Bartley: Was This War Necessary?
R. A. Hettinga
Mon, 24 Mar 2003 16:56:48 -0500
The Wall Street Journal
March 24, 2003
THINKING THINGS OVER
By ROBERT L. BARTLEY
Was This War Necessary?
By now my enthusiasm for the liberation of Iraq is clear enough, I hope, that I can take a day to rain on the parade. As impressive as the current campaign is, American policy in dealing with Saddam Hussein has been a bipartisan chamber of horrors.
Consider for example the Clinton administration low point, extensively described in Robert Baer's CIA memoir, "See No Evil." Mr. Baer headed a small CIA team in Northern Iraq in 1995, in contact with the two Kurdish factions as well as with Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and a defecting Iraqi general, Wafiq Smarrai, who carried plans from other Iraqi military men for a coup in Baghdad.
The action was to start with a Kurdish attack on Saddam's army, but at the very last moment Clinton national security adviser Tony Lake sent a pre-emptory telegram which, as Mr. Baer puts it, "pulled the plug without warning or a decent explanation."
U.S. POLICY ON IRAQ
A bipartisan record of appeasement
1995 Undercut revolt by Kurds and Iraqi National Congress in North
1991 Undercut revolts in North and South by letting Saddam fly helicopters after cease-fire
1991 Stopped Gulf War with Saddam still in power
1984 Tilted toward Iraq in war with Iran. Continued to improve relations with Iraq between end of war in 1988 and invasion of Kuwait in 1990
1981 Condemned Israel's destruction of Osirak nuclear reactor
The INC and PUK (Talibani-led Kurds) went ahead without U.S. support, with initial battlefield success as Iraqi troops surrendered, but the KDP (or Barzani-led Kurds) undercut the offensive. Mr. Lake had Mr. Baer return to Washington to face an FBI investigation of trying to assassinate a foreign leader, namely Saddam Hussein. The following year Saddam invaded the north and wiped out INC and CIA assets.
The Clinton administration repeatedly sounded an uncertain trumpet, for example shooting up an empty intelligence building after Saddam tried to assassinate former President Bush during a 1993 visit to Kuwait. Little wonder the CIA failed on September 11. The scope of the attack was indeed hard to imagine, Mr. Baer writes, "The point is, though, that we didn't even try to find out what was headed our way."
Republicans were also culpable. During the 1991 Gulf War, the first President Bush gave a speech saying, "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside." Both Shiites in the South and Kurds in the north responded with widespread insurrections. But U.S. aircraft controlling the skies let the Iraqis fly combat helicopters to suppress the revolts.
During cease-fire negotiations, General Norman Schwarzkopf had agreed to let the Iraqi military fly helicopters because bridges and roads were damaged. "That seemed like a reasonable request," he told David Frost, "And within my charter, I felt it was something that it was perfectly all right to grant." But even after the helicopters dropped sulfuric acid and napalm on civilians, the Bush administration let this decision stand; the president's press secretary reported "We do not intend to involve ourselves in the internal conflicts in Iraq."
This followed the logic of stopping the Gulf War offensive at the border with Kuwait, indeed returning captured territory to Saddam. Given an opportunity to press on toward Baghdad and "regime change," administration decision-makers, in particular Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, worried about press coverage depicting the retreating Iraqi troops trapped on a "highway of death." As the insurrections developed, the U.S. eventually provided some protection with "no-fly" zones in both the north and the south, periodically exchanging fire with Iraqi air defense for the last dozen years.
Controversy still swirls, too, around what message the U.S. conveyed to Saddam before his invasion of Kuwait. An Iraqi transcript showed U.S. ambassador April Glaspie telling him eight days before the 1990 invasion, "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." She later testified that the Iraqis left out a warning insisting that such disputes be settled in "a non-violent manner."
Ambassador Glaspie's testimony, however, graphically displayed the State Department "mindset" about Iraq. Though Saddam had already gassed the Kurds and would execute any opposition leader who saw her, policy was directed at turning him into a moderate.
This notion took root during the Iraq-Iran war, and continued after its end in 1988. After the hostage-taking at the American embassy, the U.S. saw Iran as the greater threat, and sought a balance of power in the Gulf. In the five years before the invasion of Kuwait, the House Government Operations Committee found, the U.S. approved 771 export licenses to sell Saddam some $1.5 billion in equipment with military uses, including some that would help develop weapons of mass destruction. The result of the balance was to make enemies of both sides.
Even the hawks of the Reagan administration got into the act when the Israelis bombed Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor, thus aborting his then-current nuclear program. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick joined the United Nations vote condemning Israel. The Israelis had of course used American-built planes, with a new delivery impending. The Americans did delay the delivery for a time, but in his memoirs President Reagan says he agreed Saddam would use the reactor to build a bomb.
The lesson of this second Iraqi war is that the U.S. cannot afford an on-again, off-again attention span, whether from fear of "quagmires" or notions of realpolitik. Withdrawal of American power creates a vacuum into which forces of instability flow. History has thrust the U.S. into peacekeeping; its elites now have to learn to do it without having to bust up the same real estate every dozen years or so.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org>
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"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'