ClichÃ©s are painful devices. When talking about a dictator as cruel as Saddam Hussein, the clichÃ© of the United States’ chickens coming home to roost is even more painful.
The recent sight of Saddam before a Baghdad court no doubt gave some of us consolation. Here was a terrible henchman we helped bring to justice. Problem is, our foreign policy helped magnify the horror of his rule.
President Bush recently justified the Iraq war, along with his invocations linking 9/11 to Saddam’s removal, with this bold statement: “Some have argued that extremism has been strengthened by the actions of our coalition in Iraq, claiming that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2001'and al Qaeda attacked us anyway.” Strictly speaking, this is true. Historically, it’s a lie calculated to obscure the cause and effect of events that brought us where we are today.
This long story made short begins in 1951, when Mohammad Mossadeq became premier of Iran. He nationalized oil reserves and spurned the interests of Britain and the United States. Bold moves to be sure. Too bold, in fact, for Britain and the United States, who in 1953 deposed Mossadeq in a CIA-organized coup that brought Shah Pahlavi to power. Many Iranians never forgot our meddling and in 1979 students seized the American embassy, taking 52 hostages held 444 days.
We, in turn, never forgot our national humiliation. We also feared the rise of Islamic revolutions in the Middle East. So we nestled up to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, a man locked in a savage war with our now sworn enemy, Iran. In fact, we institutionalized our backing of Saddam in the 1983 National Security Decision Directive 114. More than 60 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency officers gave Iraq information on Iranian military deployments. Our CIA happily obliged Saddam with satellite photographs of the war front. It’s especially chilling to know that then special Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld twice flew to Baghdad'Dec. 29, 1983 and March 24, 1984'to lock hands with Saddam. Were we not solidly in Saddam’s corner? Ask then Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who stated our national interests in 1984 as “preventing an Iranian victory, and continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq.”
Did it matter then that Saddam murdered thousands of Shias and Kurds all the way up to his 1990 invasion of Kuwait? No. Did it matter that our assistance helped Saddam kill up to 730,000 Iranians? Even if our 52 hostages were returned alive, we sought brutal retribution against Iran.
When Saddam’s brutality failed to meet our interests, we of course punished him. Or, rather, the people of Iraq. By May 1996, U.N. and U.S.-backed sanctions against Iraq resulted in the death of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children. As documented in Peter L. Bergen’s book Holy War, Inc., this helped fuel al-Qaeda’s terrorism. “A heart that kills hundreds of children definitely knows no words,” Osama bin Laden told CNN May 10, 1997. “Our people in the Arabian Peninsula will send him [President Clinton] a message with no words because he does not know any words.” Bush got that message instead. And round it goes today.
None of this serves to condone terrorism in response to U.S. foreign policy, but it might help us realize that those policies don’t exist in a vacuum. Like cancer, terrorism must be understood before it can be cured. As former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara learned after Vietnam, “Empathize with your enemy.” We most certainly were in Iraq before Sept. 11. Saddam, a monster partly of our making, stands as proof.