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12/05/2002

Saddam, Part I: The Early Days

Almost three years ago I wrote a piece on Saddam Hussein
(12/23/99), focusing on his rise to power. I thought it was a good
time to reissue the column as a new war is undoubtedly
imminent. I have also added some new bits from the great
historian Bernard Lewis.

---

Back in 1999, this is literally how I started the article.

“A friend of mine made the following comment when told I was
writing about Saddam Hussein. ‘What? You mean I should be
worried about this guy again?’ Sorry, Iraq is back in the
spotlight. The national news media may not say much, yet, but
we are going to have to confront Saddam once more before too
long. The UN Security Council recently passed a resolution
requiring that Saddam allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq,
but alas, he said “No.” France, China, Russia and Malaysia
abstained from the vote. The other 11 members (including the
U.S. and Britain) voted “yes.” We have no way of knowing
whether or not Saddam has been building weapons of mass
destruction for the past year without inspectors on the ground.
It’s easy to surmise that he has and that can’t continue.”

Well, that was then, and as we all now know, nothing happened
for another three years.

---

Saddam Hussein was born in 1937 and by the time he was just 22
years of age, he had been forced into exile for his part in an
attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister. In 1963 he
returned home and was then imprisoned in ’64. After his release,
he played a prominent role in the 1968 coup led by the Ba’ath (or
Ba’th) Party. Up to this point Iraq had been governed by a
coalition of civilian and military leadership.

The Ba’th (Resurrection) Party was founded in 1943. It’s appeal
was primarily to the educated class, created by the rapid increase
in schooling, and the members came from the less dominant
segments of society. The major objectives of the Party were
socialism and Arab unity, and it became the chief political force
in both Iraq and Syria.

In 1968, the Ba’thists replaced the existing government with a
Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and in 1979 Saddam
became its chairman.

Meanwhile, the same year Saddam took the reins saw the clerics
of Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, topple the Shah, as the U.S.
became embroiled in the hostage crisis. The new regime in Iran
appealed to Muslims everywhere to restore the authority of Islam
in society, while the new leadership in Baghdad feared that this
would have a special appeal to the Shiite Muslim majority in
Iraq. Saddam and Co. thus faced a double challenge; as a secular
nationalist government and as one dominated by Sunni Muslims.

Saddam saw an opportunity to exploit the turmoil enveloping
Iran and in 1980 he decided to invade it. Writing in his book
“The Middle East,” Bernard Lewis comments on what would
turn out to be an 8-year conflict, claiming millions of lives.

“The Iraq-Iran war had many different aspects. It could be and
was portrayed in personal terms, as a confrontation between two
charismatic leaders, Khomeini and Saddam Hussein; in ethnic
terms, between Persians and Arabs; in ideological terms,
between Islamic revivalism and secular modernism (Saddam
Hussein later changed his mind on this point); in sectarian terms,
between Sunni and Shi’a; in economic terms as a contest for
control of the oil of the region; and even in old-fashioned power
political terms as a quarrel over territory and a struggle for
regional hegemony.”

Iraq’s main objective had been the Shatt al Arab waterway (on
the border between the two), a channel formed by the confluence
of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Fierce and bloody fighting
took place over this piece of territory and initially Iraq was
winning. But Iran launched a vicious counterattack, which led to
increased support from the U.S. in the areas of intelligence and
logistics, while the wealthier Arab states, worried about an
Iranian-style revolution in their lands, funded Saddam’s war
effort.

By 1982 the war had bogged down in a stalemate, but it wasn’t
until 1988 that the UN brokered a truce. Neither side captured
any land in the end, nor did either regime collapse under the
stress of the war, as the Iranian revolution hadn’t spread to Iraq
or other nations in the Gulf region. One of the surprising aspects
of the war was the patriotic loyalty displayed by both sides. The
Arab minority in Iran didn’t rally to the Iraqis and the Shi’a
population of Iraq exhibited little sympathy for the Iranian
revolution.

As for the U.S., it was the government’s policy to overlook the
brutal aspects of Saddam’s regime. It was the old principle of
‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – and Iran was the first
enemy. We continued to support Saddam, even though he had
constantly threatened Israel with chemical weapons and, in fact,
we knew back then that Saddam was developing weapons of
mass destruction. He used poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war and in
his suppression of the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, but in
the game of global power politics, it was still believed that Iraq
could be a balance against a resurgent Iran as the U.S. attempted
to persuade Saddam to moderate the unattractive features of his
rule.

Of course Saddam had other ideas. After the truce, August 8,
1988, the very next day neighboring Kuwait raised its production
of oil, contrary to agreements with OPEC. The resultant drop in
oil prices offended Saddam, as the Iraqi government was deeply
in debt and heavily dependent on oil (to the tune of about 98% of
revenues). Complaining of “economic aggression” against his
nation, Saddam demanded that Kuwait reduce its production and,
along with Saudi Arabia, cancel all Iraqi financial obligations.
He also began to revive old boundary disputes that had simmered
since the post-WW I settlement that had created the current map
of the Gulf region. Saddam harbored hopes of unifying Arab
lands, while controlling the oil.

For it’s part, the U.S. ignored the rising tension. National
Security Directive #26, October 1989, read: “Normal relations
between the U.S. and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests
and promote stability both in the Gulf and the Middle East. The
U.S. should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to
moderate its behavior and to increase our influence.” These
incentives included massive food exports to Iraq on favorable
terms, a boon to American farmers, as well as encouraging trade
in high-tech, but non-lethal, goods.

In mid-1990, Saddam claimed that Kuwait was draining oil from
an oil field on the border. He said the entire area rightfully
belonged to Iraq and indicated he might use force to take it. The
U.S. dispatched ambassador April Glaspie to meet with Saddam
in July. Glaspie failed to resolve the mounting crisis. She later
testified to Congress: “I told him orally we would defend our
vital interests, we would support our friends in the Gulf, we
would defend their sovereignty and integrity.” The main
American mistake, she said, was not to “realize he was stupid.”

[The controversy over Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam exists to
this day. Saddam insists that Glaspie gave the go ahead for his
Kuwaiti incursion. But, as awful as Saddam is, I bet the truth
lies somewhere in between. My reading of the meeting is that
Glaspie failed to make clear to Saddam that the U.S. would not
take kindly to a power grab.]

By late July, Iraqi armed forces began to move toward Kuwait.
While the U.S. intelligence community picked up the hostile
activity, there was no official word from Washington. On
August 2nd we seemed surprised when Saddam launched his
attack. We shouldn’t have been.

Finally, I want to include some further thoughts from Bernard
Lewis. He wrote his book “The Middle East” back in 1995.

In starting both the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, Lewis concludes:

“Saddam Hussein made both political and military calculations,
both correct and incorrect. In attacking Iran, he calculated –
rightly – that neither regional nor outside powers would lift a
finger in support of a revolutionary regime that had both
outraged and alarmed them. He also calculated – wrongly – that
the invasion of Iran at a time of revolutionary upheaval would be
quick and easy. In his invasion of Kuwait ten years later, the
balance of correct and incorrect calculation was the other way
round. His military calculation that the invasion and annexation
of Kuwait would be quick and easy was correct. His political
assumption, that the regional powers would be supportive or at
least acquiescent and that outside powers would not go beyond
some perfunctory and ineffectual protest was, from his point of
view, disastrously mistaken.”

Next week, I’m going to take a look back at some of the
conclusions following the Gulf War, as reported in the
mainstream media. I finally get to use some material I saved for
the past 12 years.

---

Sources:

“The Middle East,” Bernard Lewis
“History of the Arab Peoples,” Albert Hourani
“America: A Narrative History,” George Brown Tindall and
David E. Shi
“The Oxford History of Islam,” edited by John L. Esposito

Brian Trumbore


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-12/05/2002-      
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12/05/2002

Saddam, Part I: The Early Days

Almost three years ago I wrote a piece on Saddam Hussein
(12/23/99), focusing on his rise to power. I thought it was a good
time to reissue the column as a new war is undoubtedly
imminent. I have also added some new bits from the great
historian Bernard Lewis.

---

Back in 1999, this is literally how I started the article.

“A friend of mine made the following comment when told I was
writing about Saddam Hussein. ‘What? You mean I should be
worried about this guy again?’ Sorry, Iraq is back in the
spotlight. The national news media may not say much, yet, but
we are going to have to confront Saddam once more before too
long. The UN Security Council recently passed a resolution
requiring that Saddam allow weapons inspectors back into Iraq,
but alas, he said “No.” France, China, Russia and Malaysia
abstained from the vote. The other 11 members (including the
U.S. and Britain) voted “yes.” We have no way of knowing
whether or not Saddam has been building weapons of mass
destruction for the past year without inspectors on the ground.
It’s easy to surmise that he has and that can’t continue.”

Well, that was then, and as we all now know, nothing happened
for another three years.

---

Saddam Hussein was born in 1937 and by the time he was just 22
years of age, he had been forced into exile for his part in an
attempt to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister. In 1963 he
returned home and was then imprisoned in ’64. After his release,
he played a prominent role in the 1968 coup led by the Ba’ath (or
Ba’th) Party. Up to this point Iraq had been governed by a
coalition of civilian and military leadership.

The Ba’th (Resurrection) Party was founded in 1943. It’s appeal
was primarily to the educated class, created by the rapid increase
in schooling, and the members came from the less dominant
segments of society. The major objectives of the Party were
socialism and Arab unity, and it became the chief political force
in both Iraq and Syria.

In 1968, the Ba’thists replaced the existing government with a
Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) and in 1979 Saddam
became its chairman.

Meanwhile, the same year Saddam took the reins saw the clerics
of Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, topple the Shah, as the U.S.
became embroiled in the hostage crisis. The new regime in Iran
appealed to Muslims everywhere to restore the authority of Islam
in society, while the new leadership in Baghdad feared that this
would have a special appeal to the Shiite Muslim majority in
Iraq. Saddam and Co. thus faced a double challenge; as a secular
nationalist government and as one dominated by Sunni Muslims.

Saddam saw an opportunity to exploit the turmoil enveloping
Iran and in 1980 he decided to invade it. Writing in his book
“The Middle East,” Bernard Lewis comments on what would
turn out to be an 8-year conflict, claiming millions of lives.

“The Iraq-Iran war had many different aspects. It could be and
was portrayed in personal terms, as a confrontation between two
charismatic leaders, Khomeini and Saddam Hussein; in ethnic
terms, between Persians and Arabs; in ideological terms,
between Islamic revivalism and secular modernism (Saddam
Hussein later changed his mind on this point); in sectarian terms,
between Sunni and Shi’a; in economic terms as a contest for
control of the oil of the region; and even in old-fashioned power
political terms as a quarrel over territory and a struggle for
regional hegemony.”

Iraq’s main objective had been the Shatt al Arab waterway (on
the border between the two), a channel formed by the confluence
of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Fierce and bloody fighting
took place over this piece of territory and initially Iraq was
winning. But Iran launched a vicious counterattack, which led to
increased support from the U.S. in the areas of intelligence and
logistics, while the wealthier Arab states, worried about an
Iranian-style revolution in their lands, funded Saddam’s war
effort.

By 1982 the war had bogged down in a stalemate, but it wasn’t
until 1988 that the UN brokered a truce. Neither side captured
any land in the end, nor did either regime collapse under the
stress of the war, as the Iranian revolution hadn’t spread to Iraq
or other nations in the Gulf region. One of the surprising aspects
of the war was the patriotic loyalty displayed by both sides. The
Arab minority in Iran didn’t rally to the Iraqis and the Shi’a
population of Iraq exhibited little sympathy for the Iranian
revolution.

As for the U.S., it was the government’s policy to overlook the
brutal aspects of Saddam’s regime. It was the old principle of
‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ – and Iran was the first
enemy. We continued to support Saddam, even though he had
constantly threatened Israel with chemical weapons and, in fact,
we knew back then that Saddam was developing weapons of
mass destruction. He used poison gas in the Iran-Iraq war and in
his suppression of the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq, but in
the game of global power politics, it was still believed that Iraq
could be a balance against a resurgent Iran as the U.S. attempted
to persuade Saddam to moderate the unattractive features of his
rule.

Of course Saddam had other ideas. After the truce, August 8,
1988, the very next day neighboring Kuwait raised its production
of oil, contrary to agreements with OPEC. The resultant drop in
oil prices offended Saddam, as the Iraqi government was deeply
in debt and heavily dependent on oil (to the tune of about 98% of
revenues). Complaining of “economic aggression” against his
nation, Saddam demanded that Kuwait reduce its production and,
along with Saudi Arabia, cancel all Iraqi financial obligations.
He also began to revive old boundary disputes that had simmered
since the post-WW I settlement that had created the current map
of the Gulf region. Saddam harbored hopes of unifying Arab
lands, while controlling the oil.

For it’s part, the U.S. ignored the rising tension. National
Security Directive #26, October 1989, read: “Normal relations
between the U.S. and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests
and promote stability both in the Gulf and the Middle East. The
U.S. should propose economic and political incentives for Iraq to
moderate its behavior and to increase our influence.” These
incentives included massive food exports to Iraq on favorable
terms, a boon to American farmers, as well as encouraging trade
in high-tech, but non-lethal, goods.

In mid-1990, Saddam claimed that Kuwait was draining oil from
an oil field on the border. He said the entire area rightfully
belonged to Iraq and indicated he might use force to take it. The
U.S. dispatched ambassador April Glaspie to meet with Saddam
in July. Glaspie failed to resolve the mounting crisis. She later
testified to Congress: “I told him orally we would defend our
vital interests, we would support our friends in the Gulf, we
would defend their sovereignty and integrity.” The main
American mistake, she said, was not to “realize he was stupid.”

[The controversy over Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam exists to
this day. Saddam insists that Glaspie gave the go ahead for his
Kuwaiti incursion. But, as awful as Saddam is, I bet the truth
lies somewhere in between. My reading of the meeting is that
Glaspie failed to make clear to Saddam that the U.S. would not
take kindly to a power grab.]

By late July, Iraqi armed forces began to move toward Kuwait.
While the U.S. intelligence community picked up the hostile
activity, there was no official word from Washington. On
August 2nd we seemed surprised when Saddam launched his
attack. We shouldn’t have been.

Finally, I want to include some further thoughts from Bernard
Lewis. He wrote his book “The Middle East” back in 1995.

In starting both the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, Lewis concludes:

“Saddam Hussein made both political and military calculations,
both correct and incorrect. In attacking Iran, he calculated –
rightly – that neither regional nor outside powers would lift a
finger in support of a revolutionary regime that had both
outraged and alarmed them. He also calculated – wrongly – that
the invasion of Iran at a time of revolutionary upheaval would be
quick and easy. In his invasion of Kuwait ten years later, the
balance of correct and incorrect calculation was the other way
round. His military calculation that the invasion and annexation
of Kuwait would be quick and easy was correct. His political
assumption, that the regional powers would be supportive or at
least acquiescent and that outside powers would not go beyond
some perfunctory and ineffectual protest was, from his point of
view, disastrously mistaken.”

Next week, I’m going to take a look back at some of the
conclusions following the Gulf War, as reported in the
mainstream media. I finally get to use some material I saved for
the past 12 years.

---

Sources:

“The Middle East,” Bernard Lewis
“History of the Arab Peoples,” Albert Hourani
“America: A Narrative History,” George Brown Tindall and
David E. Shi
“The Oxford History of Islam,” edited by John L. Esposito

Brian Trumbore