Sometimes democracy works. Though the wheels of accountability often grind slowly, they also can grind fine, if lubricated by the hard work of free-thinking citizens. The latest example: the release of official documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that detail how the U.S. government under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush nurtured and supported Saddam Hussein despite his repeated use of chemical weapons.
The work of the National Security Archive, a dogged organization fighting for government transparency, has cast light on the trove of documents that depict in damning detail how the United States, working with U.S. corporations including Bechtel, cynically and secretly allied itself with Saddam's dictatorship. The evidence undermines the unctuous moral superiority with which the current American president, media and public now judge Saddam, a monster the U.S. actively helped create.
The documents make it clear that were the trial of Saddam to be held by an impartial world court, it would prove an embarrassing two-edged sword for the White House, calling into question the motives of U.S. foreign policy. If there were a complete investigation into those who aided and abetted Saddam's crimes against humanity, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State George Shultz would probably end up as material witnesses.
It was Rumsfeld and Shultz who told Saddam and his emissaries that U.S. statements generally condemning the use of chemical weapons would not interfere with relations between secular Iraq and the Reagan administration, which took Iraq off the terrorist-nations list and embraced Saddam as a bulwark against fundamentalist Iran. Ironically, the U.S supported Iraq when it possessed and used weapons of mass destruction and invaded it when it didn't.
It was 20 years ago when Shultz dropped in on a State Department meeting between his top aide and a high-ranking Saddam emissary. Back then the Iraqis, who were fighting a war with Iran, were our new best friends in the Mideast. Shultz wanted to make it crystal clear that U.S. criticism of the use of chemical weapons was just pablum for public consumption, meant as a restatement of a "long-standing policy, and not as a pro-Iranian/anti-Iraqi gesture," as State's Lawrence S. Eagleburger told Saddam's emissary. "Our desire and our actions to prevent an Iranian victory and to continue the progress of our bilateral relations remain undiminished," Eagleburger continued, according to the then highly classified transcript of the meeting.
The Shultz/Eagleburger meeting took place between two crucial visits by Rumsfeld, acting as a Reagan emissary, to Saddam to offer unconditional support for the Iraqi leader in his war with Iran. In the first meeting, in December 1983, Rumsfeld told Saddam that the United States would assist in building an oil pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba, Jordan. He made no mention of chemical weapons, even though U.S. intelligence only months earlier had confirmed that Iraq was using such illegal weapons almost daily against Iranians and Kurds.
That administration's eye was not on the carnage from chemical weapons but rather the profit to be obtained from the flow of oil. In a later meeting with an Iraqi representative, as recorded in the minutes, "Eagleburger explained that because of the participation of Bechtel in the Aqaba pipeline, the Secretary of State [Shultz] is keeping completely isolated from the issue. Iraq should understand that this does not imply a lack of high-level [U.S. government] interest." (Shultz had been chief executive of Bechtel before joining the Reagan administration and is currently a director of the company, which is signing contracts for work in Iraq as fast as U.S. taxes can be allocated.)
Minutes of that meeting and others in which the United States ignored Saddam's use of banned weapons while extending support to the dictator mock the moral high ground assumed by George W. Bush in defense of his invasion. If, as Bush II says, Saddam acted as a "Hitler" while "gassing his own people," during the 1980s, we were fully aware and implicitly approving, via economic and military aid, of his most nefarious deeds.
Saddam's crimes were committed on our watch, when he was a U.S. ally, and we knowingly looked the other way.