The Icarus Trap: Arrogance, Misperception, and the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Three statues of Saddam Hussein

Steve Coll, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq (New York: Penguin, 2024).

Was the Iraq War a product of mutual misperception by U.S. and Iraqi leaders? Since the United States failed to find significant weapons of mass destruction following the 2003 invasion, scholars have wondered whether this disastrous war might have been avoidable if each side had more accurately perceived the other. There may have been a middle ground in which the Iraqis fully communicated their disarmament and the Americans accepted a defanged but intact Iraqi regime.

In his fascinating and vividly written book, Steve Coll offers the best version of this argument to date. Tracing U.S.-Iraqi relations from the 1980s to 2003, he shows how mutual misperceptions and miscommunications created a spiral of conflict and distrust that culminated in the ill-fated U.S. invasion. Each side made assumptions about the other that were not entirely unreasonable in context but that also closed off opportunities for de-escalation.

The result of this argument is the Iraq War as a tragedy. Like Juliet taking her own life not knowing that Romeo was merely sleeping, the George W. Bush administration stumbled into an unnecessary and destructive war. Had they just known that Iraq had no significant weapons of mass destruction programs, they would have avoided the war.

Explaining this “failure of comprehension” is important for grasping the war’s origins, but this approach has limits. Focusing on miscommunication risks construing the war too much as an avoidable misunderstanding rather than as a tale of delusion, hubris, and obsession on the part of U.S. policy-makers. This was not just a “tragic invasion to eliminate a nonexistent [weapons of mass destruction] arsenal” but a product of the aspirations, vulnerabilities, and sheer might of a hegemonic power.



Mutual Misperceptions

This book separates itself from much existing work on the Iraq War by using a host of new sources. It draws on tape recordings, minutes of meetings, and intelligence files held at the Conflict Records Research Center in Washington, DC. As Michael Brill explains, previous scholars drew on these records captured after the U.S. invasion of Iraq before funding cuts led to the center’s closure in 2015. Coll, however, filed suit against the Defense Department in 2021 and gained access to a large portion of these records, enabling him to paint an intricate portrait of the Baathist government and its leader.

This book provides compelling insights on topics like the Iraqi nuclear program, Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) efforts to topple him in the 1990s. This review, however, focuses on Coll’s story of how U.S. and Iraqi leaders continually misread each other and plunged into avoidable conflicts.

In the 1980s, the United States tilted toward Iraq in order to contain Iran and tried to woo the Baathist regime with economic aid while limiting criticism of Iraqi human rights abuses. Saddam, however, never lost his rigid view of United States, and the CIA in particular, as a hostile and omnipotent power out to destabilize his government. Coll emphasizes Saddam’s deeply antisemitic worldview and his belief that Zionists controlled U.S. media and policy, driving them to undermine his regime even when the United States was trying to reach out.

There was also sufficient evidence of U.S. deceit to fuel some of Saddam’s fears about Washington’s intentions. For example, the U.S. provision of arms and intelligence to Iran in the mid-1980s bolstered Saddam’s belief that the United States aimed to debilitate both sides in order to defang threats to Israel and U.S. power in the region. Coll quotes Saddam saying that Iran-Contra showed “the real American-Israeli-Iranian conspiracy … a conspiracy against us.”

The United States also misread Saddam in the lead-up to the 1990–91 Gulf crisis and failed send a clear deterrent message against an invasion of Kuwait. Saddam in turn believed that with the end of the Cold War, the United States would “continue to depart from the restrictions that govern the rest of the world … until new forces of balance are formed.” It would use this hegemonic moment to try to control Middle Eastern oil and bolster Israeli power. He believed that the United States “displayed signs of fatigue, frustration, and hesitation” that might enable him to seize Kuwait and get away with it. U.S. silence at his use of chemical weapons in the 1980s and other crimes further convinced him that the United States would not punish his invasion of Kuwait. As Saddam later told his interrogators in captivity, “If you didn’t want me to go in, why didn’t you tell me?”

Coll reinforces the scholarly conclusion that Saddam pursued nuclear weapons mainly to deter the United States and Israel and to assert his regional power and self-conception as leader of the Arab nations. When the United States made clear deterrent threats, he respected the red lines. For instance, Secretary of State James Baker warned Saddam that the United States would seek “the elimination of the current Iraqi regime” if it used chemical or biological weapons on coalition forces, and Saddam refrained from using them during Desert Storm.

After a successful military campaign to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the United States championed the U.N. efforts to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, using sanctions to coerce Iraqi compliance. Simultaneously, the George H.W. Bush administration deviated from the Gulf War coalition by declaring that the United States would not lift sanctions on Iraq until Saddam was overthrown, contradicting the U.N. Security Council resolution that set up the inspections.

Saddam identified this fissure in the coalition early and worked over the course of the 1990s to pull nations like China, Russia, and France away from the U.S. hard line. Moreover, this U.S. position, which President Bill Clinton continued despite some reservations, convinced Saddam that there was little point in full compliance. Referring to the inspections, Saddam even told his advisors that “sanctions without all these sacrifices are better than sanctions with them.”

Coll’s chapters on the inspections are engrossing. He shows how Saddam’s son-in-law Hussein Kamel initially led the effort to hide Iraq’s weapons programs, leading to confrontations with the inspectors. In the summer of 1991, he pivoted and ordered the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and related facilities. However, he did so without preserving the documentation that could prove to the inspectors that Iraq had unilaterally destroyed all of its programs. This set the inspections regime on the impossible mission of verifying exactly what programs and materials the Iraqis had possessed and how quickly they could reconstitute those capabilities, even as the Iraqi security services continued to harass them. When the Iraqis did expose the full extent of past programs, including revelations about its biological weapons arsenal in 1995, it only deepened the inspectors’ and U.S. leaders’ belief that Iraq had more to hide, a dynamic that Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer calls “the Cheater’s Dilemma.”

Nonetheless, as Gregory Koblentz has also argued, Iraqi non-cooperation was in part rooted in Saddam’s reasonably founded belief that the United States was working to overthrow him and that the inspectors posed a security threat. The CIA provided aerial photos of suspected weapons sites to the inspectors as early as 1991. With U.S. encouragement, the inspectors in the late 1990s intensified operations to unmask the Iraqi “concealment mechanism,” or the Special Security Organization’s system of obstruction. This involved closer cooperation with U.S. intelligence as well as attempts to enter sensitive Iraqi facilities, including areas that Saddam depended on for internal security.

When the Special Security Organization removed documents or tried to block the inspectors from these sites, U.S. policy-makers concluded that they were trying to hide information or materials instead of attempting to “secure the presidential protection system whose overriding purpose was to keep Saddam Hussein safe.” Repeated confrontations with the inspectors led to their ouster from Iraq at the end of 1998, which left the international community blind to internal Iraqi behavior. From then on, most of the international community operated from the assumption that, as Clinton told British Prime Minister Tony Blair, “I’ve reached the conclusion after eliminating all possible alternatives that Saddam still has the making of a chemical and biological program he doesn’t want to give up.”

Coll spends a lot of time on CIA attempts to woo Iraqi leaders in the 1980s and its later efforts to spark a coup in the 1990s. These chapters are riveting, but it is not clear how important the CIA’s actions were, especially in the 1990s. The George H.W. Bush administration sought to foment a coup but also feared the destabilizing consequences of Saddam’s overthrow. The Clinton administration was even less enthusiastic about pursuing a coup and even rescinded support at the last second for a hare-brained CIA scheme in 1995.

It seems unlikely that these plots could have worked given the brutal competence of Saddam’s security forces and U.S. reticence to take risks to remove a threat that was mostly contained. As one CIA officer told Coll, Clinton “set up a system that protected him politically from claims that he wasn’t serious about deposing Saddam, but he set up a fail-safe system to preventing anything from actually happened.”

The Road to the 2003 Invasion

Coll spends less time on the U.S. decision-making that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which is well-covered ground. Nonetheless, his book deftly connects the themes of mutual miscommunication and misperception to the 18 months between 9/11 and the war’s onset.

The George W. Bush administration shifted quickly from Afghanistan to Iraq as the centerpiece of the U.S. response to 9/11. In August 2002, Bush called for the return of inspections and threatened to use force to disarm Iraq if it failed to comply. Unlike some scholars, Coll correctly notes that this was “a cynical exercise, a test designed for Saddam to fail” in which Bush hoped to gain international support for a decision for regime change he had effectively already made.

When the inspectors returned to Iraq in December 2002, the misperceptions of the 1990s inhibited the possibility of de-escalation. Iraqi officials told the inspectors that they had no active weapons of mass destruction programs, which was true, and Saddam ordered his subordinates to destroy or surrender all remaining documents or equipment.

However, the Special Security Organization continued to prioritize regime security, which “all but guaranteed that whenever U.N. inspectors headed for sites regarded as sensitive, Saddam’s bodyguards would scramble into defensive action, zipping around in vehicles and chattering over radios as they tried to identify and hide protected places, people, or documents.” The Iraqis also continued to block unfettered access to scientists who might manage to explain the extent of its weapons of mass destruction research.

So while the inspectors found little evidence of ongoing weapons production, Iraqi behavior sent the opposite message: that they had something to hide and intended to reconstitute these programs eventually. As Coll argues, Saddam’s conspiratorial worldview explains a lot of this behavior: “He assumed that an all-powerful CIA already knew that he had no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. A CIA capable of getting such a big question wrong on the facts was not consistent with Saddam’s bedrock assumptions.”

Coll vividly portrays an aloof and incompetent Saddam who played his strategic cards poorly as the United States shifted its attention to Iraq. He gloated over America’s trauma after 9/11, asserting on Iraqi state television one day after the attacks that “the United States reaps the thorns that its leaders have planted in the world.” He utterly failed to realize how 9/11 had altered U.S. security perceptions and unleashed its willingness to use force to eliminate potential threats. As U.S. rhetoric intensified and its military forces assembled in the region, he stuck to his longstanding belief that the United States was weak and that nations like Russia and China would bail him out.

In fact, Saddam seemed more interested in finishing his winding novels than saving his own skin. He even managed to print 40,000 copies of his fourth novel, Get Out, Damned One!, before going underground. One gets an image of an Iraqi King Lear, dawdling and prevaricating as the forces of his own destruction swirled around him.

The Limits of Tragedy and Misperception

However, Coll and other authors’ portrayal of the Iraq War as a “failure of comprehension,” and the resulting narrative of a tragic war cannot fully capture this conflict’s origins. Gideon Rose endorsed this view in his assessment of Coll’s book: “The Iraq War shows what happens when neither side knows either.” Mutual misperception is a piece of the puzzle, but just a piece.

One issue with misperception arguments is that they cannot explain why the United States approached the containment of Iraq in the 1990s in such a stringent manner. Coll helps us see how the inspectors were unable to fully verify Iraq’s unilateral destruction of its own weapons of mass destruction. But, as Samuel Helfont and I have argued, this does not explain why the United States demanded such ironclad proof of Saddam’s total disarmament, nor why it pursued such a hardline position on Iraq compared to most other members of the Gulf War coalition. At some point in the 1990s, the United States probably could have declared a 95 percent victory, ended the inspections, eased the sanctions, and accepted a Saddam-led Iraq as a geopolitical reality.

Instead, throughout the decade, U.S. leaders supported intrusive inspections and refused to consider sanctions relief until absolute compliance was verified. As Coll documents, it pursued hare-brained schemes of toppling Saddam. The United States and Great Britain also aggressively wielded their veto power on the U.N. committee responsible for enforcing sanctions, barring critical goods such as insecticide, refrigeration equipment, and chlorine for fear of “dual-use” in weapons production.

Misperception issues cannot fully explain this behavior, which undermined containment by alienating partner nations, convincing Saddam that full cooperation was pointless, and immiserating the Iraqi people. U.S. allies also misinterpreted much of Iraq’s behavior, but they did not insist on such a stringent approach to the problem. It seems contradictory that the most powerful nation on earth, the one best equipped to protect itself from weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missiles, insisted on the highest standard of security vis-à-vis Iraq.

U.S. hegemony in the 1990s and early 2000s offers a more complete explanation of Iraq policy. On both sides of the aisle, U.S. grand strategy sought to consolidate and expand primacy, markets, and democracy, using the unipolar moment to lock in long-term advantages. U.S. leaders saw “rogue states” like Iraq as the last redoubts of resistance to U.S. power and the waves of democratization and globalization sweeping the world. As some scholars have argued, states’ definitions of their own security expand as they gain power; they can do more and try to eradicate threats that they might once have tried to manage. Not only did U.S. leaders resent that Iraq was defying the Pax Americana, they also had the power in this era to finish the job and a sense of ideological purpose in doing so.

We also have to look at U.S. domestic politics to understand the severity of U.S. policy on Iraq in the 1990s. The messy ending of the Gulf War, especially Saddam’s survival and crushing of internal revolts, led many Democrats and Republicans to criticize Bush for not removing Saddam. Bush’s own declarations that the United States would not lift sanctions as long as Saddam remained in power set a hardline precedent that constrained his successor. A movement of neoconservatives, liberal hawks, Republicans, and Iraqi exiles coalesced to defend the hardline approach and advocate for an overt regime change policy. Referring to Saddam, Clinton told Tony Blair in 1998 that “if I weren’t constrained by the press, I would pick up the phone and call the son of a bitch. But that is such a heavy-laden decision in America.”

The predominant ideas, politics, and mood of the United States in the 1990s drove U.S. leaders to seek absolute solutions to problems like Iraq. While they did misperceive Iraq in many ways, Americans also defined their own security requirements and role in the world in ways that generated repeated collisions.

Another problem with a focus on misperception lies in the fact that in the early 2000s, the George W. Bush administration, as well as most of Congress and the U.S. public, was not seeking to gather information and update beliefs on Iraq. Rather, for a variety of reasons, the Bush team as well as most of Congress and the public had already decided upon the necessity of regime change before the inspectors re-entered Iraq in late 2002. As Coll duly notes, the Bush administration exaggerated and distorted intelligence analysis on the war, showing their determination not to seek the truth but to bolster an existing conclusion. That only a handful of members of Congress bothered to read the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs demonstrates that this attitude was not confined to the executive branch.

Many U.S. leaders and thinkers wanted this war and had been working since well before 9/11 to bring it about, for a variety of reasons. As Ahsan Butt argues, the United States believed that it needed to demonstrate its resolve to state sponsors of terrorism after 9/11 and that Iraq offered an ideal target for flexing its muscles in order to assert “generalized deterrence” against state sponsors of terrorism. Other key policy-makers, including Bush, believed that the United States might address the root causes of terrorism by implanting democracy in places like Iraq.

It is not clear what the Iraqis could have done to avoid a U.S. invasion in early 2003. They could not reveal a weapons programs they did not have, and any such revelations would have fed the Bush administration’s belief that the regime could not be trusted. But obstructing the inspectors led to the same conclusion.

Theoretically, if U.S. leaders had perfect knowledge of Iraq’s lack of weapons, they may have avoided war. But over the preceding decade-plus, they had constructed an understanding of the Baathist regime that made it impossible for the Iraqis to credibly communicate their disarmament.

Bush most likely agreed to the inspections not because he believed they might work but to rally domestic and international support for war. Vice President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz opposed any new inspections, fearing a return to the “cheat-and-retreat” dynamics of the 1990s and believing unshakably that Saddam was engaged in weapons of mass destruction production. Rumsfeld wrote to Bush in October 2002, for instance, arguing that new inspections would inevitably result in “a protracted period of inconclusive inspections” that would give Saddam his “best hope of inflicting a strategic defeat on the U.S.”

Moreover, as Coll explains, the Bush administration ignored that the inspectors in early 2003 were not finding significant weapons of mass destruction programs, even at locations where the CIA had encouraged them to search. Top inspectors were directly contradicting U.S. claims, including infamous assertions about aluminum tubes. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissed these findings (or lack thereof), arguing that “we need to be careful about drawing these conclusions, particularly in a totalitarian state like Iraq.” Inside accounts of the administration’s decision-making show that Bush made the final decision for war in January 2002, just a month into the inspections, and that they ignored the inspectors’ calls for more time.

The Iraq War, in short, was probably more about Americans fooling themselves than Saddam fooling Americans. We have to understand the miscommunications that Coll ably explores as well as how Americans interpreted the Iraqi threat, the international security environment, and their own identities and roles in the world. The idea of the Iraq War as a tragedy stemming from misperception has some validity, but it risks letting leaders off the hook for rigid thinking, arrogance, and unrealistic goals.

Coll would probably agree with this assessment, as this is hardly an exculpatory book. He has spent a remarkable career documenting the hubris and overreach of much of U.S. foreign policy. He concludes that this was “an unnecessary war that he [Bush] and his war cabinet marketed through exaggerations of available evidence and unabashed fearmongering.” Rather, the purpose of this critique is to fit Coll’s story about mutual misperceptions into a broader understanding of the war’s causes, which reflected both the U.S. desire for security after 9/11 and its hegemonic power and aspirations.



Joseph Stieb is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990–2003. He has published articles in the Texas National Security Review, Diplomatic History, Modern American History, Journal of Strategic Studies, International History Review, War on the Rocks, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views, policies, or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components, to include the Department of the Navy or the U.S. Naval War College.

 Image: Staff Sgt. Michael Pryor