Most Americans remember Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as a ruthless narcissist who waged war against his many enemies and killed his fellow countrymen by the thousands. More than that, he represented one of America’s biggest strategic failures—the U.S. government’s erroneous conclusion, after 9/11, that Saddam held weapons of mass destruction and was ready to use them on the United States and its allies. There were no such weapons, but that faulty premise sparked the 2003 invasion of Iraq that led to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Acclaimed author Steve Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wanted to get beyond the image of Saddam Hussein as a cartoon monster to the real man within. He found a door into the story when he learned of a trove of materials seized by American officials after the invasion, including transcripts of tape-recorded meetings within Saddam’s inner circle. After five years of research, interviews, and a FOIA lawsuit against the Pentagon, Coll distilled his conclusions in his superb new book, The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq (Penguin Press, Feb. 27). In a starred review, Kirkus calls it “required reading for all conscientious citizens.” Coll, currently living in London, answered questions about the book over the phone; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You describe this book as a character-driven investigation, and you certainly portray Saddam Hussein as a multifaceted character. What motivated him as a ruler?

I thought that I should humanize him without sanitizing him, to understand his motivations and his decision-making, as well as render him for history and rescue him from the flat cartoon image that I had of him. I found him to be so full of paradox.

Somebody once told me that you shouldn’t write a biography of someone that you don’t like, because you have to spend so much time with them. I’ve never tried to follow that rule, but I did experience a lot of time trying to understand Osama bin Laden [for the 2008 book The Bin Ladens]. I found Bin Laden painfully difficult to enjoy as a subject, because he was so puritanical and one-dimensional in his thinking and lifestyle. Saddam stood very much in contrast to that, because he was sort of a man in full.

What did you learn from the tapes of meetings in Saddam’s inner chamber?

The tapes are often just monologues—nobody wants to interrupt him, because they’re afraid. He can be light on his feet in one moment, full of jokes and good humor, and then turgid for the next 10 minutes. [In print] he can be startlingly shrewd and foresightful about geopolitics and power, then deeply confused about how the world works. You could understand how for some people—[beyond the] intimidation, terror, and patronage—he had a certain charisma.

And he wrote several novels!

His poor copyeditors were stuck at their desks as the American invasion rolled over the border and towards Baghdad. He kept saying, “We still have time,” and sending them pages. It was as if the novel and the fall of his regime were on competing deadlines.  

I had never read about Saddam’s murder by gassing of thousands of Kurdish men, women, and children in the 1980s in such excruciating detail. What might have been different had the U.S. broken with him at that point?

Saddam Hussein, for all of his bluster and recklessness, could be deterred by American power if he thought that it genuinely threatened him. He was prepared to defy the United States, but he also didn’t want to get into gratuitous trouble with the United States unless it was something really important. I think he regarded the insurgency in Kurdistan as an existential threat to Iraq’s integrity and to his power. He might have gone ahead and gassed the Kurds anyway if the United States had raised the price, but that was never tested, because the United States got trapped in its own assumption that he was a necessary check on Iran—the lesser of two evils.  The United States, as we’ve seen so many times in our history, just couldn’t break out of a policy that had gone off the rails.

I was reading an oral history about the gassing of the Kurds, and the U.S.’s weak response to it. The subject was a longtime ambassador in the Arab world, and he said the hardest thing for the American government to do is to change a failed policy. That was why the United States continued to tolerate Saddam’s gassing of his own people, even as the evidence became truly horrifying.

When I read your books, I sometimes wonder: Why do people disclose themselves to you in such detail? I’m thinking of Jafar Dhia Jafar, head of Iraq’s nuclear program, who dealt with the many United Nations inspectors who looked for—and didn’t find—weapons of mass destruction. Why did he talk so candidly?

He’s a sophisticated man who’s proud of his achievements. I think he feels that he was the peer of many of the nuclear inspectors who never believed him, who should have believed him, and who should have treated him more respectfully. Since he ended up on the right side of this particular strand of history, he was willing to clarify exactly how it happened.

I was deeply intrigued by his role in the story, because he was an unexpected character in Saddam Hussein’s world: a world-class physicist who was independent of the regime in some respects, kind of an Oppenheimer figure. The most powerful rhetoric that the Bush administration used to sell the war was “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” After the truth was revealed, everybody had to admit that Jafar had been straightforward with them.

What lessons has the U.S. learned from this chapter in our history?

One area for reflection is what this extremely well-documented case study tells us about dealing with dictators in a world that seems, unfortunately, to have more and more of them. We can learn from our failures to think about Saddam as something other than a cartoon figure, and we can learn from the record of his decision-making how a leader in a very closed society whose power is almost absolute makes decisions when they interact with a big country like the United States.

Why are we unable to turn around and see the world, in at least some dimension, from the point of view of a figure like Saddam? Is it because our domestic politics require us to simplify and demonize an adversary? Granted, Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have terrible records. Nobody wants to celebrate them or be soft on them. But if you’re trying to protect the people of the United States by correctly understanding and influencing characters like that, you’re only going to be effective if you can get inside their heads. How do we have a conversation that does not sanitize these figures but really does attempt to understand them as human beings? Because ultimately they’re going to make decisions that affect us.

Mary Ann Gwinn is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist in Seattle.