Albion Monitor /Commentary

Asking the Right Questions About Iraq

by John Tirman

If Clinton does conduct the kind of sustained bombing that many are demanding, one cannot say that the sex scandal is to blame
In the Iraq crisis, America's infamously short memory is at work again. And the memory loss is causing us to overlook some fundamental questions.

For months, Clinton has been excoriated for weakness in responding to Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow weapons inspectors into certain sites in Iraq. Now the drumbeat for war is getting louder. Much of the news media and many Republican leaders are calling for a military blow against Iraq to rid the region of its suspected biological, chemical, and nuclear arms-making capacity.

Saddam may deserve such punishment, though few of the war advocates convincingly explain how bombing Iraq will achieve the results they seek. (In fact, virtually no one believes that bombing will terminate Iraq's weapons-making program, and some are saying that he can withstand the bombing and then use the attack as an excuse to expel the remaining inspectors.) Then there is the president's "wag the dog" problem of appearing, potentially, to be attacking Iraq in part to divert attention from his alleged affair with a White House intern.

These are fair questions, but in this war fever a much larger point is missing. All the commentators ignore the U.S. support for Iraq in the 1980s that led directly to the present predicament. One would think that history began on August 2, 1990, the day Saddam sent his forces into Kuwait. This leads them to useless finger pointing at Clinton and neglect of more significant lessons in this distasteful episode.

The history is distasteful indeed. From about 1982, President Reagan began to cultivate Saddam's favor. Iraq was locked in a bloody eight-year war with Iran that took one million lives. While publicly pronouncing a plague on both houses, the Reagan team was quietly supporting Saddam with political recognition, military intelligence, $5.5 billion in agricultural credits, loans for its oil industry, and some covert military assistance. Among the known items of sale were more than 100 helicopters, plus advanced computers, and biological pathogens used in Iraq's illicit weapons programs.

Each of these generous gifts enabled Saddam Hussein to build his military power (indeed, saved him from defeat by Iran) and encouraged Europe to supply him. Of course, he was coddled because of U.S. antipathy toward Iran, whose Islamic revolution was bitterly anti-American, due to our exorbitant arming of the equally despotic Shah of Iran throughout the 1970s. Bush's policy essentially carried on with the Reagan tilt: aid and political support continued.

These U.S. miscalculations were not merely foolish or naive, but often shaped by domestic politics. The tilt toward Iraq became more energetic after the Iran-contra fiasco was revealed, threatening Reagan's presidency. Bush's policy was exposed as an embarrassing blunder soon after Iraq occupied Kuwait. Attention was then focused on U.S. ambassador April Glaspie's infamous meeting with Saddam, when she conveyed the official policy that "we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts" and that Kuwait's oil pricing policy at the time "is, in the final analysis, parallel to military aggression against Iraq." As this and other botches of the Bush administration came to light in the autumn of 1990, the war fever inside the White House escalated.

So in both cases, the early mistakes that led to the worst foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam were later accentuated by domestic politics, indeed, by deep humiliations. Did the embarrassments lead to rash actions? Possibly. But more fundamental is the wrong-headed policy that helped produce volatile situations in which domestic political embarrassments could then play a perverse role.

All this history is perhaps familiar, but bears retelling, because we can only understand the current crisis by knowing how we got into it. There is no good solution to Saddam Hussein anymore, and there hasn't been a solution since the end of the gulf war. The monster was created long ago and given vital sustenance by Clinton's predecessors, a fact conveniently forgotten by his present accusers, many of whom were Reagan and Bush aides who created the disastrous Iraq policy in the first place.

And let's not forget the bigger picture. We have now witnessed two colossal failures of American foreign policy -- Iran and Iraq -- that depended on the same faulty logic: lavishly arm a "pro-West" Muslim strongman in hopes that he will do our bidding (mainly to protect access to oil). This strategy is also precariously pursued in Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, all of which are human-rights violators of the worst kind.

If Clinton does conduct the kind of sustained bombing that many are demanding, one cannot say that the sex scandal is to blame. What's important now is to determine whether air strikes or further diplomatic maneuvers are more useful -- and, most vitally, to recall how we got into this to begin with, to avoid another no-win morass.

John Tirman is author of Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America's Arms Trade, recently published by the Free Press. He is executive director of the Winston Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor February 11, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page