Thursday, February 27, 2003

Iraq: Declassified Documents of U.S. Support for Hussein

Joyce Battle, Middle East analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, on the series of declassified U.S. documents detailing U.S. support of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980’s:

The National Security Archive at George Washington University has published a series of declassified U.S. documents detailing the U.S. embrace of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980’s. The collection of documents, published on the Web, include briefing materials, diplomatic reports of two Rumsfeld trips to Baghdad, reports on Iraqi chemical weapons use during the Reagan administration and presidential directives that ensure U.S. access to the region's oil and military expansion.The transcript follows: Hi Joyce. Welcome. Before we could begin maybe you could give our readers a little background about Donald Rumsfeld's visits to Iraq in 1983 and 1984. What was he doing and why is this information relevant today?

Joyce Battle: Hello. I'm very pleased to have this opportunity to discuss some of the historical background to the U.S.'s present policy toward Iraq.

Donald Rumsfeld was sent to the Middle East as a special envoy for President Reagan in December 1983 and March 1984. At the time, he was a private citizen, but had been a high-ranking official with several Republican administrations. He had a number of items on his agenda, including conflict in Lebanon. However, one of his main objectives was to establish direct contact between President Reagan and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- he carried a letter from Reagan to Saddam to further this process.

His trip, and other overtures by the U.S., were necessary because the Reagan administration had decided to assist Iraq in its war against Iran in order to prevent an Iranian victory, which the administration saw as contrary to U.S. interests. But until the early 1980s, U.S.-Iraqi relations had been frosty -- Iraq broke off formal diplomatic relations in 1967. So in order to enable the U.S. to set up the mechanisms needed to provide Iraq with various forms of assistance, contacts had to be established, Iraq had to be removed from the State Department's list of countries supporting terrorism, and diplomatic relations needed to be re-established (which occurred in November 1984.)

Derwood, Md.: Who cares what these documents say? Iraq is the enemy of the day and needs to be dealt with.

Joyce Battle: I respectfully disagree with your point of view. In a democracy, citizens are expected to be informed about decisions that affect their own lives and that of their neighbors. If the U.S. goes to war with Iraq, many people will be put in harm's way, and I think that we all should seek some understanding of earlier developments and policies that led us to the current situation.

Wheaton, Md.: I hear pro-Saddam activists often claim that Reagan supplied Hussein with chemical weapons. I've seen no evidence to support these claims. Is there any truth to this?

Joyce Battle: I have not personally seen documents that indicate that the Reagan administration supplied Iraq with chemical weapons. However, the documents we recently posted on the Internet demonstrate that the administration had U.S. intelligence reports indicating that Iraq was using chemical weapons, both against Iran and against Iraqi Kurdish insurgents, in the early 1980s, at the same time that it decided to support Iraq in the war. So U.S. awareness of Iraq's chemical warfare did not deter it from initiating the policy of providing intelligence and military assistance to Iraq. There were shipments of chemical weapons precursors from several U.S. companies to Iraq during the 1980s, but the U.S. government would deny that it was aware that these exports were intended to be used in the production of chemical weapons.

Chicago, Ill.: Greetings, This might be slightly off point but I'll submit it for discussion.

The current administration has made a point of keeping all information that it can close to the vest. Not just secret information (which is understandable), but also material this is simply unflattering.

Examples: Energy documents from Cheney's summits; instructing DoJ to find reasons to reject even the most legit FOIA requests

Does a pattern of Secretizing Everything result in greater public skepticism when the administration pulls the "Trust Me" card in its discussions of the potential war in Iraq?

Joyce Battle: I agree with you. Strangely, one of the earliest responses of the current Bush administration to the events of September 11 was to begin efforts to vastly augment the ability of the government to limit the availability of information about its activities to the public. In particular, it attempted to impede the release of documents from the Reagan and Bush administrations, which were to be declassified under existing guidelines for making historical documents available. I considered this suspicious, since at that time questions were being raised as to the extent to which U.S. support for Islamist militants, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, had helped in creating the infrastructure used by al-Qaeda. I believe that government efforts to control and/or conceal information contribute not only to skepticism but to paranoia on the part of those who see contradictions between government rhetoric and policy.

Maryland: The Sun in London recently published a photo of Chirac shaking hands with Saddam in 1984. Do the archives have any photos of current US officials shaking hands with Saddam?

Joyce Battle: Our website displays an image of current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam during this 1983 visit. You can also view a short video (silent) clip of Rumsfeld's meeting with Saddam. To locate our website, just use a search engine to find "national security archive."

Arlington, Va.: Ms. Battle,
Do the declassified documents you've seen reveal much detail of the U.S. policy toward Iran, and the extent to which Saudi influence and an Arabist-heavy State Dept. caused us to take sides in a Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Persian conflict? It seems that our willingness to accept Saudi influence with regard to two policy areas during the 80s (supporting Afghan resistance against the Russians, supporting Saddam against Iran) has caused enormous "blowback" today.

Joyce Battle: Based on the documents I have seen, I don't believe that Saudi Arabia was the tail that wagged the American dog. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have had mutually supportive relations for some 70 years, and particularly since World War II. For decades, the U.S. believed that it was in its interest to support Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf monarchies. Despite their differences with the U.S. over issues like the Arab-Israeli dispute, these monarchies have on the whole been very supportive of U.S. political and economic interests. The U.S. was as fearful of the possible consequences of the expansion of revolutionary ideas from Iran as the Saudis were.

The U.S., for many years, held the view that promoting Islamist beliefs would effectively counter the spread of communist ideology in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and was not at all opposed to Saudi support for conservative Islamist movements. In return, the U.S. presence in various military facilities in Saudi Arabia is widely viewed as the ultimate guarantor of the Saudi royal family's continuing rule. Again, these two countries' policies have always been based on mutual self-interest.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you believe that the US should have stayed neutral in the Iran-Iraq war thereby allowing Iran and the Ayatollahs to win thereby enlarging their influence in the region?

Joyce Battle: It is obviously very difficult to second-guess history, and I won't attempt to do so. I believe that when the U.S. became aware of Iraq's chemical weapons use it should have used what influence it had to stop it. Doing so was actually incumbent upon the U.S. under international law. I believe the U.S. should have used its international influence, which is enormous, to do everything it could to end this war. It was an atrocity, resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Too many countries had ulterior motives and did not do enough to cut off arms shipments to the two combattants. I think that U.S. support for Iraq, despite its public condemnation of chemical warfare, encouraged Saddam Hussein to believe that the U.S. did not really believe, or act on, its public posture.

Ocean Pines, Md.: We often hear that Saddam Hussein gassed his own people in 1988. It is reported by Stephen Pelletiere that most of the civilians killed at that time were killed by Iranian poison gas. Do you know anything about this?

Joyce Battle: I have seen one analysis that makes this claim. Most of the government documents I have seen from this time period (1987-1989) indicate that the U.S. believed that Iraq had used chemical weapons against the Kurds. This was part of a series of measures undertaken by Iraq to punish Kurdish insurgents for allying with Iran during the war.

Alexandria, Va.: Are you arguing that the policies of the early 80's were correct? Or that they were mistaken? Or just that we need to know? Personally, while I would wish that the policies of the early 80's had turned out differently, the goal appears to have been to establish a working relationship with Iraq. That goal obviously was not reached, and Saddam took the wrong message, that we were not bothered by his use of chemical weapons.

Times change; it could be argued that the current Bush administration is being more realistic than were the Reagan and Bush 1 administrations.

Joyce Battle: Mostly, I think that we need to know. We try to make documents available to the public to help them reach their own conclusions. Before making the decision as to whether they support or oppose war with Iraq, people should learn as much as they can about the issues and about the history of our relations with that country. The Bush administration, in attempting to persuade the public to support the war, presents an overly simplistic case. The problems of the Middle East are enormously complex. The Reagan administration's policies toward the Iran-Iraq war show that international relations are conducted not in black-and-white but in shades of gray.

Joyce Battle: It's time for me to go -- thank you all very much for your questions and for your interest in this very important topic.