How Did Iraq and the United States Become Enemies?

History Q & A

Mr. Buzzanco is associate professor of history at the University of Houston and author of Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era; Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life; and co-editor, with Marilyn Young, of A Companion to the Vietnam War.

While relations with Iraq have virtually dominated American foreign policy considerations for the past decade, and serve as the current casus belli of the Bush administration, the United States has a much longer history of involvement with that nation, a background which provides essential perspective on today’s crisis and Washington’s role in Iraqi politics over the past half-century.

America’s interest in the Middle East grew exponentially after World War II because of oil. The Middle East was serving as a pipeline for British and French empires prior to the war, but the U.S. quickly came to dominate the petroleum resources of the region; by 1944 American corporations controlled over 40 percent of Middle East oil reserves, and by 1955 U.S. companies were producing over 50 percent of oil from the region, and providing Europe with over 90 percent of its oil imports.

Of course, such economic interests would require political hegemony as well, and the United States acted forcefully in the postwar era to consolidate control over Middle Eastern states. In 1953, the CIA organized a successful coup against Iran’s nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, who was planning to nationalize oil resources, and in 1955, the U.S. facilitated the establishment of the Baghdad Pact, an alliance between Iraq and other Middle Eastern states to contain the Soviet Union and Arab nationalism, as well as to coordinate military, political and economic affairs in the region.

At this time, Iraq, under the leadership of King Faisal, was a reliable U.S. ally, but the specter of Arab nationalism, represented by Egypt’s President Gamel Abdel Nasser, would cause dramatic changes in Baghdad. In July 1958, a nationalist coup led by General Abdel Karim Kassim ousted Faisal and the new government maintained friendly relations with Nasser. Later that year, however, President Dwight Eisenhower sent 14,000 troops into Lebanon to “restore order” and Kassim got the message, assuring the U.S. that its interests in Iraq were safe and distancing his regime from Egypt, but also removing Iraq from, and thus ending, the Baghdad Pact.

Kassim began a repression of the Iraqi Left and many officers, including Saddam Hussein, fled to Egypt and elsewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Kassim himself was ousted and assassinated in a 1963 coup led by officers of the Ba’ath Party [The Arab Socialist Renaissance Party], who, however, lost their upper hand to more radical officers and could not hold on to power. Reportedly, American intelligence operatives began to cooperate with Ba’ath officers, providing them with names of alleged communists and other radicals, who were murdered en masse. Then, five years later, Ba’athists successfully took control of government with Saddam Hussein as a minor figure in the government. Through political maneuvering, imprisonment, and murder of his rivals, however, Saddam soon led the regime.

The U.S., though initially supportive of Ba’athist Iraq, turned quickly and began to support separatist Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq in the early 1970s. In 1975, however, the U.S. reached an agreement to seal the border between Iraq and Turkey, the site of Kurdish resistance, and Saddam immediately slaughtered thousands of Kurds, prompting Henry Kissinger’s famous explanation that “covert operations should not be confused with missionary work.”

Just a few years later, Iraqi-American relations reached their high point. As Ayotallah Khomenei’s Islamic Revolution took hold in Iran, the United States saw Teheran as its main adversary in the Middle East, as did Iraq. Consequently, with huge levels of American support–over $40 billion in weapons and technology through the 1980s, with many transactions “off book”–Iraq fought against Iran for nearly a decade. In the latter stages of battle, eventually won by Iraq, U.S. officers provided intelligence and tactical advice to the Iraqis, all the while Baghdad was using chemical and biological weapons on the battlefield to suppress the Iranians. Once the war ended, Saddam killed many thousands of his own Kurdish population with chemical weapons. Meanwhile, U.S. economic aid to Iraq increased.

The war against Iran, however, left Iraq with huge debts, which they could only pay through oil exports. The world oil market was in a relative state of over-supply, however, and the neighboring state of Kuwait was pumping large amounts of oil, and he suspected the Kuwaitis of using new technologies to take oil from Iraqi fields. Moreover, Iraq still considered Kuwait part of its own kingdom–the two areas had been artificially separated by British imperial officials in 1922–and wanted easy access to the sea for trade.

In July 1990 Saddam’s diplomats met with the U.S. Ambassador April Glasbie, who told them that Washington would take no position with regard to regional border disputes, a view that Baghdad reasonably assumed was a green light to enter Kuwait, which it did in August 1990. After initial vacillation, President George Bush, bolstered by hawkish advice from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who exhorted him not “to go wobbly,” declared “this will not stand,” and imposed sanctions and bought an international coalition to oppose Iraq. By November 1990, over a half-million American forces had been deployed to Saudi Arabia and the U.N. Security Council had ordered Iraq to evacuate Kuwait by 15 January 1991 or face attack.

Between November and January, the Bush administration prepared for war, rebuffing calls for negotiations at home and abroad and rebuffing Iraqi overtures for diplomacy. Finally, on 16 January, Bush commenced “Operation Desert Storm” which, in short order, devastated Iraq, mostly with a spectacular air war that destroyed Iraqi infrastructure and morale. In late February, Bush unleashed the ground war, which forced a massive Iraqi retreat from Kuwait and ended the war in just 100 hours.

The destruction of January and February 1991 would pale, however, with the devastation of the next decade. Because Saddam Hussein remained in power at the end of the Gulf War, the U.S. and U.N. placed harsh sanctions on Iraq to force the regime to disarm. In the past decade, many Iraqis have died -- with some human-rights groups putting the number close to a million -- because of intolerable health conditions caused by the war and embargoes on basic medical resources. Saddam, despite continuous wrangling with arms inspectors and intensified repression of his own people, has been contained, and poses no threat to outside states.

The American obsession with Saddam remains unabated, though. Most recently, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush administration has been trying to build a consensus on attacking Iraq, offering various rationales for the need to invade Baghdad. Saddam, Bush insists, has been exporting terrorism in conjunction with Al-Queda, has been developing nuclear weapons, and represses his own people. For the first two charges, no evidence exists, while Saddam’s repression against his own, especially the Kurds, has been known for years and tolerated by the U.S.

When observed in historical perspective, current American saber rattling against Iraq has even less justification. The United States has developed relations with Iraq to suit its own purposes, supporting regimes which harm their own citizens, encouraging and funding wars against neighboring states, providing technology for weapons-building, and using Saddam as a justification for war and sanctions. Despite this, Saddam Hussein remains in power, the people of Iraq suffer brutal hardships on a daily basis, and the United States offers no solution except more destruction and chaos.

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More Comments:

Ward Bradford Levingston - 3/2/2006

A follow up to my original post...
My web site has now been relocated to http://www.dhost.info/kinfish/usa/index.html

Tim Fisher - 3/4/2004

Sounds like you will too

Dennis - 12/2/2003

100 voices of reason for you, Saddam-loving numbscull:

“Most of the people in this city, they want to give the Americans a chance. But there are bad people, Saddam’s people, and they do not.”
-- Khalat Awad, an Iraqi man wounded in the blast, New York Times, November 21, 2003

“We have a circulation of 50,000 in Baghdad, another 15,000 in Basra, each edition carrying 12 pages of foreign and Arab news and eight of loc

Emily - 11/11/2003

Well now from that stupid comment do you feel better? Obivously we have some people in this world that don't have a brain.

Erica - 11/10/2003

Well that was a rational and well-thought up reply, wasn't it?

Waqar Jamil - 7/29/2003

I think the Buzzanco article on how the US and Iraq became enemies bears great significance because as pointed out by Levingston, this information is not at all common knowledge that is considered by media outlets. Furthermore, the issue I feel needs to be stressed is that of accountability. In light of accountability the King comment seems pointless. I think war is bad, and I’m not going to support a war because someone like King thinks it will help us win, or that its good for the morale or our soldiers. The point is that US military forces would not be in Iraq if the US government had not decided to support the evil dictator Saddam Hussein.
I also want to reply to the Mason comment. We should not attack Saddam Hussein because he is a “potential,” threat to us. Rather we should stop his attacks on human rights. Firstly, we gave him this “potential.” Secondly, we do not want to be attacked by another country simply because we have the potential to attack them.

Ward Levingston - 5/11/2003

I found Mr Buzzanco's essay to be a concise and informative history of the relationship between the US and Iraq. I'm honestly surprised by how infrequently this information is printed in the mainstream media. With the exception of Eduard Mark's comments on Glasbie and the US position on Saddam Hussein prior to the first Gulf War very few people ever make much effort to refute the claims of US subterfuge in the middle east. I'm glad to see a deeper exploration of the history of the situation with a forum for people to comment.
For those interested I've put together a critique of some US foreign policy decisions at http://kinfish.plala.jp/usa/
Good to have the opportunity to share an opinion with you.

reuben rosales - 4/16/2003

i am going over there to kill iraq

Reuben Rosales - 4/16/2003

i am going to go rape saddam and he is going to like it

reuben rosales - 4/16/2003

i am going over there to kill iraq

Tracy King - 12/30/2002

When a beast is made in such ways as the Iraqi regime has been; it does not matter how it is stopped. The only thing that matters is that it is stopped! Many people have likend this war to the Vietnam war when in all honesty, it deserves to be held in the light of WWII.
The Japanise Government Planned the attack on Pearl Harbor for two years. The reason why is simple, we stopped suppling them for their military needs(oil, steel, ect.). So, Yamamoto started (by order of the Emperor) planning the assault.
Now, our involvment in the Vietnam war was based on a (said to be bogus) attack on one of our destroyer class navy vessels in the gulf of Tonkin. The Vietnam conflict was initially supported by America at large and many young men were inlisting on their own accord. But, by the mid to late sixties the people were starting to protest the war which is a right given to the people. The thing is, the soldiers that went home on furlough saw this happening and were going back to the front with this on thier minds.
The best weapon that a soldier has is not his/her rifle; it's the people at home giving them moral support. The lack of this most needed weapon is devastating to those that are in harms way. If the support was given to the men and women in Vietnam I assure you the number of names on the KIA and MIA lists would be significantly lower than it is.
Being the son of a Vietnam veteran, my family has seen these types of protests before; mark my words they get violent.
My father had to wipe spit off his face before he came home from the airport. This being the case, I WILL NEVER PROTEST AGAINST OUR FIGHTING MEN AND WOMEN! If we are the ones that made Saddam what he is, we have to stop him.

Eduard Mark - 11/1/2002

Professor Buzzanco reflects a common misperception when he states that Ambassador Glaspie give Saddam a "green light" when she told him (not his "diplomats") that the United States took no position on the location of the border between Kuwait and Iraq. This is correct as far as it goes -- but there is a significant omission: Ambassador Glaspie also explained, according to her cable, that the United States very much cared how the dispute was resolved and was opposed to the use of force.
I have read the cable -- a colleague of mine in the Air Force's hisorical office obtained a copy while researching a monograph on the air campaign in the Gulf War -- and can state unequivocably that Ambassador Glaspie's remarks cannot be reasonably construed as even an unwitting invication to Saddam to invade Kuwait. The monograph, written by Dr. Richard G. Davis, has been declassified and will be published in the not distant future. It will contain the relevant portions of the cable.

Chris Long - 10/31/2002

'Who cares if we're justified in fighting them?'

How incredibly ignorant can you be?

Words cannot describe the abject stupidity contained within that simple statement.

Police: 'Who cares if we're justified in arresting Mason?'
Lawyers: 'Who cares if we're justified in prosecuting Mason?'
Jury: 'Who cares if we're justified in finding Mason guilty?'
Judge: 'Who cares if we're justified in imposing the death penalty?'
FBI: 'Who cares if we're justified in labelling his family as enemy combatants and incarcerating them forever?'

But that kind of scenario would just be silly, right?

China in 20 years when they are a power larger than America: 'Who cares if we're justified in fighting the USA? They have been extremely damaging to the world during their tenure as the lone super-power. They have broken more UN resolutions than any other country; they are in violation of at least a dozen treaties; they have used chemical and biological weapons; they are the only country to have ever used Nuclear weapons; they are a de-stabalizing entity and it's simply time to crush them.'

Yeah. I see your point. Justification is highly over-rated.

- Chris

Wait... can you go 'Baaa-aaa' for me once?

Mason - 10/31/2002

I think your article is fine. What is ridiculous is how you portray it as "news" and not "opinion." Plenty of evidence exists about Saddam's weapons program -- even if you haven't seen it. Who cares if we're justified in fighting them? They are a very severe threat to peace in the Middle East and security in the US. Plust they have completely ignored the post-92 war agreements. It's time to crush them, and Saddam.

Bill Henslee - 10/30/2002

One of the incidents that soured relations and has been almost forgotten is the attack on a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf by an Iraqi pilot, using an exocet missile.

The official explanation: a "mistake" rang hollow at the time, but the incident was swept under the rug, much like the Israeli attack on the Liberty some years before. Some speculated that Saddam was testing our resolve to respond to an attack. Would you care to comment on this as an extension of your essay?