Debriefing the President: The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein-John Nixon
On March 20, 2003, the United States military invaded the Republic of Iraq. The invasion marked the second time US and Iraqi forces faced off in armed conflict. Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq was deposed and fled into hiding. He was captured several months later on December 10, 2003 and three years later, executed by hanging. Over 10 years have passed since his death and Iraq continues to struggle with stability in the face of internal factions divided along tribal and religions lines and the emergence of ISIS intent of claiming their portion of territory across the Middle East. After he was captured, he was debriefed by American forces. The man who many Americans had seen as a powerful dictator on television, was reduced to another captured fugitive on a most wanted list. His appearance before cameras with a full beard and unkempt hear, remains one of the most popular images from that decade. However, it was a stark contrast from the man who allegedly had his mind-set on the destruction of America. But is that was Saddam Hussein really wanted? And what were his thoughts leading up to and during the invasion? John Nixon served as a former Senior Analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency and was tasked with debriefing the fallen dictator. This book is a recap of his career and the conversations he had with Hussein following his historic capture.
I believe that in order to truly enjoy this book, it is necessary for the reader to abandon any pre-conceived notions he or she might have about Hussein. While he was in fact a brutal tyrant, he did serve as Iraq’s head of state and provides insight to the decisions and non-decisions prior to the U.S. invasion. Prior to reading the book, I knew that Hussein was one of the worst rulers the world had seen. But I was curious as to what he truly thought about U.S. foreign policy towards his country. His answers a lot of questions and also clears up a few long-standing rumors. After finishing the book, I did not come away with a favorable impression of Hussein. Neither did I feel any more antipathy towards him. I do empathize with the men and women of Iraq who suffered under his reign. And I do feel that he was either unable or unwilling to see the error in his ways. At one point during the book he makes it clear that ruling Iraq was no easy task because of several factors and fears. Perhaps he is right, after all he would know better than any of us. I did find it easier to understand why he did not fully prepare for the invasion but found it increasing difficult to find any justification for the invasion. I never believed in the invasion and after reading Hussein’s answers, it seems even more bizarre and highlights a terrible moment in U.S. foreign policy.
It may sound ridiculous to some but during the book, it seemed absurd that the Hussein that is captured was the leader of Iraq. Perhaps his capture served to humble him slightly but I had trouble looking at him in the same way. Was he naive about some things? Absolutely. Was he also defiant? Yes he was. But the real question is was he a threat to American security and did he plan to kill both George H.W. Bush and the daughters of George W. Bush? Nixon touches on those topics and the answers just might surprise you. Nixon did an excellent job of remaining unbiased throughout the book. At no time does he praise of show disdain for Hussein. He does point out errors in Hussein’s answers and does make comments about his character but he gives a balanced account and lets the former ruler speak for himself.
Saddam is by far the highlight and main topic of the book. But where the book also piques interest is in Nixon’s account of the meetings with President Bush. His memories help shed light on what the White House was thinking and willing to believe as the events were taking place. And although I’m sure the book was heavily vetted by the CIA and perhaps the Obama administration, Nixon is quite frank in his assessment of both cabinets. He also points out where the ball was dropped and the difficulty America has in understanding our counterparts in the Middle East and in particular, Iraq. The book is not the end all account of the story of the invasion but it is a great read to understanding the mind of Saddam Hussein.