How Saddam Happened ... America helped make a monster. What to do with him—and what happens after he’s gone —has haunted us for a quarter century
CDickey and EThomas NEWSWEEK
Sept. 23 issue — The last time Donald Rumsfeld saw Saddam Hussein, he gave him a cordial handshake. The date was almost 20 years ago, Dec. 20, 1983; an official Iraqi television crew recorded the historic moment.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE Defense secretary, at the time a private citizen, had been sent by President Ronald Reagan to Baghdad as a special envoy. Saddam Hussein, armed with a pistol on his hip, seemed "vigorous and confident," according to a now declassified State Department cable obtained by NEWSWEEK. Rumsfeld "conveyed the President’s greetings and expressed his pleasure at being in Baghdad," wrote the notetaker. Then the two men got down to business, talking about the need to improve relations between their two countries.
Like most foreign-policy insiders, Rumsfeld was aware that Saddam was a murderous thug who supported terrorists and was trying to build a nuclear weapon. (The Israelis had already bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.) But at the time, America’s big worry was Iran, not Iraq. The Reagan administration feared that the Iranian revolutionaries who had overthrown the shah (and taken hostage American diplomats for 444 days in 1979-81) would overrun the Middle East and its vital oilfields. On the—theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Reaganites were seeking to support Iraq in a long and bloody war against Iran. The meeting between Rumsfeld and Saddam was consequential: for the next five years, until Iran finally capitulated, the United States backed Saddam’s armies with military intelligence, economic aid and covert supplies of munitions.
Rumsfeld is not the first American diplomat to wish for the demise of a former ally. After all, before the cold war, the Soviet Union was America’s partner against Hitler in World War II. In the real world, as the saying goes, nations have no permanent friends, just permanent interests. Nonetheless, Rumsfeld’s long-ago interlude with Saddam is a reminder that today’s friend can be tomorrow’s mortal threat. As President George W. Bush and his war cabinet ponder Saddam’s successor’s regime, they would do well to contemplate how and why the last three presidents allowed the Butcher of Baghdad to stay in power so long.
The history of America’s relations with Saddam is one of the sorrier tales in American foreign policy. Time and again, America turned a blind eye to Saddam’s predations, saw him as the lesser evil or flinched at the chance to unseat him. No single policymaker or administration deserves blame for creating, or at least tolerating, a monster; many of their decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Even so, there are moments in this clumsy dance with the Devil that make one cringe. It is hard to believe that, during most of the 1980s, America knowingly permitted the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission to import bacterial cultures that might be used to build biological weapons. But it happened.
America’s past stumbles, while embarrassing, are not an argument for inaction in the future. Saddam probably is the "grave and gathering danger" described by President Bush in his speech to the United Nations last week. It may also be true that "whoever replaces Saddam is not going to be worse," as a senior administration official put it to NEWSWEEK. But the story of how America helped create a Frankenstein monster it now wishes to strangle is sobering. It illustrates the power of wishful thinking, as well as the iron law of unintended consequences.
TRANSFIXED BY SADDAM
America did not put Saddam in power. He emerged after two decades of turmoil in the ’60s and ’70s, as various strongmen tried to gain control of a nation that had been concocted by British imperialists in the 1920s out of three distinct and rival factions, the Sunnis, Shiites and the Kurds. But during the cold war, America competed with the Soviets for Saddam’s attention and welcomed his war with the religious fanatics of Iran. Having cozied up to Saddam, Washington found it hard to break away—even after going to war with him in 1991. Through years of both tacit and overt support, the West helped create the Saddam of today, giving him time to build deadly arsenals and dominate his people. Successive administrations always worried that if Saddam fell, chaos would follow, rippling through the region and possibly igniting another Middle East war. At times it seemed that Washington was transfixed by Saddam.
The Bush administration wants to finally break the spell. If the administration’s true believers are right, Baghdad after Saddam falls will look something like Paris after the Germans fled in August 1944. American troops will be cheered as liberators, and democracy will spread forth and push Middle Eastern despotism back into the shadows. Yet if the gloomy predictions of the administration’s many critics come true, the Arab street, inflamed by Yankee imperialism, will rise up and replace the shaky but friendly autocrats in the region with Islamic fanatics.
While the Middle East is unlikely to become a democratic nirvana, the worst-case scenarios, always a staple of the press, are probably also wrong or exaggerated. Assuming that a cornered and doomed Saddam does not kill thousands of Americans in some kind of horrific Gotterdmmerung—a scary possibility, one that deeply worries administration officials—the greatest risk of his fall is that one strongman may simply be replaced by another. Saddam’s successor may not be a paranoid sadist. But there is no assurance that he will be America’s friend or forswear the development of weapons of mass destruction.
A TASTE FOR NASTY WEAPONS
American officials have known that Saddam was a psychopath ever since he became the country’s de facto ruler in the early 1970s. One of Saddam’s early acts after he took the title of president in 1979 was to videotape a session of his party’s congress, during which he personally ordered several members executed on the spot. The message, carefully conveyed to the Arab press, was not that these men were executed for plotting against Saddam, but rather for thinking about plotting against him. From the beginning, U.S. officials worried about Saddam’s taste for nasty weaponry; indeed, at their meeting in 1983, Rumsfeld warned that Saddam’s use of chemical weapons might "inhibit" American assistance. But top officials in the Reagan administration saw Saddam as a useful surrogate. By going to war with Iran, he could bleed the radical mullahs who had seized control of Iran from the pro-American shah. Some Reagan officials even saw Saddam as another Anwar Sadat, capable of making Iraq into a modern secular state, just as Sadat had tried to lift up Egypt before his assassination in 1981.
But Saddam had to be rescued first. The war against Iran was going badly by 1982. Iran’s "human wave attacks" threatened to overrun Saddam’s armies. Washington decided to give Iraq a helping hand. After Rumsfeld’s visit to Baghdad in 1983, U.S. intelligence began supplying the Iraqi dictator with satellite photos showing Iranian deployments. Official documents suggest that America may also have secretly arranged for tanks and other military hardware to be shipped to Iraq in a swap deal—American tanks to Egypt, Egyptian tanks to Iraq. Over the protest of some Pentagon skeptics, the Reagan administration began allowing the Iraqis to buy a wide variety of "dual use" equipment and materials from American suppliers. According to confidential Commerce Department export-control documents obtained by NEWSWEEK, the shopping list included a computerized database for Saddam’s Interior Ministry (presumably to help keep track of political opponents); helicopters to transport Iraqi officials; television cameras for "video surveillance applications"; chemical-analysis equipment for the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), and, most unsettling, numerous shipments of "bacteria/fungi/protozoa" to the IAEC. According to former officials, the bacteria cultures could be used to make biological weapons, including anthrax. The State Department also approved the shipment of 1.5 million atropine injectors, for use against the effects of chemical weapons, but the Pentagon blocked the sale. The helicopters, some American officials later surmised, were used to spray poison gas on the Kurds.
‘WHO IS GOING TO SAY ANYTHING?’ …. The United States almost certainly knew from its own satellite imagery that Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. When Saddam bombed Kurdish rebels and civilians with a lethal cocktail of mustard gas, sarin, tabun and VX in 1988, the Reagan administration first blamed Iran, before acknowledging, under pressure from congressional Democrats, that the culprits were Saddam’s own forces. There was only token official protest at the time. Saddam’s men were unfazed. An Iraqi audiotape, later captured by the Kurds, records Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid (known as Ali Chemical) talking to his fellow officers about gassing the Kurds. "Who is going to say anything?" he asks. "The international community? F—k them!"
Sept. 23 Issue Cover Package: Target: Iraq • Selling the World on War • How Saddam Happened • Alter: Washington's History Test • Samuelson: A War We Can Afford • The Baghdad I Knew
Newsweek …. The United States was much more concerned with protecting Iraqi oil from attacks by Iran as it was shipped through the Persian Gulf. In 1987, an Iraqi Exocet missile hit an American destroyer, the USS Stark, in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 crewmen. Incredibly, the United States excused Iraq for making an unintentional mistake and instead used the incident to accuse Iran of escalating the war in the gulf. The American tilt to Iraq became more pronounced. U.S. commandos began blowing up Iranian oil platforms and attacking Iranian patrol boats. In 1988, an American warship in the gulf accidentally shot down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 civilians. Within a few weeks, Iran, exhausted and fearing American intervention, gave up its war with Iraq.
Saddam was feeling cocky. With the support of the West, he had defeated the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran. America favored him as a regional pillar; European and American corporations were vying for contracts with Iraq. He was visited by congressional delegations led by Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas and Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who were eager to promote American farm and business interests. But Saddam’s megalomania was on the rise, and he overplayed his hand. In 1990, a U.S. Customs sting operation snared several Iraqi agents who were trying to buy electronic equipment used to make triggers for nuclear bombs. Not long after, Saddam gained the world’s attention by threatening "to burn Israel to the ground." At the Pentagon, analysts began to warn that Saddam was a growing menace, especially after he tried to buy some American-made high-tech furnaces useful for making nuclear-bomb parts. Yet other officials in Congress and in the Bush administration continued to see him as a useful, if distasteful, regional strongman. The State Department was equivocating with Saddam right up to the moment he invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
AMBIVALENT ABOUT SADDAM’S FATE
Some American diplomats suggest that Saddam might have gotten away with invading Kuwait if he had not been quite so greedy. "If he had pulled back to the Mutla Ridge [overlooking Kuwait City], he’d still be there today," one ex-ambassador told NEWSWEEK. And even though President George H.W. Bush compared Saddam to Hitler and sent a half-million-man Army to drive him from Kuwait, Washington remained ambivalent about Saddam’s fate. It was widely assumed by policymakers that Saddam would collapse after his defeat in Desert Storm, done in by his humiliated officer corps or overthrown by the revolt of a restive minority population. But Washington did not want to push very hard to topple Saddam. The gulf war, Bush I administration officials pointed out, had been fought to liberate Kuwait, not oust Saddam. "I am certain that had we taken all of Iraq, we would have been like the dinosaur in the tar pit—we would still be there," wrote the American commander in Desert Storm, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, in his memoirs. America’s allies in the region, most prominently Saudi Arabia, feared that a post-Saddam Iraq would splinter and destabilize the region. The Shiites in the south might bond with their fellow religionists in Iran, strengthening the Shiite mullahs, and threatening the Saudi border. In the north, the Kurds were agitating to break off parts of Iraq and Turkey to create a Kurdistan. So Saddam was allowed to keep his tanks and helicopters—which he used to crush both Shiite and Kurdish rebellions.