Monday, December 29, 2003

Remembrance of things past

Both the Washington Post (December 19) and the New York Times (December 23) have reported on newly declassified documents showing that Donald Rumsfeld went to Iraq in March 1984 with instructions from Secretary of State George Shultz to tell Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz that a recent US statement condemning chemical weapons did not signify a change in policy toward Iraq. As the Times had it,
At first, the memo recapitulated Mr. Shultz's message to [Iraqi diplomat Ismat] Kittani, saying it "clarified that our CW [chemical weapons] condemnation was made strictly out of our strong opposition to the use of lethal and incapacitating CW, wherever it occurs." The American officials had "emphasized that our interests in 1) preventing an Iranian victory and 2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq's choosing, remain undiminished," it said.
An often-overlooked point in this is that first item: The US desired to prevent an Iranian victory - not to insure an Iraqi one. Although I doubt the difference was made clear to Iraq, it's not insignificant. At the same time that we were selling military and dual-use goods to Iraq (including precursors for chemical and biological weapons) as well as providing military intelligence, we were also secretly selling weapons to Iran as part of the program that became known as Contragate and made Oliver North a household name. Most reports of that scandal refer to the first US arms shipments to Iran as being in 1985, but in fact that's incorrect or at least incomplete. The first such aid came in March 1981, just months after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, via transshipments through Israel. (That is, Israel sent Iran weapons and the US used existing stocks to replace them.) The pipeline of weapons to Iran, direct or indirect, continued through the mid-1980s, until the diversion of profits from the sale of arms into illegal aid to the Nicaraguan contras blew up in the Reagan administration's face. In a long letter to a friend dated January 5, 1987, I wrote
Another aspect of this that's come out is that at the same time we were arming Iran we were providing intelligence data to Iraq - and now it develops we may've been actively disinforming both sides in order to prevent either from getting the upper hand. In other words, we were manipulating events and facts to keep the war going. Why has no one bothered to comment on the cold-blooded, calculated, inhuman cynicism of this? Or is the answer, like much else in this whole thing, implicit in the question? (Another bitterly amusing note: When asked about this, White House press officer Larry Speakes said "it is not now the policy" to doctor intelligence reports to Iran or Iraq - but added "I can't answer" whether or not it had been policy in the past.)
As we count up the "mass graves" of victims of Saddam Hussein, we should compare them not only to the number who died unnecessarily due to sanctions but to those who died because we believed an unending, exhausting war between Iran and Iraq was to our strategic advantage.

Footnote: The documents were obtained by the National Security Archive, and are available at their website.

Unintentional Humor Dept.:
When details of Rumsfeld's December trip came to light last year, the defense secretary told CNN that he had "cautioned" Saddam Hussein about the use of chemical weapons, an account that was at odds with the declassified State Department notes of his 90-minute meeting, which did not mention such a caution. Later, a Pentagon spokesman said Rumsfeld raised the issue not with Hussein, but with Aziz.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said yesterday that "the secretary said what he said, and I would go with that. He has a recollection of how that meeting went, and I can't imagine that some additional cable is going to change how he recalls the meeting."
"I said what I said when I said what I meant when I said it and you can't prove I said it. And I won't be moved by mere facts."

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