According to the corporate media and the two major political parties, Ronald Reagan was one of the greatest presidents in American modern history. They attribute to the man the myths of ending the Cold War, reviving America’s economy, and uplifting the sense of pride and nationalism. They also belittle and dismiss as insignificant some of Reagan’s policies that even the institutional establishment had admitted to their fallacy and the harm that they had caused, such as defying and lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra affairs, supporting reactionary regimes in Latin America and the Middle East, creating the biggest deficit in modern US history, assaulting the labor unions and fighting the working class for the benefits of the wealthy, shifting the political process in the United States (including the opposition party) toward the right, and giving rise to the neoconservatives and their drive toward Pax Americana and the rise of American imperialism.
To begin with, we need to clear a few facts and expose the presiding myths. Reagan did not win the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed from within due to decades long of struggle to remain alive through artificial engineering of outmoded state machinery. If the pundits claim credit for Reagan to end of the Cold War, then they also need to acknowledge the roles of Soviet President Mikel Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II.
As for lifting-up America’s sense of pride and nationalism, Reagan lifted the spirit of American capitalism in rescuing its myth in the world as enemy of the workers and the oppressed to one that was the engine of freedom, prosperity, and moral values. Reagan managed to dress up US capitalism both at home and abroad as a friend of the little man, finding support for this exploiting economic and political system even within the very people that it was exploiting. Perhaps this was Reagan’s biggest achievement.
Yet, the greatest damage that the Reagan’s policy caused and we continue to suffer its consequences was in Iraq by supporting the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein despite Saddam’s clear violation of human rights and threats to his neighbors. In fact, it was Reagan that supplied Saddam with the means to develop his weapons of mass destruction that Bush Jr. later used as an excuse in 2003 to launch his war and occupy Iraq.
Concern about the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a gradual warming of relations between Iraq and the United States. American National Security Advisor Zbignew Brzezinski publicly encouraged Iraq to attack Iran and take back the Shat-al-Arab waterway. Most American foreign service officers despised the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran for having held diplomats of the US embassy hostages for 444 days. The “Carter Doctrine” was established in 1980, stating that America would intervene militarily in the region to assure its access to oil. In that same year, Saddam’s armies invaded Iran, instigating a ruinous war that lasted for eight long years. The invasion was prompted as much by American urging as it was by Saddam’s dislike for Islamic fundamentalism.
There was a sea change in relations between America and Iraq when Ronald Reagan became president. Fearing the rise of Soviet influence in Iran, and fearing an Iranian takeover of the region, the Reagan administration began actively arming and supporting Saddam. By 1982, Iraq was removed from the list of terrorist sponsoring nations. By 1984, America was actively sharing military intelligence with Saddam’s army. This aid included arming Iraq with potent weapons, providing satellite imagery of Iranian troops deployments and tactical planning for battles, assisting with air strikes, and assessing damage after bombing campaigns.
Following further high-level policy review, Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD-114) on November 26, 1983, concerning U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The directive reflected the administration’s priorities, calling for heightened regional military cooperation to defend oil facilities, and measures to improve U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf.
Soon thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld, the head of the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co. at the time, was dispatched to the Middle East as a presidential envoy. His December 1983 tour of regional capitals included Baghdad, where he was to establish “direct contact between an envoy of President Reagan and President Saddam Hussein.” Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and discussed U.S efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq’s oil. Rumsfeld made no reference to Iraq’s chemical weapons.
The Reagan administration allowed the Iraqis to buy a wide variety of “dual use” equipment and materials from American suppliers. The shopping list included a computerized database for Saddam’s security police, helicopters to transport Iraqi officials, television cameras for video surveillance applications, chemical-analysis equipment for the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), and numerous shipments of “bacteria/fungi/protozoa” to the IAEC. The bacteria cultures were used to make biological weapons, including anthrax.
A US Senate inquiry in 1995 accidentally revealed that during the Iran-Iraq War the United States had sent Iraq samples of all the strains of germs used by Iraq to make biological weapons. The strains were sent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Type Culture Collection to the same sites in Iraq that UN weapons inspectors later determined were part of Iraq’s biological weapons program.
The Senate Banking Committee reported in 1994 that the U.S. Commerce Department had traced shipments of biological materials identical to those later found and destroyed by U.N. inspectors. These shipments continued at least until November 1989. Assisted by Pentagon expertise, which secretly seconded its Air Force officers to work with the Iraqis, Iraq began using its air force more aggressively, hitting Iran’s economic and infrastructure targets and extending its air strikes to the Iranian oil terminals in the Lower Gulf.
U.S. support for Iraq blossomed further in 1983 when the United States provided economic aid to Iraq in the form of Commodities Credit Corporation guarantees to purchase U.S. agricultural products ($400 million in 1983, $513 million in 1984, and climbing to $652 million in 1987). This allowed Iraq to use money it otherwise would have spent on food to buy weapons and other military supplies. With Iraq off the terrorism list, the U.S. also provided quasi-military aid.
An example of U.S. sales during this time of germ warfare and other weapons to Iraq included “deadly pathogens,” with government approval, some from the army’s center for germ research in Fort Detrick. The British government also conceded after the Scott Inquiry Report was published that it continued to grant licenses to British firms to export materials to Iraq usable for biological weapons at least until December 1996.
So strong was the hold of pro-Iraq lobby on the Republican administration of President Reagan that it succeeded in getting the White House frustrate the Senate’s attempt to penalize Baghdad for violating the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons, which it had signed. This led Saddam to believe that Washington was firmly on his side, a conclusion that paved the way for his invasion of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf War.
On April 18, 1988, the United States conducted Operation Praying Mantis. In response to Iran’s mining of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy engaged the Iranian Navy in the Gulf, sunk two of Iran’s biggest surface ships and crippled a third. On July 3, 1988 U.S. forces once again engaged some of the remnants of the Iranian Navy in the Strait of Hormuz and an Iranian civilian jet strayed over the battle area. The USS Vincennes mistook the airliner for an Iranian fighter and shot it down. Although it was a mistake, in Tehran it was viewed as a sign that the United States was now actively allied with Iraq and would take any action to defeat Tehran. In August 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had resisted all previous pleas to end the war, was forced to concede that Iran could not fight both Iraq and the United States any longer. Tehran accepted a cease-fire with Iraq that brought the war to an end.
The most reprehensible of Saddam’s actions that the Reagan administration chose to overlook was his campaign against Iraq’s Kurds known as al-Anfal, a twisted reference to a verse in the Koran. In March 1987, Saddam appointed his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, as governor of northern Iraq. Less than six weeks after his appointment, Majid employed chemical warfare to wipe out several towns in the Balisan valley, where one of the Kurdish opposition group was located. In February 1988, Majid unleashed the al-Anfal campaign. Iraqi forces began clearing areas of Kurdish residence with massive bombardments of chemical weapons and high explosives, followed by army sweeps that often killed anyone left alive and razed to the ground anything left standing.
On March 15, 1988, Majid conducted his most famous attack, swamping the Kurdish town of Halabcha with several varieties of chemical weapons and killing at least five thousand Kurdish civilians. When the campaign finally ended in 1989, some two hundred thousand Kurds were dead, roughly 1.5 million had been forcibly resettled, huge swaths of Kurdistan has been scorched by chemical warfare, and four thousand towns had been razed. The U.S. Senate passed a bill to impose sanctions on Iraq, but the Reagan administration prevailed upon the Congress to drop the matter.
Today, Saddam is held in US custody, awaiting trial for his crimes. It would be interesting to listen to his testimonies (granted if he stayed alive for his trial and did not die of some mysterious cause while in prison) and reveal the support and aid that he received from Bush’s hero, the great communicator Ronald Reagan, in waging wars on the oppressed.
ALEX DAWOODY lives in Battle Creek, Michigan. He can be reached at: AlxDawoody@cs.com