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Dousing of cold truth on Bush’s hot rhetoric

The revelation by senior military officers that the United States provided critical intelligence to Iraq during its war with Iran in the 1980s -- even though it was known that Iraq had already used poison gas on its enemy -- throws a decidedly wicked twist into the Bush administration’s current plans for forcing a “regime change” in Iraq.

The news also opens a window onto other elements of the U.S. relationship with Iraq leading up to the original Gulf War, elements that too often have been brushed over as subsequent administrations have found it necessary to justify grinding sanctions and nearly nonstop bombing of north and south Iraq. How will this news play into current considerations?

Former military leaders told The New York Times that while the Reagan administration was publicly condemning Iraq for the use of chemical weapons against Iran in the south and the Kurds in the north, behind the scenes, it not only looked the other way but aided Iraq in defeating Iran. According to U.S. thinking at the time, Iran was the big threat to overrun other oil producing countries in the region.

Some will rightly claim that none of this is “new” news -- it was long known, according to the Times and other experts, that the United States was providing intelligence to Iraq during the 1980s. Revisiting the extent to which we once aided this now monster of the Middle East, however, could bring a much needed dousing of cold truth to the hot rhetoric of the Bush White House.

Too bad the story didn’t survive more than a 24-hour news cycle. Had it been able to hold our attention just a little longer, we might have dug a bit deeper to some other “old” news -- that beyond tolerating Saddam’s use of chemical warfare, the United States also armed him in other ways during that eight-year war with Iran.

It might also surface again -- as it has in smaller circles, in books and think tanks, but never long enough on the mainstream stage to make a difference -- that up to six months before the start of the Gulf War in 1990, the United States was selling Saddam Hussein, under license of the Commerce Department, the material for the very biological and chemical weapons that we now want him to hand over.

There’s more that is known but seems never to get connected to the headlines on the evening news or the endless talking head discussions. For instance, we also know it was during the 1980s, the same period during which the United States was giving vital information to Saddam Hussein, that we were also selling arms to rival Iran. It was an episode that became known as the Iran-contra scandal, because the money the U.S. made on the illegal arms sales to Iran went to finance another war we had manufactured -- the contra war against an elected government in Nicaragua. But let’s not allow this mess to unravel too far for fear of getting caught up in all the threads at once and losing sight of the matter at hand.

Sticking to the Middle East, it becomes apparent that allowing free discussion of our previous support of Iraq would certainly take away the moral high ground we now presume to occupy.

According to retired Col. Walter P. Lang, the senior defense intelligence officer at the time, “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.” That’s a diplomatic way of saying the United States didn’t care how Iraq was winning that war, just as long as it succeeded. Today, the Bush administration is citing chemical weapons as one of the reasons for contemplating war against Iraq.

Another Defense Intelligence Agency source told the Times that the Reagan administration’s apparent duplicity in handling Iraq was simply an example of the realpolitik of advancing American interests in the war.

It would be difficult to vilify Hussein for using chemical weapons if we, indeed, helped him use them more effectively. We begin to sound silly before the world, unleashing endless bromides about America’s lofty notions of defending freedom and fighting terrorism, if we were found out to have aided the gassing of what were then called Iran’s “young volunteers.”

If that were the case, then we would have to admit that our goals were not lofty or noble, but simply the preservation of our access to oil, no matter the price or the means. It’s tough to consider that in the exercise of realpolitik we became like everyone else, self-interested and amoral to the point of helping to gas kids.

President Bush is having difficulty enough selling his wish for war with Iraq without delving into embarrassing historical details. He has repeatedly made the claim that he will consider all the intelligence before making a decision. Perhaps if that intelligence were subjected to a rigorous public debate that would also take into consideration our past alliances with Iraq, we might move from intelligence to a degree of wisdom in our dealings with the rest of the world.

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002