. There is not and will never be a single narrative of US involvement in Iraq. The best we can do is try to piece together bits from different sources, in order to produce a narrative that makes sense. I suspect, moreover, that no single narrative will make sense to everyone. Duelfer’s contribution is an important one, largely because he was working in and thinking about Iraq while few other Americans were.

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