(1) The Capture of Saddam, in Perspective
So the big news Sunday morning was that they got Saddam. This is not terribly surprising. They’ve been searching for eight months and they do, of course, occupy the country. I’m neither happy nor sad about it; Saddam was a middling-quality fascist with a certain social base, as well as many opponents, in a complicated society. Millions of Iraqis cheer, in genuine exultation, the capture of the Butcher of Baghdad; others, familiar with the history of U.S.-Iraqi relations from the early 1980s, wonder what gives the foreign occupiers the right to arrest and publicly humiliate a man they once coddled, even as he was gassing Kurds. They have mixed feelings. Still others, comprising a significant pro-Saddam social base, rage and mourn.
Here in the imperialist Homeland pundits opine that this is bad news for the Democrats, and for war opponents and critics. They reason as follows: even if the (continuing) war was and is illegal, and its stated pretexts lies; even if it has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths; even if resistance to the occupation continues; even if U.S. actions generate understandable resentment and hatred among the “liberated” people—well, at least we’ve got Saddam. “We” have really scored. “We,” who are led by Bush, whose courageous troops have tracked down, arrested and humiliated a dictator. That’s gonna make him shoot way up in the polls. The Democratic pols, for their part, hasten to gentlemanly congratulate the President for his achievement. Those who in varying degrees questioned the war are at least with him on this one: it’s a great day when you capture a dictator. Never mind that your troops shouldn’t be there and have no legal right nor moral authority to apprehend anyone.
Now these pundits who see this as a big boost for Dubya may be right. The human mind is a complex thing, and many are capable of consigning their mounting realization that the war was based on lies to one section of their gray matter, while storing the image of the captured Saddam (hauled from his “rat’s nest,” his “snake pit,” his “lair” in mainstream journalese) in whatever section produces seratonin. The primitive inclination to rejoice, along with the entire Volk, at a victory over the Enemy, can easily defeat reason. The Bush team, especially the neocons, knows that. It also knows, as we all should, that dictators are all over the place, and many of them are supported by the U.S. A lot of decent folks are thinking “Great. We’ve captured Hitler.” The Bushites know better. They’re thinking, “Great! We’ve get people thinking this former buddy of ours—who they don’t even know is a former buddy of ours—is a cross between bin Laden and Hitler, Evil Incarnate! And since we’ve bagged him, we’re gonna look so FINE as the election approaches. On to Syria!”
The fact is, Saddam is not a Hitler; and all those analogies between Iraq and Nazi Germany deployed by the first Bush administration as it prepared to “liberate” Kuwait (handing it back to its Emir, who from his harem of chattel-slaves still presides over a society nowhere near so progressive as Saddam’s Iraq) were preposterous rhetorical flourishes. Germany by the 1930s had won and lost a colonial empire stretching from Tanganyika to Micronesia; it had led the world in medicine and in chemical production; it had competed with the other Big Powers for world dominion. It was an imperialist country, even if it had seen some hard times. Iraq in 1990 was a sophisticated “modernizing” nation with a well-educated citizenry, committed to secularism under the heavy hand of the Baath Party. But it was dependent upon global capital (as Germany had not been), hence on the receiving end of imperialism. Germany, under Hitler, developed a fascist command economy, and was able to recover from its post-World War I depression. Saddam’s Iraq, saddled with crippling debts by the end of the (U.S.-abetted) Iran-Iraq War, could not revive without generous debt forgiveness from Kuwait and other nations wedded to western capital. It remained, after all, a Third World country, and Saddam Hussein was merely one, not atypically brutal, Third World ruler.
The better parallel with Saddam’s Iraq is Suharto’s Indonesia. Suharto, another Third World boss patronized by successive U.S. administrations from the mid-1960s into the 1990s, killed some 700,000 Indonesians, including about one-third of the total population of East Timor, which with U.S. approval he invaded in 1975. (He did so mostly in the name of anti-communism.) If the U.S. government suddenly wanted to vilify the recently deposed Suharto (or numerous past and present client-fascist local rulers) it could surely undertake a very effective campaign to do so. That would be a policy decision, communicated through state announcements and statements by state-aligned right-wing “think tanks” to the corporate media, which then manufacture “public opinion.” For example, right now, there really is no “public opinion” in the U.S. about Uzbekistan’s President Islam A. Karimov. Just as Saddam Hussein was not a household name in the 1980s, Karimov is unknown to the CNN-educated Homeland audience. But say the Bush administration, which is now using Karimov’s Uzbekistan to pursue its geopolitical goals pertaining to Afghanistan and Iraq (much as earlier U.S. administrations used Iraq to damage Iran) decided it needs to take action against Uzbekistan, and needs to prepare the masses to accept whatever course of action it plans. It can just haul out the time-tested propaganda machinery, and suddenly we’ll hear about all the random arrests and the tortures and disappearances and the Hitlerian qualities of this particular Uzbek, Mr. Karimov. Again, vilification is a policy decision, and once the decision’s made, you can order your intelligence services and disinformation apparatus to cherry-pick any materials on hand to prepare the people, whom you pray will remain as bovine as possible, to focus fear on whomever you choose.
As Saddam heads for trial there will be much comment on his biography, with emphasis on his atrocities. Unless forced by events to do so, the mainstream media will not highlight his historical ties to U.S. administrations, lest its patriotism be questioned by the power structure and its assorted attack-dogs. If it focuses on the Halabja massacre of 1988, and other brutalities, it will be “fair and balanced;” if it notes U.S. complicity in Saddam’s crimes, it will be tarred with the “Blame America First” brush by the loud-mouthed fasco-journalists who have become so prominent since 9-11. But were one to merely list the ties, one would undercut the prosecutor’s case, and oblige the latter to recuse himself. Specifically:
In 1959, Saddam, at age 22, came into contact with the CIA, which was backing an effort to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim. (Assassinations are of course illegal, and the CIA’s involvement here despicable.) Qasim had led a coup that overthrew the British-imposed monarchy in 1958, and had withdrawn from the anti-Soviet “Central Treaty Organization” (CENTO) alliance that had linked Iraq with Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, the U.S and Britain from 1954. He had developed cordial ties with Moscow and tolerated the Arab world’s most vigorous Communist Party. The CIA and Saddam agreed that Qasim should go. Saddam was set up in an apartment near Qasim’s office, but never pulled off the hit. Qasim was toppled by members of the Baath Party in 1963, and a bloodbath of communists followed. Anti-communist Saddam headed the party’s intelligence branch, maintaining ties with the CIA, which in fact supplied the new government with lists of Iraqi communists. At present, the U.S. government vilifies the Baath Party, but it once treated the Baathists as a bulwark against communism, and then later, as a counterweight to Islamic militancy.
In 1979, Saddam seized power, becoming President of the Republic of Iraq. In September 1980, he attacked Iran, which had just experienced the revolution that toppled the Shah (placed in power by the CIA in 1954). The U.S. government, implacably hostile to the new regime in Iran, welcomed this attack. (“Here is a man who has attacked his neighbors!” snarls the current U.S. president, whose father served as Vice President under a predecessor who encouraged him to do so.) Iraq had been on the State Department’s “terror” list, and diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Washington had been cut during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. But in early 1982, Iraq was quietly removed from the bad guys’ list, and in December 20, 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, representing the State Department, visited Baghdad to discuss ways to cooperate against Iran. Then-President Ronald Reagan had just issued a secret National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) stating that the United States would regard “any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West.”
By 1985, the U.S. provided 1.5 billion in military equipment to Saddam Hussein. For example, CIA director William Casey supplied cluster bombs obtained through an arms company called Cardoen, from Chile, then under the fascist dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, which the CIA had helped place in power. Such support continued through the end of the war with Iran in 1988. It was not affected by Saddam’s use of chemical weapons; this was never an issue. As late as September 1988, a Maryland company sent 11 strains of germs, four of anthrax, in a Commerce Department-authorized sale to Iraq. This was six months after the Halabja incident that generated outrage around the world.
From Eisenhower to Bush I, the leaders of the imperialist power now disposed to indignantly inveigh against the Great Dictator were once very happily in bed with him. How many Americans know this? However short people’s historical attention spans, this record is not immaterial, ancient history. It’s material evidence for the prosecutors’ utter unsuitability to try the jilted bedmate’s case.
In 1990, when he made the mistake of invading Kuwait (thinking, apparently, that the U.S. would be neutral on the matter) Saddam drew down upon himself the hellfire of this vilification apparatus. Never mind that the crime itself (annexing what many believe had historically been Iraqi territory) was on a magnitude roughly equal to that of the U.S. annexation of Mexican territory in the early nineteenth century. (The great majority of people living in Kuwait did not hold Kuwaiti citizenship but were foreign workers, and the fact is, for better or worse, many of them welcomed annexation thinking they’d be better off as part of secular Iraq than under the medieval, fundamentalist, Saudi-like emirate.) President George Bush I (whose father Prescott Bush, as everybody should now know, had business ties to Nazi Germany through the Union Banking Corporation of New York City up to 1942, when the bank was closed down pursuant to the Trading with the Enemy Act), immediately conflated Saddam with the Führer. So when Americans, even those disgusted by the war and the transparent dishonesty surrounding it, greet the news of this puny Hitler’s arrest with satisfaction, they can’t really be blamed for their feelings. The system does not encourage any sense of historical perspective.
(2) The Coincidental Accompanying Announcement of Saddam’s al-Qaeda Ties
A news story as potentially important as the capture of Saddam comes, via Britain’s The Telegraph, out of the Iraqi Governing Council. Dr. Ayad Allawi, a long-time intelligence operative, in exile for three decades, a CIA intimate and leader of the Iraqi National Accord, confirms the authenticity of a top-secret, hand-written memo by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, the former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (Jack of Diamonds in the card deck of still at large Iraqi officials), to Saddam Hussein. Dated July 1, 2001, the memo supposedly describes a three-day “work programme” undertaken by none other than Chief 9-11 Hijacker Mohammed Atta at a Baghdad base of the late, well-known Palestinian, Sabri al-Banna (a.k.a. Abu Nidal). The memo also refers to a “Niger shipment” of some unspecified material arriving in Iraq via Libya and Syria.
So this is truly exciting! U.S. forces apprehend Saddam, and the U.S. media dutifully splashes scenes of Iraqi joy onto our television screens. Simultaneously, the Telegraph furnishes the world proof of everything Saddam’s been accused of by the neocons in their efforts to justify the invasion. One single memo connects Saddam to Notorious Palestinian Terrorist Abu Nidal (who died under mysterious circumstances in a Baghdad apartment in August 2002), as well as to al-Qaeda and to two countries on the neocons’ list of countries scheduled for attack during Bush’s second term. If authentic, the document will go a long ways towards validating the neocon’s whole project.
I will go way out on a limb and express doubt. Some points, in no particular order:
1. The story wasn’t echoed in the Boston Globe. I’ve heard no reference to it on CNN as of Tuesday. It hasn’t been featured on National Public Radio. Indeed, commentators on both CNN and NPR have emphasized in recent days that there is no evidence of Iraq-al Qaeda ties. The story was featured, of course, on Fox News Sunday night, where Bill O’Reilly noted (with apparent disappointment) that it hadn’t yet attained “traction” in the U.S. press. On Monday he again alluded to it, in an iffier vein. You’d think such a blockbuster of a story would be all over the news of the nation occupying Iraq; Washington wants, after all, very badly to legitimate that occupation by proving al-Qaeda ties and a nuclear program. If the U.S. mainstream corporate press is hesitating to use it, maybe it’s a bit leery doubtful about its real adhesive power.
2. On January 30 of this year the Bush administration promised that it would provide proof of the linkage between Iraq and al-Qaeda. It is under great pressure to do so.
3. While the capture of Saddam has no bearing on the legality or morality of the war, and can’t be logically deployed to affect opinions on that issue one way or the other, it makes the (still criminal) occupation seem more “successful.” Thus it is widely advertised by the political pundits as a huge plus for the Bush re-election campaign. The Democratic presidential candidates, given their inability to construct a consistent anti-imperialist critique, are reduced to praising Bush for capturing a tyrant (as though this were any business for anybody but the Iraqis). This confused situation provides an excellent backdrop for the dissemination of the al-Tikriti memo story: not only do we have Saddam, but coincidentally, simultaneously, we have the smoking gun proof of Saddam’s al-Qaeda connections and nuclear ambitions! Seems just to good to be true.
4. The neocons lie. They believe it is moral and reasonable to do so, in pursuit of their higher goals, the goodness of which is not necessarily transparent to ordinary mortals who must thus be tricked into acquiescence. Hence Richard Perle’s interesting declaration, in Milan in September 2002, that “We have proof” that “Mohammed Atta met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad prior to September 11.” That blockbuster never somehow never made the U.S. media, but floated around the net on Agence France-Press and in Italian and Dutch sites. The Defense Department has openly admitted its intention to use disinformation to influence public opinion, here and globally, and surely has paid agents in the corporate media. Particularly given this, we should maintain a skeptical attitude towards reports such as the Telegraph’s.
5. The memo was reportedly hand-written by a man who was involved in last-minute efforts, involving Richard Perle as U.S. representative, to stave off war with the U.S. Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti actually invited the U.S. to send in FBI or military inspectors to ameliorate U.S. concerns about weapons of mass destruction, and even indicated Saddam’s willingness to support any U.S. plan for peace between Israel and the Arabs. He also has insisted there was no Saddam-al Qaeda link. The Telegraph report requires us to believe that a man facilitating Iraqi/Palestinian “terrorist”/al-Qaeda links in September was making the above-mentioned proposals four months later.
6. Recently a memo authored by Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense and boss of the Office of Special Plans that has specialized in the circulation of cherry-picked intelligence justifying expansion of the Terror war, was pompously presented by the warmongers in the far-right press as a document proving Saddam’s al-Qaeda ties. In fact, it didn’t cut the mustard or “close the case,” and the Defense Department itself in a highly unusual move dissociated itself from the memo. Perhaps the neocons feel something more is needed.
7. Ayad Allawi, the member of the (puppet) Iraqi Governing Council in possession of the memo, has a long relationship to U.S. intelligence. (Interesting that his ties are to the CIA, rather than to the Defense Department which has favored Ahmad Chalabi, another appointed Council member who may be so discredited by now that he serves less effectively as a funnel for disinformation.) Allawi told the Telegraph, “We are uncovering evidence all the time of Saddam’s involvement with al-Qaeda. But this is the most compelling piece of evidence that we have found so far.” Reminds me of Judith Miller’s New York Times story last April; she declared that a statement from an unnamed Iraqi scientist “may be the discovery” of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Nothing came of that story. Nothing at all.
8. Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, the former Iraqi intelligence officer who had reportedly met with Atta in Prague in 2001, and has been in U.S. custody since July, has stated that he never met the hijacker. The CIA and MI6 had long since dismissed that report, which came out soon after 9-11 and was obviously a piece of disinformation designed to facilitate an attack on Iraq. But al-Ani’s denial may have put further pressure on those sowing disinformation to respond with new, bigger, better “intelligence” on the Iraq-al Qaeda link that they must establish to garner sufficient popular support to realize their world-transforming dreams.
9. Seems odd that in the very same memo, handwritten July 1, 2001, al-Tikriti would mention both Atta’s “work programme” with Abu Nidal, and what we are supposed to believe was a uranium shipment from Niger (that the CIA doesn’t believe ever happened). These are very different topics. Was al-Takriti informing Saddam that a single grand project, linking both of these activities, was proceeding apace?
(Another question for discussion: Might whoever forged the first Niger uranium document still be in the business?)
10. Abu Nidal isn’t known for his competence in organizing airline hijackings. His organization’s effort to hijack a plane in Karachi in 1985 was botched, and 22 people died. So why would Atta be working with him in Baghdad, in July 2001, after having already garnered adequate flight training, and while 9-11 plans were surely already in place?
11. Abu Nidal broke with Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1974; thereafter his group (the Abu Nidal Organization) received support on and off from Libya, Syria and Iraq. It has had offices in Egypt. As a self-described “socialist Muslim” accustomed to working with secular governments in the Middle East, Abu Nidal would seem to have little in common with the fundamentalist Islamists of al-Qaeda.
12. Lastly and most importantly: If I were Paul Wolfowitz, or Abram Shulsky (Leo Strauss disciple, Machiavelli scholar, and chief disinformation operative in the office of Special Plans), or Douglas Feith, or Richard Perle, and I were just dreaming up what might be the perfect “find” to validate my actions to date (questioned, as they have been, by numerous recently retired intelligence operatives in the U.S., Britain, and Australia), I would think: Hmmm We’ll find a document addressed to Saddam, from someone currently without access to the press, reporting on the Chief Hijacker’s welcomed presence in Iraq just before the 9-11 attacks. (Never mind the FBI and CIA place Atta in Florida at the time.) Saddam’s intelligence chief would be the best source to cite for this information. We’ll connect al-Takriti, and Atta, with Palestinian terrorism (thus continuing our effort to link Afghanistan/al-Qaeda with Iraq and Syria and Iran and the PLO, and Evil generally.) The Abu Nidal connection is especially good because Adu Nidal is dead and won’t pose a problem. Let’s float the report through an Iraqi operative, not too well known, and use a British paper for the initial revelation. Then use Fox and see if CNN will buy it. (If they do, let’s think about adding a North Korea link into the next finding; we might have Abu Nidal facilitating a missile technology transfer to bin Laden via Cuba, for example.)
Big lies are big risks, but having suffered some setbacks lately (in relation to their regime-change plans in Iran, and their efforts to split the U.S. from “Old Europe”) the neocons are likely desperate and inclined to favor bold new disinformation initiatives. If proven wrong, I’ll gladly recant all the doubts expressed above. Meantime, I’ll just say that this memo, like some others preceding it, smells very fishy to me. My rule of thumb is: the Terror War is based on lies. To sustain its momentum, the liars will have to lie bigger, while periodically showing the people (among them the most confused, frightened and easy to manipulate, whom they naturally best cherish) hopeful results of this war that they relentlessly, if preposterously, depict as the necessary response to 9-11.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org