"Saddam Hussein is a man who is willing to gas his own people, willing to use weapons of mass destruction against Iraq citizens. "--President Bush, March 22, 2002
"As he said, any person that would gas his own people is a threat to the world."--Scott McClellan, White House spokesman, May 31, 2002
Over the past six months President Bush has repeatedly reminded the public that Saddam Hussein gassed his own people. What he has neglected to mention is that at the time Saddam did so the United States did nothing to stop him. Indeed, as Samantha Power makes clear in an account in her new book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, the United States refused even to condemn the killing of civilians.
The infamous gas attack took place in mid-March 1988 in the Kurdish town of Halabja, the crossroads of an ongoing battle waged between a joint Kurdish-Iranian force and the Iraqi army. Caught in the middle were innocent civilians, including women and children.
From Power's account:
"It was different from the other bombs," one witness remembered. "There was a huge sound, a huge flame and it had very destructive ability. If you touched one part of your body that had been burned, your hand burned also. It caused things to catch fire." The planes flew low enough for the petrified Kurds to take note of the markings, which were those of the Iraqi air force. Many families tumbled into primitive air-raid shelters they had built outside their homes. When the gasses seeped through the cracks, they poured out into the streets in a panic. There they found friends and family frozen in time like a modern version of Pompeii: slumped a few yards behind a baby carriage, caught permanently holding the hand of a loved one or shielding a child from the poisoned air, or calmly collapsed behind a car steering wheel.
Halabja was the "most notorious and the deadliest single gas attack against the Kurds," killing 5,000 civilians. But as Power notes, it was just one of some forty chemical assaults staged by Iraq against the Kurdish people.
The official U.S. government reaction to Halabja? At first the government downplayed the reports, which were coming from Iranian sources. Once the media had confirmed the story and pictures of the dead villagers had been shown on television, the U.S. denounced the use of gas. Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, "Everyone in the administration saw the same reports you saw last night. They were horrible, outrageous, disgusting and should serve as a reminder to all countries of why chemical warfare should be banned." But as Power observes, "The United States issued no threats or demands." The government's objection was that Saddam had used gas to kill his own citizens, not that he had killed them. Indeed, subsequently State Department officials indicated that both sides--Iraq and Iran--were responsible perhaps for the gassing of civilian Kurds.
On August 20, 1988 Iran and Iraq ended their war. Within days Iraq again gassed the Kurds. A front-page story in the New York Times summed up the purpose of the latest assault: "Iraq has begun a major offensive [meant to] crush the 40-year-long insurgency once and for all." After a delay of weeks Secretary of State George Shultz condemned the assaults. But the United States again failed to act, even as hundreds of thousands of Kurds were being uprooted from their homes and forced into the mountains, tens of thousands killed. By 1989, says Powers, 4,049 Kurdish villages had been destroyed.
Why had the United States not acted? That was what William Safire and a few other columnists in the media wanted to know. Years later James Baker explained:
Diplomacy--as well as the American psyche--is fundamentally biased toward "improving relations." Shifting a policy away from cooperation toward confrontation is always a more difficult proposition--particularly when support for existing policy is as firmly embedded among various constituencies and bureaucratic interests as was the policy toward Iraq."
Domestic special interests had a stake in the survival of Saddam. Exports to Iraq of American agricultural products were large: 23 percent of U.S. rice exports went to Iraq; a million tons of wheat. When members of Congress threatened to pass a sanctions bill against Iraq, the White House opposed the measure.
In 1989 President George Herbert Walker Bush took power and ordered a review of United States policy toward Iraq. According to Power:
The study ... deemed Iraq a potentially helpful ally in containing Iran and nudging the Middle East peace process ahead. The "Guidelines for U.S.-Iraq Policy" swiped at proponents of sanctions on Capital Hill and a few human rights advocates who had begun lobbying within the State Department. The guidelines noted that despite support from the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, and State Departments for a profitable, stable U.S.-Iraq relationship, "parts of Congress and the Department would scuttle even the most benign and beneficial areas of the relationship, such as agricultural exports." The Bush administration would not shift to a policy of dual containment of both Iraq and Iran. Vocal American businesses were adamant that Iraq was a source of opportunity, not enmity. The White House did all it could to create an opening for these companies"Had we attempted to isolate Iraq," Secretary of State James Baker wrote later, "we would have also isolated American businesses, particularly agricultural interests, from significant commercial opportunities."
Powers mordantly comments: "Hussein locked up another $1 billion in agricultural credits. Iraq became the ninth largest purchaser of U.S. farm products.... As Baker put it gently in his memoirs, 'Our administration's review of the previous Iraq policy was not immune from domestic economic considerations.'"