Circle in the Sand
Why We Went Back to Iraq
Friday, November 24, 2006
THE WOOLLY MAMMOTH
The Americans were coming, and Saddam Hussein was on his best behavior.
He had good reason to be circumspect on this morning of April 12, 1990. The preceding two weeks had been bad ones for Iraq's relations with the United States, and Iraq faced the likely threat of U.S. sanctions. And better than anyone else within his narrow ruling circle, Saddam knew that sanctions were a prospect that Iraq's decimated economy and bankrupt treasury could ill afford.
The Iraqi ruler's longtime obsession with acquiring weapons of mass destruction had fueled this latest flare-up with Washington. On March 28, Britain had arrested five men accused of trying to smuggle U.S.-made kryton switches-sophisticated devices used only for detonating nuclear warheads-to Iraq. Three days later, the Washington Post reported that U.S. Customs had intercepted a similar shipment of nuclear detonators the previous year. On April 2, Saddam boasted in a televised speech to the Iraqi people that their country's arsenal of chemical weapons was on par with that of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Iraqi ruler promised his subjects, "By Allah, we will make the fire eat up half of Israel if it tries to do anything against Iraq." Saddam spoke cryptically in his speech of a special "double chemical" that Iraq possessed-to military and intelligence experts, an unmistakable reference to a binary chemical agent like the poison gas VX.
Tensions had escalated even further in the ten days since Saddam's speech had sparked widespread criticism of Iraq in the American media. On April 5 the Bush administration had expelled an Iraqi diplomat for plotting to murder a number of Iraqi dissidents who had taken refuge in the United States. Iraq retaliated by expelling an American diplomat from Baghdad. Britain's ambassador to Baghdad had already been recalled a month earlier, in protest over the hanging of British journalist Farzad Bazoft, whom Iraq had accused of spying for Israel, after a one-day mockery of a trial. The case had enflamed British public opinion and convinced British prime minister Margaret Thatcher that the Iraqi dictator was an incorrigible menace. As if having the Iron Lady furious at him were not enough, on April 7 Saddam had responded to the Bush administration's expulsion of his diplomat with a speech sharply criticizing President George Bush.
But even Saddam Hussein finally seemed to have realized he had gone too far with his bombastic rhetoric threatening to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons. While he could not afford to be seen by the Iraqi people as backing down in the face of pressure from the West, Saddam recognized the need to adopt a more moderate posture in his backstage dealings with the United States. Fortunately, a group of distinguished Americans was visiting Iraq on this day, and Saddam planned to capitalize on the opportunity to repair the damage to his image in Washington.
Senator Bob Dole had long been planning to lead a delegation of senators from farming and ranching states to Iraq, a routine visit to discuss trade opportunities. Several months earlier the Bush administration had approved $1 billion in export credits for Iraq from the U.S. government's Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), and the Kansas Republican wanted Iraq to spend most of the CCC money on American agricultural products, above all on Kansas wheat (for which Iraq was already one of the world's largest customers). However, the deterioration of U.S.-Iraqi relations in the weeks preceding the Dole team's visit had greatly increased the stakes for both countries. Before leaving Washington, Dole had been briefed by Secretary of State James Baker on the points that President Bush wanted conveyed to Saddam.
Accompanied by four other senators-fellow Republicans Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Frank Murkowski of Alaska, and James McClure of Idaho; and Ohio Democrat Howard Metzenbaum-Dole arrived at Saddam's residence in Mosul with a small coterie that included the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie. The decision to meet in Mosul, the old Ottoman capital of northern Iraq, rather than at Saddam's massive presidential palace complex in downtown Baghdad, had been made by the Iraqi leader himself-an effort to lend a more intimate atmosphere to the proceedings.
A twenty-year veteran of the Foreign Service who had spent most of her diplomatic career in the Middle East, Glaspie immediately realized that Saddam must have attached great importance to this meeting, because he was going out of his way to be as accommodating as possible. Grandly, he offered to provide the visiting senators with a helicopter tour of northern Iraq, lush and green at that time of year, after their meeting. Glaspie, who had met with Saddam on several occasions, was surprised by this uncharacteristic goodwill gesture from the normally imperious Iraqi leader. Fluent in Arabic, she also noticed that Saddam was using the formal, polite form of the language to address the senators rather than the more guttural Tikriti dialect in which he customarily spoke.
If Saddam's demeanor was out of character, the substance of his remarks was even more so. He had obviously reflected carefully on what he wanted to say, Glaspie would later report back to her superiors in Washington. Claiming that he only wanted good relations with the United States, Saddam scrolled through the litany of charges that the U.S. government had lodged against him in recent weeks. Denying that Iraq had tried to acquire kryton switches for nuclear weapons, Saddam produced a thick dossier of Iraqi government documents that he claimed proved Iraq's noninvolvement in the affair. Conveniently enough, all of the documents in the dossier had been translated into English for the senators to read on their trip home. Moving on to the matter of the diplomat accused of conspiring to assassinate Iraqi exiles on American soil, Saddam assured the senators that he, Saddam, had personally conducted an investigation and determined that the man was innocent of any wrongdoing. It was obvious, he concluded, that these charges were all part of a calculated campaign against Iraq by the United States in collusion with its ally Israel.
Dole interrupted, "If there is a campaign against Iraq, President Bush is not a part of it," he said. "He wants better relations, and the United States wants better relations with Iraq." Dole added for the benefit of the others in the room that he had conveyed the same message privately to Saddam earlier, when the two of them had spoken by phone. Saddam appeared momentarily taken aback, then pleased by the directness of Dole's statement. "That is good enough for me," he told the Americans.
As the atmosphere in the room grew noticeably more relaxed, the Iraqi leader even offered something akin to an apology for his own speech attacking President Bush five days earlier. Glaspie was surprised; this was uncharacteristic behavior indeed from Saddam. In the same spirit, Dole apologized for an editorial criticizing the Iraqi regime for human rights violations, which had been broadcast by the Voice of America several months earlier. The editorial had been unauthorized, Dole assured Saddam, and the offending VOA staffer had been fired. Saddam was even more pleased by this piece of news.
Dole's colleague Alan Simpson chimed in, "I believe your problem is with the Western media, not with the U.S. government, because you are isolated from the media and the press," he said. Simpson gamely tried to explain some of the facts of life about the American media, as he saw them, to Saddam. "The press is spoiled and conceited," the lanky Wyoming Republican drawled. "All the journalists consider themselves brilliant political scientists. They do not want to see anything succeeding or achieving its objectives. My advice to you is that you allow those bastards to come here and see things for themselves."
Saddam then launched into a rambling justification for his speech threatening Israel with chemical weapons. Reverting to a more typical tone of voice, Saddam said that he would not apologize for claiming a right to "self-defense" against the Israelis. If Israel attacks with nuclear weapons, he told the suddenly attentive American delegation, Iraq would respond with binary chemical weapons. "Even if Baghdad is pulverized, Iraqi field commanders have their orders" to launch chemical weapons, the Iraqi ruler declared somberly. Saddam shrugged. "What else is Iraq expected to do? Iraq must try to deter."
Coming from Saddam, this was no empty boast. As everyone in the room was aware, Iraq was believed to have used chemical weapons against Iranian troops on numerous occasions during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Of greater concern, Saddam had also used chemical weapons against his own people. Only two years earlier, during the winter of 1987-88, the Iraqi army had repeatedly used chemical weapons to suppress a rebellion by the Kurdish population of northern Iraq. The most notorious attack, outside the town of Halabja in March 1988, had claimed the lives of over five thousand civilians, many of them women and children. The visiting senators were all familiar with this recent history. Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds had been the topic of extensive hearings on Capitol Hill and were documented in an investigative report prepared by the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Having rattled this saber, Saddam stopped speaking and invited the visitors to ask him their questions. Not surprisingly, the question that was top of mind for Dole's delegation was the obvious one: Did Iraq also have nuclear weapons?
In a conversation that lasted the better part of an hour, Saddam repeatedly denied that Iraq possessed a nuclear bomb, though he pointedly refused to deny that it was conducting research to acquire one. He also denied that Iraq had biological weapons, but again demurred on the question of whether Iraq was conducting research in this area. If Iraq did have a nuclear device or biological weapons, Saddam reasoned with the senators, the country would announce its capability to the world since that would maximize deterrence for Iraq. Falling back on a favorite hobbyhorse of the Iraqi regime, Saddam dramatically announced to his guests that Iraq was ready to give up all of its existing chemical weapons, sign a declaration making the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, and even permit voluntary inspections of its weapons facilities-provided, of course, that Israel was willing to agree to the same conditions and give up its nuclear arsenal. Glaspie frowned in annoyance at this ploy. Anticipating that Saddam would broach this very topic, she had taken pains before the meeting to remind Tariq Aziz, Saddam's puckish foreign minister, that the United States was opposed as a matter of long-standing policy to any linkage of nuclear and chemical weapons issues.
Nevertheless, despite Saddam's unapologetic admission that Iraq possessed chemical weapons and was prepared to use them, the meeting ended on a cordial note. Saddam had achieved his objective: He had persuaded the visiting senators that the president of Iraq was a reasonable leader, and this was the message they would take back to Washington. Toward the end of the three-hour meeting, Dole voiced a promise to Saddam from President Bush that the senator had been given back in Washington, that the Bush administration would oppose any attempt by Congress to place economic sanctions on Iraq. The senators pledged their own opposition to sanctions. The lone Democrat in Dole's delegation, Howard Metzenbaum, said to Saddam, "After listening to you for about an hour, I realize that you are a strong and an intelligent man and that you want peace." Reminding Saddam that he was Jewish and a strong supporter of Israel, the Ohio senator continued: "If a certain shift in your thinking makes you concentrate on the peace we need in the Middle East, there will be no other leader in the Middle East who can be compared with you." A week later, back on the Senate floor, Dole echoed Metzenbaum's remarks: "We asked Hussein a number of difficult questions. I think we came away feeling that this is an intelligent man."
* * *
But if Saddam Hussein had succeeded in persuading some American officials that he was an intelligent man who wanted peace, his inflammatory rhetoric in the spring of 1990 had caused others to arrive at the opposite conclusion. At the State Department, Dennis Ross was one of several officials who were beginning to see a disturbing pattern emerge in Saddam's recent behavior.
Ross occupied one of the key foreign policy jobs in the U.S. government: director of the Policy Planning Staff, the secretary of state's personal think tank, which was responsible for identifying the long-term strategic challenges for American diplomacy. A youthful Californian whose owlish glasses and thoughtful cadences of speech gave him an almost scholarly air, Ross had a PhD in political science from UCLA, where he had written his doctoral thesis on Soviet politics. His real passion, however, was the history and politics of the Middle East, a subject to which he had devoted a lifetime of study. Ross enjoyed an unusual degree of influence within the councils of the Bush administration, owing to the fact that he had been George Bush's principal foreign policy adviser during the 1988 presidential campaign. At State, he was one of only a handful of aides who had direct access to Secretary Baker at all times.
Like virtually all of the Bush administration's top foreign policy figures, Ross worked almost exclusively on managing the end of the Cold War in Europe after the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. This had left the State Department bureaucracy to oversee policy toward Iraq, which essentially meant a continuation of the policy that had been put in place after George Bush's accession to the White House in 1989. National Security Directive 26, the official distillation of U.S. policy toward countries in the Persian Gulf, had been drafted by the National Security Council and signed by the president on October 2, 1989. It called for closer U.S. ties to Iraq as a counterweight to Iran's influence in the region. NSD 26 expressly called for the United States to use economic aid, such as export credits, to nurture closer ties between the two countries. "Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East," it asserted. "The United States Government should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to moderate its behavior and to increase our influence with Iraq."
The directive acknowledged the WMD proliferation threat from Iraq. It warned that "the Iraqi leadership must recognize that any illegal use of chemical and/or biological weapons will lead to economic and political sanctions, for which we would seek the broadest possible support from our allies and friends." The same held true of Iraq's nuclear research programs: "Any breach by Iraq of IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards in its nuclear program will result in a similar response." Notably, however, NSD 26 mentioned only the United States responding with sanctions in the context of Iraq actually using weapons of mass destruction, primarily its chemical munitions. It did not address the issue of Iraq's existing stocks of such weapons, or identify their elimination as an objective of American policy.
Ross now began to believe that both the policy itself and the lack of attention paid to Iraq at the Cabinet level may have been a mistake. "When Saddam gave his speech where he talked about burning Israel, it made me wake up and say, 'Maybe there is a problem here,'" he would recall later.