Gassing Our Own People

I hope you won’t mind my going back in time a bit, but lots of threads to the past are converging these days. Recently this post generated some comments about support given to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s by St. Ronald of Blessed Memory, even as Saddam was going through his “gassing the Kurds” phase. I was reminded of this episode again today. Murray Waas posts a lovely bit of writing at Huffington Post in which he explains why he dedicated himself to exposing the Reagan-Bush I support for Saddam and his war machine. He also speaks to why he is dedicating himself to exposing the lies and manipulations that got us into Iraq. Be sure to read it; it’s very moving.

Back to the gas: You’ll remember that in the weeks before the Iraq invasion, a hoard of operatives infested talk radio and cable news, babbling about how Saddam “gassed his own people,” meaning the Kurds, which was why we had to invade Iraq right now. A month before the invasion I wrote this piece for Democratic Underground about why the “gassing his own people” talking point fell way short of a casus belli. And in that I linked to this 1993 Los Angeles Times article by Douglas Frantz and Murray Waas about how Bush I secretly continued to build Iraq’s war machine after the gassing of the Kurds. Just nine months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, President Bush I approved $1 billion in aid to Iraq. The Bush I Administration also provided Iraq with access to sophisticated “dual use” (military and civilian) technology, “despite emerging evidence that they were working on nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.” Frantz and Waas uncovered

…a long-secret pattern of personal efforts by Bush — both as President and as vice president — to support and placate the Iraqi dictator. Repeatedly, when serious objections to helping Hussein arose within the government, Bush and aides following his directives intervened to suppress the resistance.

The reason for this, ostensibly, was that while Saddam Hussein might have been an odious little toad, he was an enemy of Iran, which after the fall of the Soviet Union had moved into the #1 spot on the Real Bad Places list.

But classified records show that Bush’s efforts on Hussein’s behalf continued well beyond the end of the Iran-Iraq War and persisted in the face of increasingly widespread warnings from inside the American government that the overall policy had become misdirected.

Moreover, it appears that instead of merely keeping Hussein afloat as a counterweight to Iran, the U.S. aid program helped him become a dangerous military power in his own right, able to threaten the very U.S. interests that the program originally was designed to protect.

Clearly, U.S. aid did not lead Hussein to become a force for peace in the volatile region. In the spring of 1990, as senior Administration officials worked to give him more financial aid, the Iraqi leader bragged that Iraq possessed chemical weapons and threatened to “burn half of Israel.” Nor did he change his savagely repressive methods. In the summer of 1988, for example, he shocked the world by killing several thousand Kurds with poison gas.

Even today, the Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons programs carried forward with the help of sophisticated American technology continue to haunt U.S. and United Nations officials as they struggle to root out elements of those programs that have survived the allied victory in the Persian Gulf War.

I remember when Halabja was gassed, in March 1988. I remember especially the photographs of dead mothers, their arms wrapped protectively around their dead babies. At the time I did not understand what was going on. But I remember there was some movement in the Senate toward doing something about it. Senators Claiborne Pell, Al Gore, and Jesse Helms introduced legislation to impose sanctions on Iraq, and the Senate passed a Prevention of Genocide Act, unanimously, just one day after it was introduced.

But the Reagan White House vetoed the Act [lobbied against the Act so that it died in the House], and squelched any reprisals or sanctions against Saddam, and continued to shovel truckloads of money and technology to Baghdad. And President Bush I continued Reagan’s policies.

This part of the Franz-Waas article caught my attention:

What drove Bush to champion the Iraqi cause so ardently and so long is not clear. But some evidence suggests that it may have been a case of single-minded pursuit of a policy after its original purpose had been overtaken by events — and a failure to understand the true nature of Hussein himself.

Maybe Junior isn’t as different from Poppy as we had thought. Anyway, Saddam’s behavior was erratic and threatening, yet Bush I continued to treat him as if he were America’s Best Bud. I dimly remember hearing that when he invaded Kuwait, Saddam sincerely believed George Bush I wouldn’t mind.

And some of you will remember the glorious episode that occurred after the Persian Gulf War, in which President Bush I encouraged the Kurds to rebel against Saddam Hussein and then stood by while Saddam crushed the rebellion, ruthlessly. I believe some of the mass graves found in Iraq after the 2003 invasion — the ones that didn’t date to the Iran-Iraq War or the Persian Gulf War — held the bodies of Kurdish rebels.

In 2003, before the invasion, I remembered Halabja, and I remembered the crushed Kurdish rebellion. The righties who were fired up to to go war had never heard of these things before; they seemed to think the Kurds were still being gassed, and we had to invade quickly to rescue them. And after the invasion, whenever troops found a mass grave of Kurdish rebels, the righties would dance about and yell See? We told you Saddam was evil. But the mass graves were no surprise. The righties were always oblivious to the rest of the story, and wouldn’t listen, and wouldn’t believe us if they did listen.

But it strikes me now that all of the trouble surrounding Iraq going back 20 years resulted from Republican presidents being soft with a ruthless dictator. Appeasing, even. It’s a damn shame the Dems didn’t push that point through the Noise Machine years ago, because not doing so allowed the next generation of soft little Republican fatasses to portray themselves as hardened he-men warriors, even as they call Democrats “weak” and swift-boat any real warriors who dare oppose them.

9 thoughts on “Gassing Our Own People

  1. Ah, but I seem to remember a Bizarro World commenter from last week, trying to argue that the U.S. was just selling agricultural products to Saddam. It’d be funny if it weren’t so perverse.

  2. As for saddam being erratic … no, I don’t think he ever was. As long as you keep in mind that he was a murderously brutal dictator that would do literally anything to preserve and expand his own power, all of his actions made sense, in context.

    His rationale for invading Iran to begin with was, ironically enough, almost exactly the same rationale Bush used to invade Iraq. Preventative, preemptive war. Iran had long been the regional military super-power, and it had just experienced a revolution where the new government was fanatical and absolutely opposed to saddam and everything saddam represented … AND the formerly great Iranian military was decimated and demoralized by the inevitable purges. Perfect time to invade. Do it now before the Iranian military gets back on its feet again, and Iran eventually invades Iraq for the ultimate sin of being a secular state. At least, such is the reasoning if you are a murderously brutal dictator.

    As for Kuwait, Iraq has always maintained that Kuwait was rightfully an Iraqi province to begin with. They always resented the fact that Kuwait existed as a seperate entity rather than a part of Iraq. So, Kuwait starts fucking with them after the war, causing real economic damage … Saddam had this blooded, battle hardened army sitting around not doing much … and when his representatitve delicately brought it up with an American diplomat, was told in no uncertain terms that America considered it an internal affair, and would not interfere … taking into account the fact that what we’re dealing with here, remember, is a murderously brutal dictator … the invasion option must have seemed the obvious choice. I think we’ll never know if April Gillespie (sp?) actually intended to green-light Saddam’s little war, but it is a matter of historical record that HE thought she did.

    If Saddam had outright won the Iran-Iraq war, adding Iran to his lands, OR if he had been allowed to keep Kuwait, he might have ended up being a real regional threat.

    As it was, the fact that his first attempt at military diplomacy ended with a slogging eight year war where it seemed at times that he was abouit to lose it all, and his second attempt at military diplomacy ended in a humiliatingly one-sided loss to the allies in ’91, if we had just left it right there, I sincerely doubt he would have made a third try. Saddam was a lot of things, evil and bad and all the rest, granted, but he wasn’t particularly stupid.


  3. Joan,you comment reminded me of when Clinton was Pres and dick cheney was a ceo with halliburton…then lobbying to have sactions lifted to permit halliburton to sell products to Iran…when they found no help for doing such a thing they simply went around the sactions by buying into a over seas company and making the sale “within” the law(raises eyebrow)…..

    Maha, this piece makes me think of how the in the world Saddam would have ever gotten a chemical weapon in the first place……hmmm who was Iraq getting weapons from?????In rightie world our evil dictator was born with them maybe?They just magically appeared?Could it be we armed Iraq???That would mean gas was all good as long as good boy saddam used it against the “right”people(wink wink)…

    So I guess looking at the bigger picture I wonder this:What is the intention? Did America get involved in conflicts like Iraq/Iran and Afghanistan to fight mini cold war battles with Russia?Was it just a way for bloated leaders to play little war games with each other?Was there real ego involved?It sure was good for moral in both countries…… or does this go another way?Perhaps it is a plan to eliminate arabs? In sicko rightie world it is to their advantage to see arabs die….can you imagine the dollar signs the thought must give them?Who has the oil?Why buy it if you can take it while keeping the arab world in conflict?A reason or a side benefit?
    along with the monster that has become the “military industrial complex”…..?

    And one more comment…about mass graves…I think it is sick as hell that we rushed to die up GRAVES OF HUMANS for photo ops…that proved nothing other than how truely low America would stoop. This is a country that has been at one war or another far to many times in their long history…why would anyone be suprised to see mass graves in a war torn country, much less have the disrespect to dig them up so we can all gawk at dead people at home to clean our feeling of guilt…. Is it possible there was a outbreak of something where mass numbers of people died?, like our 1918 flu?(a.does that need to be dug up, and b.gee I guess if we are invaded mass graves would be found here too)…no doubt saddam was a piece of crap(just like other leaders I could name)…..I am not saying otherwise….but that hardly justifies the US being one also….

    Thanks for reminding me of the great Democratic Underground piece you wrote,,,very well done…send that to the DNC would ya???

  4. justme, you raise a lot of difficult questions in your “bigger picture” paragraph. The U.S. has dealt with insane dictators in a myriad of ways over the years– ignoring most, supporting many, and trying to topple those few we couldn’t exploit for our short-term interests. Saddam was handled in each of those three ways at different times. He went from recipient of our exceedingly deadly “agricultural products” to facing the pointy end of our Patriot missiles in less than three years.

    But I think you may have answered your own questions with the anecdote about the Dick’s illegal Adventures In The Caymans, in order to do business with Iran and Libya in violation of U.S. law, while running Halliburton. Joel Grey said it best: “Money money money money” (makes our foreign policy go round).

  5. Here’s a beauty… a journalist looked at the newspapers which, in the build-up to Junior’s invasion of Iraq, were doing the most mouth-foaming about Saddam’s use of poison gas in 1985. He went back to the 1985 archives and asked what the same papers were saying about Saddam when he was actually doing the gassing. In a nutshell, they didn’t give a crap. The Washington Post for example said: “It may be a bit odd when you consider all the ways that people have devised to do violence to each other, to worry overly about any particular method.”

  6. Okay, this is a beaut. When I read in the cross-post over at Greenwald’s blog about the Prevention of Genocide Act, my jaw dropped. Reagan vetoed sanctions against Saddam!?!

    Except, well, technically he didn’t. His administration just lobbied the House of Representatives against it, and the bill died. Which is bad enough.

    The good news is that a search for the act at Google Gov yields the act itself on, as well as a fascinating analysis of our Iraq policy in the 1980s on, complete with quotes like:

    It is obvious that from a moral, ethical, or legal perspective, the US position in these policies is an impoverished one.

    Thanks for this.

  7. Pingback: Catastrophile

  8. catastrophile — Thanks for the correction. Should I correct the Unclaimed Territory post, do you think? I’m afraid to go over there now because I can’t stand the negativity of the commenters.

  9. It’s amazing how quickly these discussions can devolve into pure hostility . . . I think it’s the sheer frustration of trying to talk with somebody who uses the same words but speaks an entirely different language.

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