The 2003 Iraq Invasion Was the Culmination of a Long BetrayalRoundup
tags: foreign policy, Iraq War
Noah Kulwin is a co-host of the political history podcast Blowback and is a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a climax, not a turning point. An excursion into the deeper past helps explain why it happened and the terrible costs in both lives and treasure that resulted from such hubris. Seen from this long-term perspective, the war wasn’t a mere “mistake” or strategic blunder, a stubbed toe on the path to human flourishing under the aegis of American power. It was a catastrophe decades in the making.
The turning point was 1979. Saudi Arabia and Iran were at that time the twin pillars of Western oil production. To compensate for a growing trade deficit, US and European governments sold Riyadh and Tehran weapons systems and advanced technology. As Michael Klare writes in American Arms Supermarket (1984), the sale of firepower was pursued “with particular vigor after 1974, when the Opec nations imposed a fourfold increase in oil prices and America faced a mammoth deficit in its foreign trade accounts”. As a result of “aggressive marketing by US arms firms and large purchases by Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States sold $49.8bn worth of munitions to foreign countries in fiscal [years] 1974-77”.
Shorn of its empire, the UK was a willing helpmeet and fellow armourer of foreign regimes. Statistics assembled by the now-defunct US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency estimated that Middle Eastern countries received $2.1bn-worth of weapons from the UK between 1975 and 1979, while the Americans delivered $13.7bn. Klare calculates that in the decade before the revolution in Iran, 28 per cent of all Pentagon-authorised arms sales had been to the Iranian government.
After the downfall of the Pahlavi dynasty and the rise to power of Ruhollah Khomeini, that arsenal went from being wielded by a trusted ally, into the hands of an enemy Shia Islamist state. For Washington and London, secular, Sunni-led Iraq thus became a strategic asset aligned against Iran. Although Iraq had been a Soviet client, Saddam Hussein, the vicious leader of the Baath Party, was eager to deal with the West as well.
It was obvious from the beginning that Hussein was an incongruous accomplice for the US and UK. Long-standing allies Saudi Arabia and Israel both viewed Iraq as their primary regional antagonist. When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in the autumn of 1980, the American dilemma of which side to back was reputedly summed up by Henry Kissinger: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” But by 1982, after Iraq’s campaign had stalled, the West “tilted” to Baghdad and began to support Hussein more openly amid fears that Iran might win. That year, the US State Department dropped Iraq from the list of state sponsors of terror. Two years later, Iraqi-US diplomatic relations were formally restored. In the spring of 1988, according to a 2013 Foreign Policy report on declassified CIA files, “US intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.”
The Iran-Iraq conflict ended in August 1988 as the longest conventional war of the 20th century. The UK played both sides, but in 1987 the Conservative government expelled Iran’s Westminster-based military procurement organisation following the attack on the British oil tanker Gentle Breeze in the Persian Gulf. On balance, like the other major Western arms exporters, the bulk of Western materiel fed into that war went to Iraq.
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