Our History with Iraq*
Chip Gagnon, Assistant Prof., Dept of Politics, Ithaca College
Visiting Research Fellow, Peace Studies Program, Cornell University
Talk given at Teach-in on Iraq, Cornell University, October
2pm Willard Straight Hall
To most Americans, the history of the US-Iraqi relationship
begins in late 1990, when Saddam Hussein appears out of nowhere
and attacks Kuwait.
But, in fact there's a long history between Iraq -- Saddam
Hussein in particular -- and the United States.
This history is important because the Bush White House is claiming
that the US must immediately, preemptively, and unilaterally attack
Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power because he is evil.
The evidence of his evilness is his possession of weapons of mass
destruction, and his use of chemical weapons against his own people.
But as we'll see, this is not new information, and has been
very well known to the people running Bush's foreign policy for
twenty years. If it is so well known, why have they waited so
long to call for this action? Why are they demanding that it be
undertaken now? Why are they portraying Saddam Hussein
as an immediate threat?
What will also become clear in an examination of US-Iraq relations
before the Gulf War is the extremely bad judgment shown by these
same officials, and the pattern of deception, secrecy and lies
by which they sought to cover up those mistakes. What we will
see is that the people now running US foreign policy were in the
1980s directly responsible for supplying Saddam Hussein with the
materials as well as the diplomatic and military support necessary
for him to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.
Since I do believe that this history matters, I will here briefly
discuss the history of the US-Iraq relationship; or more specifically,
the relationship between Saddam Hussein. and the people now running
US foreign policy, who were very much involved in foreign policy
of Reagan and Bush I administrations.
We could start this history with the Iranian revolution in
1979, which marked a significant change in US policy toward that
1979 also marks the year Saddam Hussein became president of
Iraq; prior to that he had been vice president, and a member of
the ruling Ba'ath party (which itself had been helped into power
in 1963 with CIA assistance).
In November 1979 came the Iranian hostage crisis, when students
took Americans at the US embassy in Tehran hostage, and held them
for over a year.
In late 1979 President Jimmy Carter's State Dept. put Iraq
on list of countries sponsoring "terrorist" groups.
In 1980, the US Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Iraq
had been actively acquiring chemical weapons capacities since
In September 1980 the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war begins.
Ronald Reagan takes office in Jan 1981.
Spring of 1982 marked the beginning of tilt toward Iraq by Reagan. This tilt was formalized in a secret National Security Decision Directive issued in June 1982. While the US was officially neutral, this NSDD declared that the US would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing its war against Iran.
Apparently without consulting Congress, Reagan also removed
Iraq from the State Dept. list of terrorist sponors. This meant
that Iraq was now eligible for US dual-use and military technology.
This shift marked the beginning of a very close relationship
between the Reagan and Bush administrations and Saddam Hussein.
The US over following years actively supported Iraq, supplying
billions of dollars of credits, US military intelligence and advice,
and ensuring that necessary weaponry got to Iraq.
The State Dept. once again reported that Iraq was continuing
to support terrorist groups
- Iraq had also been using chemical weapons against Iranian
troops since 1982; this use of chemical weapons increased in 1983.
The State Dept. and the National Security Council were well aware
- Overriding NSC concerns, the Secretaries of Commerce and
State pressured the NSC to approve the sale to Iraq of Bell helicopters
"for crop dusting" (these same helicopters were used
to gas Iraqi Kurds in 1988).
In late 1983, Reagan secretly allowed Jordan, Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, Egypt, to transfer US weapons to Iraq; Reagan also asked
the Italian prime minister to channel arms to Iraq
December 1983 was a particularly interesting month; it was
the month that Donald Rumsfeld -- currently US Secretary of Defense
and one of the most vocal proponents of attacking Iraq -- paid
a visit to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad as Reagan's envoy.
Rumsfeld claims now that the meeting was about terrorism in
But State Dept. documents show that in fact, Rumsfeld was carrying
a message from Reagan expressing his desire to have a closer and
better relationship with Saddam Hussein.
Just a few months before Rumsfeld's visit, Iraq had used poison
gas against Iranian troops. This fact was known to the US. Also
known was that Iraq was building a chemical weapons infrastructure.
NBC and The New York Times have recently reported that Rumsfeld was a key player in the Reagan administration's strong support for Iraq, despite knowing of Iraq's use of chemical weapons. This relationship became so close that both Reagan and VP Bush personally delivered military advice to Saddam Hussein. 
In March, the State Dept. reported that Iraq was using chemical
weapons and nerve gas in the war against Iran; these facts were
confirmed by European doctors who examined Iranian soldiers
The Washington Post (in an article in Dec.1986 by
Bob Woodward) reported that in 1984 the CIA began secretly giving
information to Iraqi intelligence to help them "calibrate"
poison gas attacks against Iranian troops.
The CIA established direct intelligence links with Baghdad,
and began giving Iraq "data from sensitive US satellite reconnaissance
photography" to help in the war.
This same year, the US House of Representatives passed a bill
to put Iraq back on State Dept. supporters of terrorism list.
The Reagan administration -- in the person of Secretary of
State George Schultz -- pressured the bill's sponsor to drop it
the bill. The bill is dropped, and Iraq remains off the terrorist
Iraq labs send a letter to the Commerce Dept with details showing
that Iraq was developing ballistic missiles.
Between 1985-1990 the Commerce Dept. approved the sale of many
computers to Iraq's weapons lab. (The UN inspectors in 1991 found
that: 40% of the equipment in Iraq's weapons lab were of US origin)
1985 is also a key year because the Reagan administration
approved the export to Iraq of biological cultures that are precursors
to bioweapons: anthrax, botulism, etc.; these cultures were "not
attenuated or weakened, and were capable of reproduction."
There were over 70 shipments of such cultures between 1985-1988.
The Bush administration also authorized an additional 8 shipments of biological cultures that the Center for Disease Control classified as "having biological warfare significance."
This information comes from the Senate Banking Committee's report from 1994. The report stated that "these microorganisms exported by the US were identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program."
Senator Riegle, who headed the committee, noted that: "They
seemed to give him anything he wanted. It's right out of a science
fiction movie as to why we would send this kind of stuff to anybody."
The Reagan administration's Commerce Dept. approved exports
to Iraq's SCUD missile program; it was these exports that allowed
the extension of the SCUDs' range so that in 1991 they were able
to reach Israel and US bases in Saudi Arabia.
In March, the Financial Times of London reported that
Saddam had recently used chemical weapons against Kurds in Halabja,
using US helicopters bought in 1983.
Two months later, an Asst. Secretary of State pushed for more
US-Iraq economic cooperation.
In September of that year, Reagan prevented the Senate from
putting sanctions on Iraq for its violation of the Geneva Protocol
on Chemical Weapons.
The US also voted against a UN Security Council statement condemning
Iraq's use of chemical weapons. 
In March, the CIA director reported to Congress that Iraq was
the largest chemical weapons producer in the world.
The State Dept reported that Iraq continued to develop chemical
and biological weapons, as well as new missiles
The Bush administration that year approved dozens of export
licenses for sophisticated dual-use equipment to Iraq's weapons
In October, international banks cut off all loans to Iraq.
The Bush administration responded by issuing National Security
Directive 26, which mandated closer links with Iraq, and included
a $1 billion loan guarantee.
This loan guarantee freed up cash for Iraq to buy and develop
This directive was suspended only on August 2, 1990, the day
Iraq invaded Kuwait.
One US firm reportedly contacted the Commerce Dept. two times,
concerned that its product could be used for nuclear weapons and
ballistic missiles. Bush's Commerce Dept requested and received
written guarantees from Iraq that the equipment was only for civilian
Between July 18 and August 1 (the day before the invasion),
the Bush Administration approved $4.8 million in advanced technology
sales to Iraq's weapons ministry and to weapons labs that were
known to have worked on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.
So when US ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam the US did
not have an official position on disputes between Arab countries,
is it any wonder that he thought the US would look the other way
when he invaded Kuwait? After this close and very supportive relationship
with the Republican administrations throughout the 1980s?
We all know about the Gulf War. But I want to bring in one
more piece of history here, from after the Gulf War.
Dick Cheney, before becoming Vice President, was CEO of Halliburton
Corp. from 1995 until August 2000, when he retired with a $34
million retirement package.
According to the Financial Times of London, Halliburton
in that time period sold $23.8 million of oil industry equipment
and services to Iraq, to help rebuild its war-damaged oil production
infrastructure. For political reasons, Halliburton used subsidiaries
to hide this. 
More recently, the Washington Post on June 23, 2001,
reported that figure was actually $73 million.
The head of the subsidiary said he is certain Cheney knew about
Halliburton did more business with Saddam Hussein than any
other US company.
Asked about this by journalists by ABC News in August 2000,
Cheney lied and said "I had a firm policy that I wouldn't
do anything in Iraq, even arrangements that were supposedly legal."
The US media never followed up on this.
So: That's the history:
A saga of incredibly bad judgment.
A story of men so obsessed with Iran that they made numerous
incredibly bad judgements, consistently, time and time again,
over the course of eight years.
What can we learn from that history?
I want to add to that history some things we are seeing now.
We're seeing more of this now in the ways in which the Administration
is lying to us to try to convince us to go to war.
Back to 1990: Before the Gulf War, President Bush claimed that
satellite photos showed 250,000 Iraqi troops massing on Iraq's
border with Saudi Arabia, with 1500 tanks. The Christian
Science Monitor reported on 9/6/02 that was not true.
As the journalist who broke this story pointed out: "That
Iraqi buildup was the whole justification for Bush sending in
troops and it just didn't exist."
Now to the present again. George W. Bush in early September
2002, as part of his argument for the need to immediately attack
Iraq, claimed that the International Atomic Energy Agency had
issued a report in 1998 saying Iraq was 6 months from having nuclear
weapons. The IAEA denied this, saying they had never issued any
such report. The Bush White House then said that they had mispoken,
and that the report was actually issued in 1991. Again, the IAEA
denied this. 
A second such example of deception are Bush's claims of links between Saddam and Al Qaeda.
French intelligence agencies have been investigating these
possible links for years (after an Algerian group carried out
bombings in Paris in 1995). Again, the Financial Times
reported earlier this month that this French investigation has
produced zero evidence of any such link, not a trace. 
Finally, I will cite a report in the Houston Chronicle
earlier this month, which reported that:
"A growing number of military officers, intelligence professionals and diplomats in [Bush's] own government privately have deep misgivings about the administration's double-time march toward war.
These officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses... They charge that the administration squelches dissenting views and that intelligence analysts are under intense pressure to produce reports supporting the White House's argument that Saddam poses such an immediate threat to the US that pre-emptive military action is necessary.
'Analysts at the working level in the intelligence community are feeling very strong pressure from the Pentagon to cook the intelligence books,' said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A dozen other officials echoed his views in interviews. No one who was interviewed disagreed. ... 
So the history is one of lies, deception, and incredibly
bad judgement that continues to this day.
Over the course of the 1980s, two Republican administrations,
and individuals who are once again running US foreign policy,
supplied Saddam Hussein with the means to wage brutal warfare
against his neighbors and his own citizens; supplied him with
the means to make nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, with
the means to build missile technology. (All of these weapons,
as well as the facilities, research and otherwise, were destroyed
or dismantled before UNSCOM was pulled out of Iraq in 1998.)
Where was their concern about Saddam Hussein then? Why are
Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney only now suddenly worried about
Saddam Hussein, when as recently as a couple of years ago the
company Cheney headed was doing deals with him?
Based on this history, there is absolutely no reason to take
this administration's word on anything related to Iraq.
This conclusion is further confirmed by the opposition to Bush's
policy among some military leaders. Retired General Brent Scowcroft
(National Security Advisor of the first Pres. Bush), three four-star
generals, General Wesley Clark (former NATO military commander),
and Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni have all denounced Bush's push for
unilateral war. Zinni went so far as to say, "I'm not
sure which planet they live on because it isn't the one that I
Another military figure, Major General Patrick Cordingly, commander
of the British "Desert Rats" in the 1991 Gulf War, has
recently declared that he is "absolutely opposed to a
war" and that there is "no justification for
sending troops." 
(At this point it is important to mention that none of the
current leadership which is pushing for war has ever been in combat,
and all of them except Rumsfeld actively worked to avoid seeing
combat, allowing others less well-connected and wealthy to fight
the country's wars.)
We are also hearing from religious leaders; the US Catholic
Bishops' conference, the Mormon Church, George W. Bush's own Methodist
Church, among other religious leaders and organizations, have
all condemned the rush to war. 
Internationally as well. Perhaps the best known and one of
the most respected moral authorities in the world, Nelson Mandela,
has issued a "strong condemnation" of the US's attitude
towards Iraq, lambasted vice-president Dick Cheney for being a
"dinosaur" and accused the US of being "a threat
to world peace." 
So given all of this history, the history of lies, deception,
obsession and incredibly bad judgment on the part of the people
driving this country's foreign policy, given the harsh criticism
of the Bush/Rumsfeld/Cheney/Wolfowitz push to war coming from
military, religious, and other moral authorities, we have to ask
ourselves what this war is really about.
*This talk draws very heavily
upon "U.S. Diplomatic and Commercial Relationships with Iraq,
1980 - 2 August 1990," prepared by Nathaniel Hurd, 15 July
2000, online at http://www.cam.ac.uk/societies/casi/info/usdocs/usiraq80s90s.html
Hurd's main sources are:
Mark Phythian, Arming Iraq: How the U.S. and Britain Secretly Built Saddam's War Machine (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997).
Bruce W. Jentleson, With Friends Like These: Reagan, Bush, and Saddam, 1982-1990 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994)
Other sources as indicated in the above text:
 "Rumsfeld key player in Iraq policy shift" By Robert Windrem, NBC News, August 18, 2002 <http://www.msnbc.com/news/795649.asp?cp1=1>;
"How Saddam Happened," By Christopher Dickey and
Evan Thomas, Newsweek, September 23, 2002 <http://www.msnbc.com/news/807688.asp?cp1=1>
 "U.S. sent Iraq germs in mid-'80s" By Douglas Turner, Buffalo News, Sept. 23, 2002 <http://www.buffalonews.com/editorial/20020923/1048504.asp>;
"Following Iraq's bioweapons trail" by Robert Novak, Chicago Sun-Times, September 26, 2002 <http://www.suntimes.com/output/novak/cst-edt-novak26.html>;
"U.S. Supplied Germs to Iraq in '80s " Associated
Press story on Yahoo.com, Mon Sep 30, 634 PM ET <http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/ap/20020930/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/us_iraq_bioweapons_3>
 "When US turned a blind eye to poison gas" by
Dilip Hiro, The Observer, Sunday September 1, 2002 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0%2C2763%2C784314%2C00.html>
 "A discreet way of doing business with Iraq,"
By Carola Hoyas, The Financial Times, November 3, 2000.
 "Halliburton's Iraq Deals Greater Than Cheney Has
Said -- Affiliates Had $72 Million in Contracts," By Colum
Lynch, The Washington Post, June 23, 2001.
 "In war, some facts less factual -- Some US assertions
from the last war on Iraq still appear dubious" By Scott
Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, September 06, 2002
 "Agency disavows report on Iraq arms" By Joseph Curl, The Washington Times, Sept.27, 2002 <http://www.washtimes.com/national/20020927-500715.htm>;
"White House: Bush misstated report on Iraq -- President
meets with Blair on strategy ahead of speech" MSNBC, Sept.7,
 "France finds 'zero' al-Qaeda links with Iraq"
By Mark Huband, The Financial Times, Oct.4, 2002 <http://news.ft.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=FT.com/StoryFT/FullStory&
 "Some administration officials expressing misgivings on Iraq" By Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, Knight-Ridder Tribune News, Houston Chronicle, Published October 4 2002 2159 <http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/nation/1607676>;
"American Aides Split on Assessment of Iraq's Plans"
By Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, October 10,
 "I'm not sure which planet they live on" Salon.com,
Oct.17, 2002 <http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2002/10/17/zinni/index.html>
 "Gulf War general says Iraq invasion 'totally unjustified'"
By Sean Rayment, The Telegraph (Filed22/09/2002) <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2002/09/22/nirq22.xml/>
 "Bishops Question Bush's Iraq Plans," By Rachel Zoll, AP Religion Writer, Newsday, September 17, 2002, 558 PM EDT, <http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/nation/wire/sns-ap-iraq-churches0917sep17.story?coll=sns%2Dap%2Dnation%2Dheadlines>;
"Mormon church makes anti-war statement" CNN, October 6, 2002 Posted350 PM EDT (1950 GMT) <http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/West/10/06/mormon.conference.ap/>;
"Iraq war 'unjustifiable', says Bush's church head" by Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, Sunday October 20, 2002 <http://www.observer.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12239,815693,00.html>;
Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church, Sharon A.
Brown Christopher, President of the Council, October 4, 2002 <http://www.umc.org/headlines/newsflash/letter.htm>
 "Nelson Mandela: The United States of America is a Threat to World Peace" Newsweek Web Exclusive, September 10, 2002 <http://www.msnbc.com/news/806174.asp?cp1=1>;
"No more Mr Nice Guy"Gary Younge, The Guardian, September 19, 2002 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,794778,00.html>
Last revised 11/12/02