“If you’re going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you will do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba’athists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists. How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for the government, and what happens to it once we leave?”
— Dick Cheney, April 13, 1991 New York Times interview (explaining why the Bush (41) administration did not pursue “regime change” during the Gulf War.)
I feel as if I’m witnessing a scenario similar to the onset of the Cold War. In 1946-47, British and American leaders invented an imminent Soviet threat to invade Western Europe. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the “Iron Curtain” notion and President Harry Truman and his coterie transformed Uncle Joe into Stalin the Butcher.
In 2002, George W. Bush and his mountebank advisers invented the imminent Iraq peril. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had alleged links to Al Qaeda terrorists and would launch weapons of mass destruction he had secretly accumulated. Bush charged that Saddam had violated the sacred resolutions of the worthless United Nations!
However zany such speculations may have seemed to the factually enlightened, Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech nevertheless set the tone and context for future political discussion. Within months, the prestige media and political elite had accepted W’s Baptist sermon language that had emanated from a speech writer’s imagination and converted it into an axiom of policy. The issue was not whether Iraq might conceivably threaten U.S. interests in the distant future, but whether to take unilateral or multilateral action to combat it now.
In the post World War II years, U.S. leaders repeated implausible charges that the Soviet Union constituted a “clear and present danger.” Poised to attack Western Europe, the Soviets also aimed to subvert democracy everywhere. These statements became the “factual” basis for the Cold War. The incessant propaganda campaign contained no reference to the USSR having just lost more than 20 million dead and 20 million more wounded; nothing about the 200 hundred cities demolished or the acute food shortage that gripped the Soviet people. Moreover, no mention was made that Soviet troops had no boots and that Stalin had made sure that Soviet railroad tracks did not coincide in width with those of eastern Europe, thus making nearly impossible to think of supplying an invading army.
Yet, within months, the publicity machinery transmuted the false claims into truisms that in turn became the foundations of military alliances like NATO, SEATO and CENTO. SAC bombers flew round the clock missions with nuclear payloads and, from this demonstrably false premise, hundreds of institutions developed to fight Soviet communism and win the Cold War. This legacy lives on. Indeed, NATO has expanded and the numerous national security agencies created for the unique purpose of combating the Red Menace thrive as well. Ironically, Russia now plays an important role in the joint NATO-Russia Council, the very organ created to combat the Russian menace.
The Cold War origins should serve as a warning for the present pre-war situation with Iraq. The Bushies have repeated ad hominum arguments against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein who, because he committed horrendous crimes in the recent past, like gassing his own people in the 1980s, must by now have accumulated weapons of mass destruction and forged links with terrorists. This demonization of Saddam even includes claims that he tried to assassinate the elder Bush on a trip to the Persian Gulf in 1993. Like Stalin, Saddam is a genuine black hat. That does not, however, mean we must go to war against Iraq.
The missing links in the Administration’s argument are facts. The Bushies apparently feel loathe to support their claims with facts, perhaps, because they have none. They also count on temporal atrophy to prevail in the public mind, and obedience to authority to reign in the press corps.
The media occasionally raises issues from the past that contradict today’s moralistic assertions and certitudes, but most of the past statements and activities of officials who scream for war against the Saddam monster remain entombed.
We do not hear the press asking the President and his advisers why U.S. policy changed from being pro-Saddam in the 1980s, to anti-Saddam in the 1990s. Declassified State Department cables and court records indicate that President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush the elder endorsed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the 1980s, which is today considered an unspeakable crime.
In 1983, Reagan selected the perfect right wing Republican as his emissary to Iraq to explain to Saddam that while the United States could not openly condone Iraq’s use of poison gas, it would look the other way because Washington wanted to prevent an Iranian victory. So, Donald Rumsfeld provided Iraq with military assistance in Reagan’s name.
According to MSNBC, November 17, evidence of this agreement emerged from depositions taken in a January, 1995, court case in which Howard Teicher, a National Security Counsel official, who traveled with Rumsfeld to Iraq, states that both Reagan and Vice President Bush “personally delivered military advice to Saddam Hussein, both directly and through intermediaries.”
In his affidavit, Teicher writes that “CIA Director [William] Casey personally spearheaded the effort to ensure that Iraq had sufficient military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to avoid losing the Iran-Iraq war.” The United States supplied “the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits,” claims Teicher, and offered “military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required.”
Teicher says the military advice to the Iraqis was relayed “to Saddam from the highest levels of the U.S. government, from President Reagan and then-Vice President Bush.” In 1986, according to Teicher, “President Reagan sent a secret message to Saddam Hussein telling him that Iraq should step up its air war and bombing of Iran. This message was delivered by Vice President Bush.” At this time, Reagan and Bush knew that Saddam had used chemical weapons and cluster bombs and acquiesced “in order to stave off the Iranian attacks.” The U.S. also assisted in facilitating sales of such weapons to Iraq, says Teicher.
Today, Rumsfeld’s apparent amnesia about his 1980s mission as Reagan’s conciliator allows him to convert into appalling crimes the very acts that he encouraged Saddam to commit. “Saddam Hussein’s regime is a grave and gathering danger,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 19, 2002. “It is a danger to its neighbors, to the United States, to the Middle East and to international peace and stability. It is a danger we do not have the option to ignore. The world has acquiesced in Saddam Hussein’s aggression, abuses and defiance for more than a decade.”
What a change from Rumsfeld 15 years earlier, dealing with the same man and the same regime. He more than acquiesced in Saddam’s aggression. In 1984, he delivered an encouraging message to Saddam that said: “The [United States government] recognizes Iraq’s current disadvantage in a war of attrition since Iran has access to the Gulf while Iraq does not. We would regard any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as strategic defeat for the west.” In other words, the United States would support Iraq. Rumsfeld also discussed lifting sanctions to allow Iraq to buy military equipment.
Rummy knew that Iraq had used poison gas against Iranian troops a few months before and that Iraq had begun building a chemical weapons infrastructure. He knew that Iraq planned to drop these chemical weapons on Iranian targets. In the August 18, 2002, New York Times, Patrick Tyler reported that in the 1980s, Reagan, Bush (the elder) and their top advisers had indeed provided logistical and intelligence information to Iraq. Tyler underlined that a U.S. official had stated explicitly after touring the battlefield area in 1988 that “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.” But the Administration ignored the story and so did the majority in the press corps.
Likewise, little has been done with Rumsfeld’s letter to Secretary of State George Shultz. “I said I thought we had areas of common interest, particularly the security and stability in the Gulf, which had been jeopardized as a result of the Iranian revolution,” wrote Rummy in the 1980s. “I added that the U.S. had no interest in an Iranian victory; to the contrary. We would not want Iran’s influence expanded at the expense of Iraq.”
In his 1993 memoirs, Shultz affirmed that reports of Iraq using chemical weapons began “drifting in” by December 1983. In March, 1984, the State Department confirmed that Iraq had used “lethal chemical weapons” against Iranian combatants. UPI cited a team of United Nations experts saying that “mustard gas laced with a nerve agent has been used on Iranian soldiers in the 43-month Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq”.
Amnesia when used in diplomacy can get tricky. In 1990, after meeting with US Ambassador April Glaspie, Saddam, not adroit in discerning nuance, assumed he had a U.S. green light to invade Kuwait. Perhaps Ms. Glaspie believed that Saddam intended to recapture only the northeastern tip of Kuwait, which Iraq had historically claimed – and with good precedent. But Saddam took the whole enchilada and so the modern demonization campaign began. Saddam gained himself the “disobedient” label.
When the U.S. government decides to punish a disobedient former friend or client, it starts a campaign to turn a white hat into a black hat to get public backing. Recall the 1989 campaign in CIA and DEA agent, General Manuel Noriega of Panama, apparently refused to help the United States sufficiently in its Contra War against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Within weeks, the media had stopped treating this former agent with respect and instead began to list his devilish activities.
With Saddam, to convince the public of his malevolence, God provided the elder Bush with a public relations firm that discovered a Kuwaiti princess who testified before Congress that Iraqis tossed Kuwaiti babies out of incubators. The media dutifully reported these horrors. Neither Congress nor the media questioned her bona fides until well after the story had become major headline news. Of course, she never saw the events she swore that she had witnessed. Indeed, they did not occur.
To deal with the Devil also requires the use of the angelic U.S. military. Generals with good bedside manners assure us that our military does everything to avoid civilian casualties. Indeed, we use smart bombs so that no civilians will die or suffer injury. We liberate civilians from ogres. A Noriega or a Saddam must assume responsibility for damage done to people and civilian infrastructure.
The U.S. mass media infrequently refers to the number of casualties in the Gulf war or to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have died because of the 12 year old sanctions imposed by the United States under the auspices of the UN.
In a September trip to Iraq, I heard doctors describe increases in rates of child mortality. Indeed, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright affirmed that her willingness to pay the price of 500,000 dead Iraqi children attributed to the sanctions in order to punish Saddam. But why did this really cost her?
In order to deliver punishment, the U.S. government also must show that the Devil threatens us and his immediate neighbors. So, amnesia resurfaces. The CIA had praised Noriega shortly before Bush I sent an invasion force to Panama to capture him. So too with Saddam, the very authors of the current policy have to erase former statements and hide dirty deeds.
According to Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, an UNSCOM inspector, the Americans used members of the inspection team as spies to track Saddam’s movements in order, presumably, to assassinate him.
In addition, the Administration orchestrated the media to change key facts about the past to make Saddam look more evil. In 2002, for example, the prestige media said that Saddam had kicked out the UNSCOM inspectors in 1998. The very same media in 1998 reported that the UN ordered them to leave, because the U.S. government had warned them that they intended to bomb and did not want to kill UN inspectors.
We have yet to see a fact to prove that Saddam has actually accumulated mass destruction weapons, or has ties to Al Qaeda. On terrorist links, the facts seem to indicate the opposite. Former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter declared that Saddam’s “large-scale weapons of mass destruction programs…had been fundamentally destroyed or dismantled by the weapons inspectors as early as 1996, so by 1998 we had under control the situation on the ground.”
Since 1998, Saddam may have accumulated some weapons of dubious potency, but by placing spies in the inspection team who gave coordinates of targets to the U.S. Air Force for bomb delivery, the U.S. government discredited the inspection team – at least in the eyes of the Iraqis. When the New York Times reported this, the story appeared and disappeared without causing a major ripple.
The inspectors have now arrived again. Their access to Saddam’s underwear has become the focus of U.S. concern rather than the damage caused by a decade of bombing Iraq and imposing draconian sanctions on its medical system. Are these the non-violent equivalents of smart bombs? I met desperate doctors who cannot get key ingredients for chemo therapy cocktails or crucial parts for surgical procedures. And I saw the kids dying of cancer from exposure, presumably to depleted uranium from U.S. weapons. Not only do Iraqis have a monster for a leader who involved them in his adventures in Iran and Kuwait that cost perhaps a million Iraqi lives, but the cruel and insensitive policies of the United States and Great Britain with which to contend.
“Regardless of whether we say so publicly,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, “we will go to war, because Saddam sits at the center of a region with more than 60 percent of all the world’s oil reserves.”
Does it all boil down to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction acting as facades for grabbing a “strategic resource?” Pretty greasy, if you ask me. But for precedent, look at the origins of the Cold War. Hey, that only lasted for 45 years!
Remember what Senator Wayne Morse said after the Senate passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, “We’re going to become guilty, in my judgment, of being the greatest threat to the peace of the world. It’s an ugly reality, and we Americans don’t like to face up to it. I hate to think of the chapter of American history that’s going to be written in the future in connection with our outlawry in Southeast Asia.”
SAUL LANDAU’s new film is IRAQ: VOICES FROM THE STREET (November 2002) available from The Cinema Guild in New York City. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona and is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.