| Saddam Hussein (centre) in Baghdad on Friday. (Reuters)
Washington, April 5 (Reuters): “Evil tyrant” or tactical ally'
Saddam Hussein has been both to the US over the past 20 years, depending on where it saw its interests.
In the 1980s, when the enemy was Iran’s revolutionary spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iraq was at war with Iran, Washington courted and bankrolled Saddam as a foil to Iranian expansionism.
Knowledge that Iraq was using chemical weapons, and suspicions it was trying to build a nuclear bomb, did not stand in the way of a marriage of convenience or billions of dollars in US agricultural loan guarantees and trade credits.
“Iraq was the lesser of two evils,” said Raymond Tanter, who served on the US National Security Council staff from 1981 to 1982 and took the position at the time that Washington should not support either side.
“Cozying up to Saddam Hussein was not such a brilliant idea, but I understand why it happened,” said Tanter, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Times have changed,” he added. “You have to adapt your policies to the nature of the threat.”
Other scholars see the demonisation of Saddam by President George W. Bush as something more fundamental.
Ted Carpenter, vice-president for defence and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington and a critic of the war on Iraq, argues that US foreign policy needs to demonise erstwhile allies who become adversaries.
Saddam, he said, has fit that mould since his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 when he became a “client who got greedy”.
“From that point on, as is typical with American foreign policy, he had to become evil incarnate,” Cato said.
“Whether it’s Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic or now Saddam, it’s never a fight over US interests,” said Carpenter.
Instead, he said in a seeming dig at Bush’s rhetoric: “it’s always a fight against Manichean evil”.
Mani was a 3rd century Persian sage who regarded the world as divided between the forces of light and darkness.
Bush went to war to topple Saddam under a new doctrine, forged after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, that says the United States has the right to stage a pre-emptive strike on any country it deems a threat.
In Saddam’s case, Bush has argued that Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction not only threaten the region but could also end up in the hands of groups like al Qaida and be turned on the US.
“These are sacrifices in a high calling — the defence of our nation and the peace of the world,” Bush told US Marines in a speech on Thursday.
“Overcoming evil is the noblest cause and the hardest work.”
It was not always that way with Iraq.
Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, met Saddam in Baghdad in December 1983 during the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted for eight years, when he served as West Asia envoy for President Ronald Reagan.
Recently declassified US documents show the state department knew at that time that Iraq was making “almost daily” use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces and that the CIA suspected Saddam would try to build a nuclear bomb.
Rumsfeld was filmed shaking Saddam’s hand and, according to a US diplomatic cable, the Iraqi President drew “obvious pleasure” from a letter Rumsfeld handed him from Reagan.
“Our initial assessment is that (the) meeting marked (a) positive milestone in (the) development of US-Iraqi relations,” the cable concluded.
Within a year of that meeting, Iraq and the US had re-established diplomatic ties after a 17-year break.
Critics of US policy toward Iraq in the 1980s argue that American money and technology, directly or indirectly, helped Saddam pursue his weapons programmes.
Until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, hefty US agricultural loan guarantees and trade credits flowed to Iraq, despite strong evidence of severe human rights abuses and non-conventional weapons programmes.
President George Bush, father of the current president, signed a waiver on grounds of national interest in January 1990 to override a congressional block on trade credits to Iraq that lawmakers imposed after Saddam used poison gas against Iraqi Kurds.
Bush senior had this comment in April 1990, after Saddam threatened to use chemical weapons against Israel:“I don't think it helps peace in the Middle East”.
The rights group Middle East Watch, in a report on Iraq that month, said that because of Iraq’s oil wealth and the possibilities for trade, Washington put “the nurturing of newly friendly relations with Saddam Hussein's government well ahead of the violent and repressive nature of his regime”.
Rumsfeld has argued his main purpose in meeting Saddam in 1983 was to ensure Iraq did not “make mischief” in West Asia after a truck bomb in Beirut killed 241 US Marines.
He says he raised Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces in talks with Tariq Aziz, then Iraq’s foreign minister.
And he denies the US misjudged Saddam. “No, not at all,” Rumsfeld told NBC’s Meet the Press last month. “I mean, people are what they are.”