Liberate Iraq -- Even With Unclean Hands

Jeff Jacoby - The Boston Globe - March 6, 2003

One of the arguments of those who oppose a US-led war to topple Saddam Hussein is that America long ago forfeited its right to lead a moral crusade against the Iraqi dictator. If the e-mail I get is typical, the argument usually goes something like this:

"Where does Washington find the gall to condemn Saddam as evil? Saddam might not even be alive today if Washington hadn't been his best friend during the Iran-Iraq War. It's all very well for Bush to thunder about Iraq's stash of chemical and biological weapons -- but who sold Iraq those germs and poisons in the first place? We did! It's not the peace movement that is morally obtuse, it's a foreign policy that never cared about Saddam's crimes as long as it was convenient to ignore them."

There is some hyperbole there, but on the whole it's true: In the 1980s the United States supported Saddam's totalitarian regime and showed little concern for its victims. American exports helped launch Iraq's biological weapons program. Saddam's horrific violations of international law, such as his use of poison gas on the battlefield, had minimal effect on US-Iraqi cooperation. And while the tilt toward Saddam began with Jimmy Carter ("We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the US and Iraq" -- National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, April 1980), it was the Reagan and Bush I administrations that brought it to full flower.

All of this has long been a matter of public record. US shipments of deadly biological agents to Iraq, for example, were detailed in a 1994 Senate Banking Committee report and a follow-up letter from the Centers for Disease Control in 1995. They showed that Iraq was allowed to purchase batch after batch of lethal pathogens -- anthrax, botulism, E. coli, West Nile fever, gas gangrene, dengue fever. At a time when Washington knew that Iraq was using chemical weapons to kill thousands of Iranian troops, the CDC was shipping germ cultures directly to the Iraqi unconventional weapons facility in al-Muthanna.

Last week, the National Security Archive at George Washington University published on its Web site a collection of declassified government documents laying out the American embrace of Saddam in 1980-84. The series is introduced with a photograph of Saddam firmly shaking hands with Ronald Reagan's special Middle East envoy, a seasoned Washington veteran named Donald Rumsfeld. Their meeting took place on Dec. 20, 1983, and according to the detailed notes that were kept, the two men discussed a wide range of topics -- the state of US-Iraqi relations, the war with Iran, US concerns about terrorism, new arrangements for shipping Iraqi oil, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But Rumsfeld said nothing about Saddam's pursuit of nuclear weapons or his use of chemical weapons. Or about the terrorists he was sheltering in Baghdad. Or about his monstrous record of torture and murder. Rumsfeld's instructions were to "establish personal rapport" with the dictator and to make it clear that the United States firmly supported Iraq in the war it had started with Iran. American policy in the Gulf under Reagan was one of unsentimental realpolitik: An Iranian victory was to be prevented at all costs, and those costs included aiding Iraq militarily and financially and making as little fuss as possible about its repressive and inhumane behavior.

The year before Rumsfeld's visit, the State Department had removed Iraq from its list of terror-sponsoring states; in 1984, it would resume the full diplomatic relations Iraq had broken off in 1967. The United States became, in effect, Saddam's silent ally, a policy that was occasionally questioned but never seriously challenged -- either inside the administration or by Congress.

That policy even went so far as to censor honest commentary about Iraq. When the Voice of America aired an editorial that included Iraq in a list of countries where "secret police are still widely present," Saddam was furious. To appease him, the State Department ordered VOA to submit all future editorials about Iraq for pre-broadcast approval. One such editorial, drafted in July 1990, obliquely warned Iraq not to threaten its neighbors (though it didn't actually name Iraq or any of those neighboring countries). State killed it. Kuwait was invaded a week later.

I am a great admirer of Reagan, whose conduct of foreign policy overall left the world a freer, safer place. But there is no way to prettify his handling of Iraq. It empowered an evil and brutal tyrant, gave free rein to his aggressive megalomania, and treated his human rights atrocities as an unimportant side issue. Had Reagan (and Carter and Bush I) seen Saddam first and foremost as a dangerous, destabilizing cutthroat rather than a "balance" to Khomeini's Iran, there is no telling how many lives might have been saved.

But why is any of that an argument against doing the right thing now?

If America played a role in entrenching Saddam's dictatorship, isn't that all the more reason for it now to take the lead in toppling that dictatorship? If US foreign policy for too long disregarded the suffering of the Iraqi people, is it not good news that US policy now makes that people's liberation a priority? Are American presidents forever barred from denouncing a vicious oppressor and leading a war against him because some of their predecessors neglected to do so?

There is no surer recipe for increasing evil in the world than the doctrine that evil may be confronted only by those who have never failed to do good. Our embrace of Saddam in the '80s was shameful. How much greater our shame will be if we refuse to destroy him now.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.