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Reagan, the Bushes, and Saddam Hussein

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Throughout the Reagan-Poppy Bush years, the White House had been an eager backer of Saddam. The two administrations had provided millions of dollars in aid and had permitted the export of U.S. technology that Iraq used to build a massive arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons. George W. Bush would repeatedly express outrage over Saddam’s 1988 gassing of the Kurds, neglecting to mention that Donald Rumsfeld, now his defense secretary, had visited and talked business deals with Saddam back in the ’80s — and that the Reagan and Poppy Bush administrations continued to support the Iraqi dictator after the gassing. The larger goal, however, was a so-called balance of terror that would prevent any country from gaining ascendancy in the strategic Gulf region, and so the United States actually provided materiel and intelligence to both sides in the brutal, nearly decade-long Iraq-Iran war, in which over a million people died.

In a paradoxical twist, when W. sought to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he cited those same weapons — without mentioning that his own father had helped to provide them. He also failed to mention what many proliferation experts correctly believed: that most or all of those weapons had been destroyed as part of Saddam’s scale-down after the imposition of the no-fly zones and President Clinton’s own threats to invade.

Surprisingly, the United States’s secret relationship with Saddam Hussein goes back even further — a remarkable 40 years. This information was published by the wire service UPI in April 2003, shortly after the invasion, while U.S. forces were hunting for the reviled Saddam Hussein, but it was generally ignored. The report noted,

U.S. forces in Baghdad might now be searching high and low for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, but in the past Saddam was seen by U.S. intelligence services as a bulwark of anti-communism and they used him as their instrument for more than 40 years, according to former U.S. intelligence diplomats and intelligence officials…. While many have thought that Saddam first became involved with U.S. intelligence agencies at the start of the September 1980 Iran-Iraq war, his first contacts with U.S. officials date back to 1959, when he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating then Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim.

The article noted that Qasim had overthrown the Iraqi monarchy and participated in a U.S.-backed Cold War coalition. But when Qasim decided to withdraw from the alliance and began warming up to the USSR, CIA director Allen Dulles publicly declared that Iraq was “the most dangerous spot in the world.”

According to another former senior State Department official, Saddam, while only in his early 20s, became a part of a U.S. plot to get rid of Qasim…. In Beriut, the CIA paid for Sadddam’s apartment and put him through a brief training course…. Even then Saddam “was known as having no class. He was a thug — a cutthroat.”

… During this time Saddam was making frequent visits to the American Embassy…. In February 1963 Qasim was killed in a Ba’ath party coup…. But the agency quickly moved into action. Noting that the Ba’ath party was hunting down Iraq’s communists, the CIA provided the submachine gun-toting Iraqi National Guardsmen with lists of suspected communists who were then jailed, interrogated, and summarily gunned down.

Saddam Hussein is hardly the only dictator whom the United States essentially created, long supported, and then turned on when circumstances changed. Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, a long-time CIA asset, was another. Poppy, as Ford’s CIA director and then as Reagan’s vice president, had fostered a relationship with the notorious drug trafficker during the ’70s and ’80s, even keeping him on the U.S. payroll at more than $100,000 a year. But Noriega did not always do as the Americans wanted. While Noriega sold arms and provided intelligence to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, he refused to supply weapons to the U.S.-backed Contras to help overthrow the Managua government.

According to Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Noriega insisted to him that he had had the best of relations with Bush for years. But Noriega told Birns that at an airport meeting in Panama shortly before the invasion, he had had a spat with Vice President Dan Quayle when he refused to commit Panama to a more confrontational role in fighting against Washington’s Central American enemies. Birns, who was in Panama as Noriega’s “honorable enemy” guest only hours before the U.S. invasion and was arguably the last American to meet with Noriega before U.S. troops arrived, told me that the Panamanian strongman was bitter because after years of servitude to Washington’s various regional crusades, Bush was unceremoniously dumping him.

As former head of French intelligence Count Alexandre de Marenches puts it in his memoirs,

If it’s proved that Noriega was on the US payroll, then it was a shameful mistake…. Never use shady characters…. I expressed this philosophy to George Bush…. Now years later, the worst nightmare has come to haunt the Americans — a protracted and messy jury trial following a lethal and embarrassing military operation in Panama — all designed to get rid of the rat they should never have hired in the first place…. If you do, after all, hire the rat, and are ultimately forced to get rid of him, then by all means do so quickly and permanently.

Though Jimmy Carter had agreed to return the Canal Zone to Panama by 2000, that did not mean Poppy was willing to give up influence in the tropical republic. At the end of 1989, Poppy ordered an invasion of the country, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds and the imposition of a more compliant government.

Twisting arms

For W., one benefit of turning attention toward Iraq and touting Saddam as a major threat was to take the world’s eye off more than a few potentially embarrassing balls. What, for example, had led to 9/11? What about the U.S. role during the 1970s and 1980s in creating a global mujahideen force as surrogates in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union? Or the objective of actually fostering the USSR’s Afghan invasion in the first place by baiting the Soviets into what Zbigniew Brzezinski hoped would be quicksand for the Communists? These global gambits, acknowledged in memoirs of key decision makers, including Brzezinski, have seldom been widely discussed or generally understood.

Then there was the politicization of intelligence, which began under Poppy Bush’s CIA directorship with his creation of the “Team B” that sought to refute the agency analysts who had accurately determined that the USSR was already in decline. Some intelligence analysts had also warned — only to be ignored — about the risk of creating an extremist Islamic force armed to the teeth.

And there was the simple fact that 15 of 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis. What would or should the Saudi government have known about these people? And what about the deep and long personal relationship between the Bushes and the Saudi royal family? All the public ever learned, thanks in good part to the film Fahrenheit 9/11, was how W.’s administration showed remarkable diligence in spiriting Saudi royals out of the United States right after 9/11 — an operation about which the administration has maintained silence.

And what of the manner in which the 9/11 attack itself was handled — most notably the failure to act on intelligence leads in advance and the competing accounts of the activities of Vice President Cheney in those crucial minutes and hours after the attack? And what of the mystery of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s equally peculiar actions, including his odd decision to “assist” at the scene of the Pentagon attack rather than assume command? There were so many questions, and all they did was undermine the confidence in the competency and candor of the administration.

Absent a distraction, the media and a few public intellectuals were bound to raise such potentially embarrassing topics. Indeed, some did — but a war always takes center stage.

This is an excerpt from Russ Baker’s book Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). Copyright 2009 by Russ Baker. Reprinted by permission.

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Russ Baker is an award-winning investigative journalist who is the author of Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government, and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years (Bloomsbury Press, 2009) and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, New Yorker, and many other publications.