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What could go wrong?

by John Nixon
Reviewed by Stephen Kaye

Do we need another book to add to the already extensive library devoted to the Iraq War?  This one adds first-hand testimony from a CIA analyst whose brief was Saddam Hussein, the principal target of a war that began in 2003 and may not yet be over some 14 years later.  


John Nixon was a CIA leadership analyst whose specialty was Saddam Hussein.     When Saddam was captured in late 2003, he was asked to confirm the identity of the army’s number one target.   He was able to do that.   The book is mostly about what information Sadam gave in extensive interviews that changed Nixon’s view of what the man was all about.  Small sections of the book are blacked out, dramatizing the paranoia of the CIA that exercises censoring rights over former employees.


For me the book is not valuable for what it says, but for what it shows about how foreign policy is made.  Nixon describes two occasions where he gave briefings to the principal group, President Bush, VP Cheney and the senior policy makers in the White House.  He felt he was not there so much to inform them as to ratify what they already believed.  He was aware that the whole CIA apparatus existed to serve the president. If the president wanted intelligence on how bad certain Iraqis were, that was what they produced. Nixon himself tried to give a different picture of Saddam than what the principals’ already believed, but found it tough going.  He found no evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, yet that continued to be the focus of the policy-makers.  Saddam gave a cogent reason for not having them—they would give him a bad name. He didn’t want to gas Americans, he wanted to get along with them, even after they invaded.  All he wanted was to meet with them, sit down and talk. That was something that never occurred to the president or his men.


The book also reveals that Saddam was not that active in running the country in the final days before the invasion.  He had no plan of military operations, yet he well understood that the allies would blunder and that his people would make life miserable for the occupying powers.  At the time we invaded, Saddam was working on a novel.


What this book confirms is that foreign policy is made by a few men possessed of scant and often faulty information that ignores the most important and relevant facts.  As Saddam says early in his interviews in 2003 “You are going to fail in Iraq because you do not know the language, the history, and you do not understand the Arab mind.”   He was dead right.