Lesley Stahl gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a pretty easy ride when she interviewed him on 60 Minutes about the capture of Saddam Hussein.
If there is one American whose role in aiding the Iraqi regime in the 1980s deserves some scrutiny, it’s Rumsfeld. Yet Stahl didn’t even raise the subject.
A few weeks before the invasion of Iraq last March, Peter Beinart of The New Republic– a self-proclaimed hawk– reported some troubling facts about Rumsfeld’s role as President Reagan’s envoy to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
Saddam first used chemical weapons, in particular mustard gas, in 1983, in his war against Iran. By October of that year, according to recently declassified documents, the United States knew he was using them “almost daily.” But the Reagan administration wasn’t bothered. To the contrary, that December it sent Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad. According to the book Spider’s Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, by Financial Times reporter Alan Friedman, Rumsfeld presented a letter from Reagan that proposed restoring diplomatic relations and offered U.S. military and economic assistance. When Iran launched a new offensive in February 1984, Saddam added tabun, a lethal nerve gas, to his chemical repertoire. In the spring of 1984, Rumsfeld returned for another visit. By November, the United States and Iraq had restored diplomatic relations.
It gets worse. Records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a 1994 Senate Banking Committee investigation show that during Reagan’s presidency, the United States sold Iraq anthrax, bubonic plague, and botulinum toxin, all supposedly for medical research. In 1988, the Commerce Department approved Dow Chemical’s sale of $1.5 million worth of pesticides to Baghdad, even though many in the administration suspected Saddam would use them for chemical warfare. Over congressional opposition, the Reagan administration sold Iraq twin-engine Bell “Huey” helicopters, which appear to have been used in Saddam’s chemical attacks on the Kurds.
All this was justified at the time, of course, by the need to stop fundamentalist Iran. But, by August 1988, the war between Baghdad and Tehran was over. And yet Saddam continued his genocidal “Anfal” campaign against the Kurds, which by late 1988 had resulted in close to 100,000 deaths, most of them civilian. So, in September 1988, then-Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island introduced the Prevention of Genocide Act, which would have ended all U.S. aid to Baghdad. The bill passed the Senate, but the Reagan administration helped scuttle it in the House. And, when George H. W. Bush became president the following year, he doubled U.S. agricultural loans to Iraq–money that, it would later be revealed, Saddam was partly diverting to the military. As Samantha Power points out in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the Bush administration in 1989 refused to join twelve other democracies in calling for a special U.N. investigation of human rights in Iraq. In 1990, Bush’s Commerce Department even considered selling Baghdad large numbers of “skull furnaces,” valuable to Iraq’s nuclear program. At the last minute, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait scuttled the deal.
And yet Rumsfeld, as far as I know, has never acknowledged that he or the Reagan administration did anything wrong. In fact he has flatly denied that the US assisted Iraq in the 1980s with chemical and biological weapons.
As Beinart noted, the US provided less military assistance to Saddam than either France or the Soviet Union. And American aid ended after the 1990 Kuwait invasion. But as Beinart put it, “Rumsfeld should have trouble sleeping at night given his role in abetting Saddam’s crimes.” If he is, I haven’t noticed the dark circles under his eyes.
Which brings me to the hypocrisy of some on the hawkish right, who have turned the charmingly irascible, straight-talking “Rummy” into some kind of icon of toughness while gingerly ignoring his sordid dealings with the dictator. And no, it’s not enough to say that other countries were even worse. If Republicans are relishing the prospect of Saddam in the dock describing his dealings with Paris and Moscow, they might be less anxious to hear what he says about his meetings with the visitor from Washington.
Meanwhile I’ll leave it to Jeff Jarvis to decide if I’ve joined the Coalition of the Pissy.