Monday, March 31, 2003

Who armed Saddam? - Some reality checks

Who armed Saddam? The short answer is that, contrary to standard mythology, it wasn't the US. (For a quick summary of some relevant information, see the graph below.) A slightly more detailed answer follows.

=> It is widely believed that Saddam Hussein was a client of the US, which armed and supported him during the whole period of his rule (and, in some versions of the story, even helped put him in power in the first place), until the US turned on him after 1991. But almost all these commonly held beliefs happen to be either incorrect or, in cases where they have a grain of truth, extremely misleading. These myths are too numerous and tangled to deal with them all at once, but here are a few basic reality checks.

The US did not bring the Iraqi Ba'ath Party to power in 1968, nor did it play a significant role in maintaining them in power until they had been in control for a decade and a half. (Frankly, the US probably played a bigger role in helping to bring Nasser to power in Egypt back in the 1950s, though that romance didn't last long.) The Iraqi Ba'ath Party was an indigenous fascist movement--the closest equivalent in the Arab world to the classic European fascist movements of the inter-war period, a model on which Ba'athist ideology drew quite explicitly in an era when fascism had tremendous world-wide prestige and looked to many people like the wave of the future. The other major branch of the Ba'ath Party, of course, is the one that has been ruling Syria for almost 3 decades now. But the Assad regime in Syria, for all its repression and brutality, has really been closer to a standard military dictatorship than the pre-2003 Iraqi Ba'ath regime.

The Iraqi Ba'athists came to power in the course of brutal conflicts with other Iraqi political forces--including the once-significant Iraqi Communist Party, which they crushed and whose members they slaughtered or drove into exile (another echo of the Ba'ath Party's inter-war European models). Saddam Hussein did not start out as the titular head of either the Party or the regime, but he gained increasingly effective control behind the scenes, and then in 1979 he had himself formally declared President and murdered his remaining opponents within the Party (some of them personally, most in a bloody purge).

The Ba'ath regime was strongly anti-American, so it's not surprising that--despite the unfortunate fate of the Iraqi Communist Party--it was primarily a client of the Soviet Union (not the US), and this relationship continued up until the moment when the Soviet Union collapsed. The other major patron of Saddam Hussein & his regime was France (which, among other things, was the main supplier for his nuclear-weapons program as far back as the early 1980s). Of course, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime was never a simple tool of any of these patrons. It had its own agenda, and it played off its patrons--as well as other supporters--against each other when that suited its purposes.

Yes, I know there is a pre-fabricated geopolitical morality play into which Saddam Hussein is supposed to fit, playing the role of just one more pro-American dictator, so that everything he ever did is really (you guessed it) the fault of the US. The complication is that in real life, he doesn't fit into this scenario, and no amount of mindless parroting of the standard clichés will make them less erroneous. This is ideological mystification, not analysis or serious argument.

=> The relationship between the US and the Iraqi Ba'ath regime did shift during the Iran/Irag war of 1980-1988, especially after 1982. And at times during this period, the US did behave quite shamefully (along with just about everyone else).

As readers will recall, the Iran/Iraq war began with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980--one of his string of catastrophic miscalculations. Two years later, the Iranians had pulled themselves together and expelled the Iraqis from the parts of Iranian territory they occupied. Then 6 more years of war followed, with hundreds of thousands killed, massive use of poison gas by the Iraqis, the indiscriminate shelling of cities and other atrocities on both sides, etc. The fact that the war continued that long was essentially the decision of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam Hussein was now desperate to make peace, but Khomeini was determined to overthrow him, and refused to consider even negotiating until Saddam was removed from power.

During most of those 6 years, the Iraqi regime seemed to be teetering constantly on the edge of catastrophe. By this time, the Iranians had so thoroughly terrified everyone else that just about the whole world more or less actively backed Saddam Hussein (and let him get away with anything, including massive war crimes and other crimes against humanity). I mean almost everybody--the Soviet Union, the EU countries, the Arab world (with the exception of Syria & Libya), India, China, etc., etc. Turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein's crimes was justified in the name of "realism" (by the same people who later condemned the 2003 Iraq war on the same grounds), but it turned out to be closer to what C. Wright Mills used to call "crackpot realism."

After news of the 1988 "Anfal" genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan got out, the US Senate, to its great credit, unanimously passed the Prevention of Genocide Act condemning the Anfal genocide and threatening sanctions. (This was deep-sixed by the Reagan administration, which blocked passage in the House.) The Arab world responded with outrage (to the criticism of Saddam Hussein, not to the genocide), and the Arab League expressed "total solidarity" with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

=> Meanwhile, during the period from 1968-1991, where did the weapons and other military supplies for Ba'athist Iraq come from? The figures below, from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), cover only "conventional" arms and only the period from 1973-1990. But they convey the basic picture clearly enough.

Saddam's weapons came overwhelmingly from the Soviet Union & other Soviet Bloc countries (69% during this period), followed by France (13%) and China (12%) and a string of smaller suppliers. (For example, according to a 1984 SIPRI report, "During 1982-83, Iraq accounted for 40% of total French arms exports.") The figure for the US is 1%.

When it comes to Saddam Hussein's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, the picture is a little more complex. It seems clear that France was far and away the biggest supplier for the nuclear weapons program. Supplies for Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons (which included dual-use materials also suitable for making agricultural fertilizer, pesticides, medicines, etc.) were bought from a variety of sources, which seem to have been primarily western European or Russian and primarily private rather than governmental. For one discussion of the role played by German firms, for example, in supplying Saddam Hussein's poison-gas and biological-weapons programs, see The leading role of Germany in arming Iraq:
Chemical agents? Biological agents? Machine tools and parts and materials for uranium enrichment and missile production? You name them and the Germans delivered them - and not only that: they supplied the plants and know-how for Iraq to make its own "pesticides" ("to protect the date harvest"), "vaccines" ("to eradicate smallpox and other contagious diseases"), and "x-ray machines".
It would be wrong to think that German firms were alone in doing all this. But once again, the US role was relatively minor.

(For further information, see the database on Iraq's Suppliers compiled by Iraq Watch.)

=> The US did provide other significant forms of support for Iraq during the closing years of the Iran/Iraq war, economic and diplomatic and otherwise.  As the war ground on, the US also began to provide Iraq with satellite and intelligence information of some military value, and toward the very end US naval forces protecting oil tankers in the Gulf occasionally clashed with Iranian naval forces (and on one terrible occasion mistakenly shot down an Iranian civilian airliner).  Considering all that would require a longer discussion.  For the moment, suffice it to say that the catch-phrase that the US "armed Saddam" is simply wrong, no matter how many times it is mindlessley repeated.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

(Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute - SIPRI)

The Command Post
March 31, 2003
The Facts Stand Alone

update: Given the amount of email I’ve received on this post, I’ve updated the picture to more clearly show that the data only goes to 1990. This is why you may see news information about weapons provided by firms from other countries (e.g., Jordan, Germany, etc.) that is not captured here. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) only felt confident in their information up to 1990. After Saddam invaded Kuwait, any and all arm trades to Iraq would be a violation of the United Nation sanctions. Obviously, these sellers did everything possible to hide these sales and SIPRI certainly does not have all of this information.

In addition, SIPRI does not try to show which weapons are more effective. SIPRI calculated the dollar amount of all weapon transfers (in 1990 dollars). So in terms of dollar value, Russia was responsible for 57% of all weapon sales to Iraq between 1973 and 1990.

Posted By Admiral Quixote (Solport) at March 31, 2003 04:34 PM | TrackBack

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