I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Gassing Our Own People

By Barbara O'Brien

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 on my blog 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 posted 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 Hussein. 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 gassing of the Kurds, which I'll tie into current events below: 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. [Update: The Soviet Union didn't fall until 1991; I had my chronology confused. But you know that Iran had been high on the Real Bad Places list since the Carter-era hostage crisis.]

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, killing 5,000 Kurds, in March 1988. I remember especially the photographs of dead mothers, their arms wrapped protectively around their dead babies. I also remember 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 President Reagan vetoed the Act [Update: I am advised that Reagan didn't veto the Act formally but was behind getting it killed in Congress.], and the White House squelched any reprisals or sanctions against Saddam, and continued to shovel truckloads of money and technology to Baghdad. The Reagan administration's fine-tuned objection to the massacre at Halabja was that Saddam Hussein had used gas to kill his own citizens, not that he had killed them. Some State Department officials suggested that Iran, not Iraq, had gassed Halabja. And after 1988 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, however menacing Saddam became, Bush I continued to treat him as if he were America’s Best Bud. I dimly remember hearing that when Saddam invaded Kuwait, he 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; some 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.

All along, the Iraq War was more valuable to the Bush Regime as a club with which to bash Democrats than as a strategy for whatever it was the invasion was supposed to accomplish. Indeed, in 2002 I sincerely believed the saber-rattling was only about the 2002 midterms -- I mean, actually invading Iraq made no bleeping sense -- and assumed the Bushies would settle down as soon as the votes were counted. Back then I still thought there must be some kind of logic behind Bush policies other than the Glorification of Dear Leader and the Expansion of His Power. Boy, was I naive.

Today Democrats are angry because, after days listening to their Iraq withdrawal proposal derided as "cut and run," they learn that the White House has a similar proposal under consideration. The plot of this movie is too familiar; somehow, enabled by media, Republicans will spin the Republican cut and run propsal as principled and the Democrats' as cowardly, even though you might have trouble working dental floss between the two.

But they get away with it because the GOP has invested years in telling the story of the noble Republicans who stand strong against our enemies while the cowardly Democrats snivel in the corner and badmouth the troops. And I'm sure you've heard the part about how Democrats are appeasers because they don't realize evil people can't be trusted. But Republicans, the story goes, understand that evil people are evil and won't let them get away with squat.

Just like Ronald Reagan, who was strong, and who squared his shoulders and sat tall in the saddle, even as he looked the other way when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds.

And no matter how big a mess the Republicans make of national security, at least some voters will still vote Republican because they believe the story, even though its a fairy tale.

Democrats are brilliant at thinking up policies, complete with earnest executive summaries and lots of bulleted lists. But they don't know how to tell stories, which is why they're a minority party now. And it's a shame, because the Dems wouldn't have had to rely on fantasy; there are plenty of facts that can be dredged out of the memory hole that would make wonderful stories.

With not much else to run on, Republicans will spin their national security tale any way they can from now until the November elections. Let's hope cognitive dissonance can only stretch so far.

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