Mark Danner

New Yorker Comment

Less than a year after Americans paraded in the streets to celebrate victory in the Gulf War, the entire conflict, which appeared so cataclysmic at the time, is rapidly receding from view.

Less than a year after Americans paraded in the streets to celebrate victory in the Gulf War, the entire conflict, which appeared so cataclysmic at the time, is rapidly receding from view. The troops have long since come home. Kuwait has become once again an obscure and wealthy desert land ruled by a medieval autocrat. And Saddam Hussein has been reduced to the stature of a nasty Third World dictator-more menacing than, say, Colonel Qaddaffi but hardly “Hitler revisited.”

One might have expected that in the months following the war our government would undertake to explain how Saddam came to be in a position to threaten “our jobs, our way of life, our own freedom,” as President Bush claimed shortly after Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait-to explain, that is, how United States policy toward Iraq ended in bloodshed. Administration officials, however, have proved more eager to talk about the war itself than about the decisions that gave rise to it, while leaders in Congress, sensing themselves politically vulnerable because of their early skepticism about Desert Storm, have been loath to seem to “second-guess” the Administration. The entire matter would probably have been dropped were it not for a handful of journalists and one maverick congressman, Henry Gonzalez, of Texas. Thanks to their efforts, we now have a clearer picture of how this disaster came about. It’s a picture not just of a mistaken policy ineptly applied but of one that was corrupted almost from the outset by secrecy, arrogance, and misguided pragmatism-a policy that ultimately betrayed the very values it was intended to protect.

American courtship of Saddam Hussein began during the spring of 1980, when Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, struggling to bring some order to a Persian Gulf policy that had been devastated by the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, observed publicly that “Iraq wishes a secure Persian Gulf, and we do not feel that American-Iraq relations need to be frozen in antagonism.” The rapprochement had a certain logic: though Saddam’s regime was extremely repressive at home, and though it had long been an especially virulent foe of Israel, it was now all that stood between Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution and the fragile oil fields of the Gulf. When, that September, Saddam invaded Iran, he had good reason to believe that the United States would offer no opposition. During the Reagan Administration, when it seemed for a time that Iran might actually defeat Iraq, American acquiescence in Saddam’s policies turned to active support. The full extent of our “tilt” toward Iraq remained secret, however-in part to maintain an international fa?ade of impartiality but mostly to escape opposition in Congress. As the war dragged on, the C.I.A. and the Defense Department began sharing intelligence, including highly classified satellite photographs, with the Iraqi military, diverting at least some of it through Jordan and Saudi Arabia to avoid congressional scrutiny. And Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are reported to have obliged the Administration by secretly shipping American weapons to Iraq. In February, 1982, the Administration removed Iraq from its list of nations supporting terrorism-at a time, as members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out in an angry protest, when Abu Nidal himself had his main office in Baghdad-and thereby cleared the way for economic aid. Soon the Administration was making use of the Export-Import Bank, the Commodity Credit Corporation, and other government agencies to funnel billions of dollars’ worth of subsidies and credits into Saddam’s cash-starved and financially weakened regime. On at least two occasions, Vice-President Bush intervened directly to exert pressure on reluctant bank officials to approve loans they had already turned down.

When Bush was elected President, in November, 1988, it might have seemed a natural moment to re?valuate United States policy toward Iraq. Three months earlier, the war had ended in a ceasefire that left Iran defeated, exhausted, and in no position to threaten American interests in the Gulf. As for Saddam, although his country had taken on a vast debt, he had not decreased his purchases of weapons when the war ended but had stepped them up, and was building by far the most formidable armed force in the region. And, to the outrage of much of the world, he had sent his troops to carry out a massacre against his own Kurdish minority.

Still, the American money continued to flow. When Congress tried to apply sanctions as a punishment for Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, the new Administration, aided by the agriculture lobbies and supporters of other interests that had benefitted from Baghdad’s lavish spending of United States money, fought off the sanctions bill, contenting itself with pro-forma verbal protests. In 1988 and 1989, Iraq received more than two billion dollars in credits from the Department of Agriculture. And in August, 1989, F.B.I. agents raiding the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro seized evidence that Iraqi officials had engaged in fraud involving these loans, illegally diverting the money and the commodities they subsidized to “third parties” in exchange for weapons. Most disturbing of all, investigators reported that some of the loan money might have secretly been used “to procure nuclear-related equipment.”

Confronted with what could be a huge scandal, the Administration apparently sought to slow, or even disable, the investigation. Moreover, in October, 1989, after Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, met with Secretary of State James Baker and angrily complained about the Banca Lavoro investigation, Baker called the Secretary of Agriculture and pressed him to extend the Iraqis a billion dollars in additional credits. And that same month President Bush pointedly reaffirmed his policy of support for Iraq, signing National Security Directive 26, a top-secret document that ordered all agencies of the government to increase and strengthen economic and political ties with Iraq-in order, as Bush later put it, “to bring [Saddam] into the family of nations through commerce.”

Throughout 1990, while Saddam Hussein took increasingly provocative and threatening actions-delivering a vehemently anti-American speech in Amman in February, publicly threatening five weeks later to burn half of Israel with poison gas, and then, in late July, sending tens of thousands of troops toward Kuwait-the Administration adhered doggedly to the line set out by the President’s directive. At the end of May, according to the Los Angeles Times, senior officials meeting in the White House Situation Room discussed whether the President should send Saddam “a strong, personal warning” but decided against it. Even as the Iraqi troops massed on the Kuwaiti frontier, the American Ambassador, April Glaspie, was assuring Saddam that the President had instructed her “to broaden and to deepen our relations with Iraq.”

When the Iraqis crossed the border, and the failure of the American policy was evident for all to see, President Bush reacted with all the indignation of a suitor scorned, and all the fury of one who had finally recognized that in pressing his suit he had drastically compromised our interests. He hadn’t simply “tilted” toward Saddam; he had appeased him. Soon the President was denouncing the ungrateful dictator more loudly than any of his own critics in Congress had done, and listing the offenses-the use of chemical arms, the unending accumulation of weapons, the program to build a nuclear bomb, even the invasion of Iran-that he had pointedly ignored at the time when a strong American protest might have made some difference. Not surprisingly, Saddam’s response to the President’s sudden turnabout was incomprehension and rage, for during a decade of extensive contacts with Washington nothing whatever had occurred that could have led him to expect it.

“Well, we tried the peaceful route,” President Bush remarked as allied planes bombed Baghdad. “We tried working with him [Saddam] and changing [him] through contact� The lesson is clear in this case-that that didn’t work.” And yet in the entire sorry history of American-Iraqi relations there is little or no evidence of any attempt to use the increased American support of Saddam to effect a change in his regime. No limits were set; no standards were upheld. If anything, our behavior throughout the decade should have convinced the Iraqis that any profession of American principles was so much empty air. Again and again, depredations by the Iraqis were met by the Americans with weakness and winks. If this was a policy of realpolitik, then it was a singularly incompetent one-based more on self-delusion than on fact.

When the President asserted that “the lesson is clear” he was ignoring the real lessons in the affair-lessons that we had failed to learn many times before. Discounting the way dictators behave in their own countries cannot form the basis for a “realistic” foreign policy, because all too often their brutality and unpredictability toward their own people will come to characterize their behavior abroad as well. And attempting to escape the scrutiny of Congress and other parties legitimately engaged in the forming of American policy is counterproductive, because it encourages a fortress mentality and an inability to admit mistakes, and inevitably leads to decisions that are based on wishes, not reality. Too frequently, such decisions come to light only after some debacle, and the result is cynicism and malaise on the part of the public, whose leaders, while professing to take American principles seriously, have contrived to sell them short at every turn.