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Deterring Democracy in Iraq

Ali Wyne

The recent anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 offers us a unique opportunity to meditate on the state of affairs in the world, and, in particular, on the foreign policy issue which will play a decisive role in November’s elections: the United States’ decision to invade Iraq. President Bush has contended, on several occasions, that it was the United States’ moral obligation to defend and spread democracy in a nation that had been ravaged by a barbarous dictator, and that we could not sit idly by while the international community vacillated. His statements raise a very simple question: if the United States truly desired that democracy take root in Iraq, why did it deter it for over two decades?

Saddam Hussein was a relatively unknown figure when he seized power in 1979, but he quickly established himself as an absolute and ruthless dictator; in fact, his first major act upon entering office was to order the execution of several political rivals in the ruling Ba’ath party. President Jimmy Carter scarcely voiced any protest as atrocities such as these continued. His successor, President Ronald Reagan, displayed even greater indifference, even though the preeminent human rights organization, Amnesty International, detailed numerous human rights violations perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s regime throughout the 1980s: “deaths under torture,” “execution of children and young people,” and “mass executions,” to name only a few. In fact, whereas Carter had been passively tolerant of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Reagan was actively supportive; in 1982, the State Department removed Iraq from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though Iraq had already established itself as a terrorist state.

In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran to crush a center of Islamic fundamentalism and to acquire more control over the Persian Gulf’s oil reserves. During the ensuing strife, Iraq’s armies deployed tabun, sarin, nerve gas, and mustard gas to great effect against Iranian troops. It is known that the Reagan administration aided Iraq as it continued to illegally use these and other chemical weapons. More disturbingly, however, declassified documents reveal that it supplied Iraq with biological weapons -- what a 1994 Senate Committee report termed a “a veritable witch’s brew of biological materials” -- up until 1989. In 1984, a U.S. State Department spokesman stated that Iraq’s use of chemical weapons would have “[no] effect on [America’s] recent initiatives to expand commercial relationships with Iraq across a broad range...” Shockingly, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq that same year. These few facts constitute a mere fraction of a growing body of declassified evidence which sheds light on the unnerving symbiosis between the United States and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In 1988, the same year in which Iraq and Iran signed a ceasefire, Iraq gassed nearly 5,000 Kurdish civilians in Halabja -- again with United States complicity. In September 2002, Newsweek reported that the Reagan administration provided Iraq with “helicopters to transport Iraqi officials... The helicopters, some American officials later surmised, were used to spray poison gas on the Kurds.” President Reagan defeated a bill, the Prevention of Genocide Act, which would have highlighted the Halabja massacre and pressured Iraq’s government to institute significant reforms.

It surpasses imagination that the State Department did not list Iraq as a state sponsor of terrorism between 1980 and 1989, even though it contravened the Geneva War Protocols and perpetrated an unconscionable massacre; it was not until it invaded Kuwait in 1990, thereby threatening America’s vital interests in Middle Eastern petroleum reserves, that it was designated a state sponsor of terrorism.

In the First Gulf War, the United States army deliberately and systematically destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure, including many of its major roads, bridges, water storage facilities, sewer and electrical systems, schools, hospitals, and a staggering 80 percent of its farms: After the war, General Norman Schwarzkopf ensured that Saddam Hussein remained in power, permitting Iraqi helicopters to slaughter rebelling Shiites and Kurds and preventing Republican Guard units who were planning to depose the dictator from reaching their weapons caches.

The United Nations’ imposition of sanctions, primarily spurred forth by the United States and Britain, compounded the catastrophic destruction that Iraq had sustained during the First Gulf War. Perhaps the human cost of these sanctions could be partially forgiven, or at least rationalized, had they accomplished their goal of disarming Iraq. However, the former head of UNSCOM, Richard Butler, stated that they were “utterly counterproductive for this disarmament purpose.” The people of Iraq, who imported 70 percent of their food supplies before the war, suffered severe malnutrition, which proved particularly detrimental to children. Without critical water and medical supplies, rates of diseases such as leukemia and cancer soared. UNICEF’s 2003 Report on the State of the World’s Children found that “Iraq’s regression over the past decade [was] by far the most severe of the 193 countries surveyed,” as its child death rate had nearly tripled. Conservative estimates suggest that sanctions resulted in the deaths of 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians, half of them children: former United Nations humanitarian coordinator Denis Halliday believed that they constituted “genocide.”

I present my arguments not as a cynical leftist, but as a concerned citizen who passionately loves his country and wishes to see it adopt more prudent, sustainable policies. While it is legitimate to condemn Saddam Hussein for his barbarity, it is equally crucial to understand how the United States enabled him. To be fair, several other nations, including France, Germany, and Russia, appear to have illegally profited from Saddam Hussein’s regime through the Oil for Food Program, and for their corruption, they are rightly castigated. However, it is escapist to criticize the failings and hypocrisies of other nations while justifying, or ignoring those of our own.

While it cannot right its past wrongdoings, the United States can and must sincerely support Iraqis as they attempt to rebuild their nation and unite their fragmented identities. Whether it will do so is debatable, and recent developments are not promising. That said, however, it is never too late to change course. For the dreams of Iraq, for the reputation of this country, and for the safety of all of humanity, let us all say a prayer for Baghdad.

Ali Wyne is a member of the Class of 2008.