Joost Hiltermann, is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, based in Amman. Prior to that he was director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. His new book, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja, examines Saddam Hussein’s deployment of chemical weapons against Iran during the 1980s and American complicity with those attacks. He recently responded by e-mail to six questions about blowback from U.S. policy during the Iran–Iraq War.
How did the Reagan Administration’s support for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s effect Iraqi reaction to the American-led invasion of 2003?
The Reagan Administration’s support of the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1980s was one factor that helped create a good deal of distrust toward American motives in 2003. Many Iraqis were grateful to the Bush Administration for having removed the regime, but they suspected it of having invaded Iraq to seize its oil fields and/or promote Israeli interests. When things started to go wrong in post-war Iraq (the insurgency and sabotage; no smooth transition to Iraqi sovereignty; inept governance; no visible results from reconstruction) those problems were compounded by Iraqis’ deep distrust of U.S. motives, in part stemming from U.S. policies in the 1980s, which translated into non-cooperation and outright resistance.
What lessons did Iran draw from American support for Saddam during the Iraq-Iran war and the international community’s general tolerance of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons?
Iran drew two critical lessons: first, that it would never be able to trust the international community or multilateral arrangements; and second, it could not risk any vulnerability to W.M.D. attacks. These two lessons have translated into a decision to pursue what to all appearances is a nuclear weapons program that now threatens Western interests. In energetically pursuing this program, Iran has chosen to adhere to international conventions (for example, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), but has used subterfuge, dissimulation, and deceit to keep the international community at bay.
And what conclusions did the Kurds reach from the horrifying experience they suffered during the war?
The Kurds learned they could never trust any Iraqi central government, and that in the final analysis they could only depend on themselves for their own security. For this reason, they concluded, they need to gain independence, or at least the greatest degree of autonomy within Iraq, with maximum economic leverage. This explains the Kurds’ posture with respect to their participation in the current Iraqi government. They are seeking, among other things, to secure control over management of oil fields in the Kurdish region and, perhaps most importantly, control of oil-rich Kirkuk and other areas with Kurdish populations that currently fall outside the Kurdish region. Their agenda is now tearing up Iraq, directly contrary to the stated U.S. objective of preserving the country’s territorial unity.
Donald Rumsfeld made two now-famous visits to Baghdad during the war. How did Saddam interpret those visits?
By his two visits to Baghdad, one in late 1983 and the second in early 1984, Rumsfeld reassured the Iraqi leadership that it had broad latitude in prosecuting the war against Iran, including by using poison gas. Along with the Reagan Administration, he thereby helped build up a state that terrorized its own citizens and turned a tinpot dictator into a tyrant threatening the region. Post-9/11, Rumsfeld declared Iraq a threat to the U.S., in part because of its W.M.D. capability. The audacity of this claim–Iraq could not reasonably be thought to still have a viable W.M.D. capability after many years of U.N. inspections–conveniently elided his own past role in encouraging Saddam in the 1980s, and the way the Bush Administration used it to justify the war in Iraq shows the need to put an end to the impunity by which criminal policies are pursued in the name of U.S. interests.
You write that the U.S. government later became concerned that its support for Saddam during the war might become politically embarrassing. What steps did American governments take to try to prevent disclosure of that information?
In the late 1990s the U.S. State Department was extremely worried that past American support of the Saddam regime would not only be exposed, but also be used to undermine a case against the regime as part of a future U.S.-supported tribunal. Therefore, it ordered its lawyers to conduct a document review to determine whether its Iraq policy, especially regarding chemical weapons use, would disqualify the U.S. from participating in efforts to bring the regime to justice. The government also sought to ensure that no embarrassing information could be unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act and used in court. Once Saddam’s regime was overthrown, the Bush Administration made sure that instead of an international (or even a mixed Iraqi/international) tribunal, a purely Iraqi tribunal was established under strict U.S. control, with statutes written, essentially, in Washington. The tribunal’s evident partiality, along with other serious procedural problems, undermined its credibility and thereby also undermined the cause of justice and stability in postwar Iraq.
On balance, how did the American media deal with past American support for Saddam? Was any of this forthrightly discussed in the media during the run-up to war?
There was some useful discussion of aspects of this story in the fall of 2002, specifically concerning Rumsfeld’s two visits to Iraq. I remember good investigative stories in the Washington Post and Newsweek, for example, which talked about the broader relationship between the Reagan Administration and the regime. But there has been no real discussion of how these events have continued to reverberate in the Middle East. Of course, there was also an attempt by one of the “Halabja deniers,” Stephen Pelletiere, writing on the New York Times op-ed page in early 2003, to revive claims that most chemical casualties in Halabja were the result of Iranian gas. In a twisted sort of way, this was deployed as an anti-war argument: contrary to what Bush said, Saddam Hussein did not gas his own people; therefore a war to remove him is unjustified. As if one could effectively fight the Bush Administration’s war plans and their mendacious basis by perpetrating yet another lie!