Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why The GOP Can't Be Trusted with Foreign Policy 2/3

 by Nomad

Part 2- Reagan and The Iran-Iraq War

In the previous post, we reviewed John McCain’s speech at the Republican convention in Tampa and all its foreign policy implications. McCain’s call for strong leadership is a staple for the Republicans. 
It has been since the days of Reagan- the father of the neoconservative movement and founder of a revitalized American foreign policy. If only, the Republicans seem to say, today’s politicians could be as bold and decisive as Reagan, America could return to its glory days. 

Hostages of the Past
With the American engagement in Iraq finally at an end, after what can only be called a foreign policy disaster, this is a good time to look back at the long prelude. The roots of that disaster go deep. Back to the early career of Saddam Hussein when American leadership was far more interested in Iran.

On January 27, 1981- one week after Ronald Reagan had been taken the oath of office, he stated,
"Let terrorist be aware that when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution."
The words formed part of Reagan’s speech official welcoming home the hostages held by Iran after the fall of the Shah. He went on to say:
You've come home to a people who for 444 days suffered the pain of your imprisonment, prayed for your safety, and most importantly, shared your determination that the spirit of free men and women is not a fit subject for barter.
One week before- precisely at the time Reagan was being sworn in- the 52 American hostages held by the Iranian government were released. In what most people took to be a final spit in Carter’s face by the Iranian Supreme leader the release occurred on the last day of Carter’s term. It was, it seemed, the end of American humiliation under a new hard-line president.

Policy of Tough Talk
Having campaigned in 1980 on a pledge to take a firm stand on terrorism and those who supported them, Reagan had promised that the US would never negotiate. Based on policies of Thatcher and Israel, it represented a policy of strength. 

After the Iranian humiliation, it played well with the American public. With an ill-fated rescue and an arms embargo, President Carter seemed helpless and ineffectual in comparison to Reagan’s zealous approach.

Ironically, the release of the hostages had been conditional on Carter’s executive order to release frozen assets, amounting to somewhere around $7.977 billion, to be transferred from the Bank of England to the Central Bank in Tehran. Iranians insisted on payment in gold rather than U.S. dollars so the U.S. government transferred 50 tons of gold to Iran. 
So, while Reagan reaped the reward for negotiating with Iran, Reagan himself could publicly claim the position of strength. Despite what he said at the welcoming home ceremony, Reagan knew very well that freedom for hostages was very much “a fit subject for barter” as long as he was directly involved in the bartering. 

Even then, the tough talk was merely public posturing. Behind the scenes, that hard view hid an ugly truth. In 1990, a retired Naval Captain and a former member of National Security Council under Ford, Carter, and Reagan, Gary Sick, alleged to a Senate hearing, that a secret deal had been made- before the election between Reagan’s aides and representatives of the Iranian government, involving an arms for American hostages. (That's not a mere conspiracy theorist but an insider.)

In October 1980- only one month before the US elections, Sick claims, Robert McFarlane (soon to become a National Security Advisor, under President Reagan) reportedly met with a representative of the Iranian Government in a Washington hotel. Exactly what they discussed was unknown, but the timing of the release leaves much room for doubt. 
Unlike many so-called conspiracy theories, this “October Surprise” allegation is uniquely specific, with names, details and dates form an extensive and persuasive chronology. (I will leave you to judge for yourself.)

(Nevertheless, in 1993, the House of Representatives were unconvinced, concluding, “there is no credible evidence supporting any attempt by the Reagan presidential campaign—or persons associated with the campaign—to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran”.) 

Today the Reagan myth is so much a part of the Republican party, that Republican nominee, Mitt Romney could, on March 6, 2012, tell the pro-Israel group, American-Israel Public Affairs Committee:
"I believe the right course is what Ronald Reagan called peace through strength There's a reason why the Iranians released the hostages on the same day and at the same hour that Reagan was sworn in. As president, I'll offer that kind of clarity, strength and resolve.
The truth is somewhat less appealing. In the case of Reagan’s role in the release of the hostages, it boiled down possible secret deals, taking undeserved credit, and misrepresentations to the public.

Opportunity, Advantages, and Fears
At that time, Iran was under an arms embargo and its revolution’s survival depended on being able to defend itself. Only five months earlier in late September 1980, the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein had launched a blitzkrieg invasion into Iranian territory, igniting a catastrophic war in the region. 

From Hussein’s point of view, the time was too perfect to pass up. The Iranian military had been disbanded by the revolutionary government. This had been followed by particularly vicious purges of Iranian military leaders- formally trained in the West under the Shah. 
According to Hussein, Iran was weak. Furthermore, it was isolated and blockaded by an arms embargo. It would eventually pose a threat to his own rule by preaching revolution to his own Shiite population. The time to strike, as he saw it, was now.

Besides the Soviets would, he correctly observed, would never throw their support behind Iran. Adding up all those factors, Hussein seized the moment and attacked. Like so many of his decisions, it was to be a catastrophe overestimation of his military power.

According to one source, Saddam's war with Iran was a result of "terrible misunderstanding." (That's understating things.) The head of French intelligence, Alexandre de Marenches, explained that Saddam surrounded on all sides by officers too fearful to disagree had come to believe that "there would be a popular uprising to applaud the first Iraqi soldier who came over the horizon." 

(It is an eerily similar idea of American soldiers being welcomed as liberators which was propagated by Cheney, Rumsfeld, McCain and others when it came time for US troops to invade Iraq.) 

All of the factors must have seemed tempting to a power-mad man like Saddam, yet his ambitions would ruin his country and kill a half a million of his people. 

In many ways, that war served a small theater for the ambitions of the Soviet Union and the United States. The book, The Superpowers' Involvement in the Iran-Iraq War, by Adam Tarock:

It is not unreasonable to argue that the United States had hoped that the war would create a political environment hereby a strong military man, politically orientated toward the West would take over the [Iranian] government, while the Soviet Union had equally hoped that disorder and confusion resulting from the war would strengthen forces from the Left (who at the time were very vocal in Iranian politics) who could seize power or at least be invited to share power with the revolutionary government.
If that was the expectation, both sides were soon to be disappointed. Things were a lot more complicated than that.
here was one thing that both the Soviets and the Americans could agree on. There were unquestionable advantages to a prolonged conflict that might weaken and exhaust the participants in the war. In many ways, it was like an international cockfight.

This attitude was summed up by one US State department official, quoted in Time magazine in 1982:
We don't give a damn as long as the Iran-Iraq carnage does not affect our allies or alter the balances of power [between the belligerents.]
There was a windfall from the ongoing war. Oil prices- which had peaked in 1982- were now sliding. For the American economy so dependent on Middle-Eastern oil, this was great news. (Prices would, in fact, remain reasonable all through the 1990s, adding the myth of the Reagan economic miracle.)

Around 1983, as the war inconclusively dragged on, that flippant and self-interested attitude would change. Another dreadful possibility was taking shape. What would happen if Hussein’s regime collapsed
The scenario was practically unthinkable. An Iraq in chaos, widespread sectarian violence between Shiites and Sunnis, it could spell the fall of another West-friendly domino. What would emerge was anybody's guess but nobody wanted another militant Islamist theocracy so close to Israel.  Under an Iranian hegemony, oil prices could be expected to soar to record heights, driving Western economies to the brink. It would have made the oil embargo of the 1970s look like a cheap party trick.
Clearly, only a fool would stand by and do nothing.

Their fears, ironically, would be realized in full when George W. Bush decided, against the advice of allies, to invade and remove Saddam. In effect, Bush had done what Reagan feared the Iranians might do if they won the war.

How to Deal with a Terrorist-Sponsoring Nation
Those fears became the prime motivator for Reagan's interest in the war. The possibility that, with Iraqi oil fields in Iranian hands, the world would be at the mercy of the mullahs was unthinkable. 
Whereas the Iran had once held Americans hostage, they would now be holding the entire Western world hostage.
Under no circumstances was Reagan prepared to allow Iraq to collapse. By launching his attack, Saddam had, in effect, forced American support. Whatever the results of his attack on Iran, he had understood that there was no reason to fear failure since the US could never allow him to fail.
At the time,..the policy of favouring Saddam Hussein appeared to make sense, since it was thought that a tilt toward him would not only check the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, but it would also help to bring Iraq out of the rival camp, the Soviet Union.
In fact, Iraq began the war using a largely Soviet-supplied arsenal but, as the war lagged on, was forced to look for a new supplier. Reagan was more than happy to oblige. (In order to maximize profits, the administration had created a special supplier “Bear Spares” for replacement parts for Soviet-built arms.)

In arms-shipping to Iraq, there was one obvious hitch. It was illegal. 

Iraq had been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since December 29, 1979. By law, a wide range of sanctions were imposed as a result including:

  • A ban on arms-related exports and sales.
  • Controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country's military capability or ability to support terrorism.
  • Prohibitions on economic assistance.
  • Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.
The State Department's reason for including Iraq was that it provided bases to:
In spite of the fact Reagan administration had previously sworn never to deal (openly) with terrorists, it was clear that, when it came to Iraq, many in the White House were working hard behind the scenes to do just that. As a covert operation, the process was complicated and inefficient, requiring a roundabout method of transfer under third-party covers. 

So, in February 1982 by the US Department of State to announced its decision to remove Iraq from a list of "States which sponsor terrorism." 
Dr. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science and International Relations provides us with a few more details:
Pentagon counter terrorism specialists were reported to have expressed outrage at this decision, but were unable to challenge this tilt toward Iraq, as it was made at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration .. The Iran-Iraq war had crowded out all other objectives in the region; relations with Iraq would be warmed, whether or not Iraq, in fact, supported terrorism.

As one Reagan Administration official working on Iraq (former National Security Council staff person Howard Teicher) later put it in sworn court testimony (Dobbs: 1), "You have to understand the geo-strategic context, which was very different from where we are now... Realpolitik dictated that we act to prevent the situation from getting worse." In order to support Iraq in its conflict with Iran, U.S. assistance required lifting the "terrorist state" label, otherwise, according to Teicher, it would have been "impossible to take even the modest steps we were contemplating."
For the Reagan administration, it was not going to be that easy.

Thwarted by Congress
When an uncooperative Congress blocked State Department attempts to lift export restrictions in March 1982, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ernest Johnson defended the decision to sell aircraft, saying US intelligence has shown Iraq to have reduced its support of terrorism. 

House Foreign Affairs Committee weren't buying it and voted to keep Iraq on the list of terrorist-supporting nations on May 13, 1982. It was a good call. 

When the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and his 150-person operation was allowed to open an office in Iraq, in November of 1982, State Department spokesman John Hughes said,
We are concerned at the willingness of the government of Iraq to offer a haven to a man who is a known international terrorist.

About this time Iraqi officials publicly renounced terrorism. The truth was something different. During that same period, the ANO appears to have operated mainly out of Baghdad under a variety of names. Among them: Black June, the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, the Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Muslims and, as well as, the infamous Black September.

Iraqi officials were assuring the US State Department that Abu Nidal was being kept on a short leash. Actually, during its stay in Iraq, Abu Nidal organization was reportedly responsible for a number of assassination attempts on diplomats from Jordan (July 1982) and two diplomats from Kuwait (June, September 1982). His groups were reportedly behind a gun-and-grenade attack on Goldenberg Restaurant in the Jewish quarter of Paris, France which left six dead, 22 wounded. 

Other ANO terrorist strikes during that period include well as attacks on synagogues in Brussels (September 1982) and in Rome (October 1983), in which an 11-year-old girl named Natasha Simpson, along with 4 other Americans had been gunned down. 

A much more deadly attack, in which Abu Nidal was implicated, was the September 1983 bombing of Gulf Air Flight 771 from Karachi, Pakistan to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates in which 105 passengers were killed. 

If, as Saddam continued to assure the State Department, Abu Nidal was being kept under tight surveillance and his movements closely watched, it doesn't appear to have had much effect on his activities. 

Despite these terrorist attacks and Reagan's pledge never to deal with terrorist or terrorist-supporting states, US State Department officials continued to press for Iraq's removal from the list. By October 1983, the State Department- against the objections of Congress- lifted the export restrictions on Iraq.
newspaper article from October 1983 reports:
State Department spokesman Alan Romberg said the United States has no evidence that Iraq has supported international terrorism, since publicly renouncing it a little more than a year ago.
Accordingly, he said, we do not consider that there is justification to re-designate Iraq.. as a country that has repeatedly provided support for act of international terrorism.
True, giving refuge is not precisely the same as providing support. It depends on where one draws the line. It was enough when it came to the Taliban, of course. Clearly, the State Department was willing to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt in this case. It more or less had to.

When ANO was mentioned to Romberg, the spokesman chose his words carefully, telling the reporters that the terrorist organization was "apparently under certain constraints." 

He said the United States saw "no prospect that such punitive measure as withholding certain exports to Iraq will further the objective of our vigorous and promising diplomatic efforts on this issue." 
One unnamed administrator suggested that Abu Nidal was kept in a condition, not unlike a prison.
He's not behind bars but I think his freedom of movement and communication is sharply circumscribed."
Still Saddam Hussein, who as a leader was certainly not shy about throwing thousands of his own people in prisons, clearly treated Abu Nidal as a guest in his country. Nidal was allowed to travel in and out of the country at will to, for example, Syria and Poland, where he kept a villa to escape from the boiling Iraqi summers. 

The Magic Door Opens
In any case, back in America, this time the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in reviewing the situation (and under pressure by the State Department), finally removed Iraq from the list of terrorist-supporting nations. With that, the restrictions on the transfer of dual-use technology to Iraq melted away. 
Much of what Saddam received from the West was not arms per se, but so-called dual-use technology -- ultra sophisticated computers, armored ambulances, helicopters, chemicals, and the like, with potential civilian uses as well as military applications.
So, after finding various ways around the laws and restrictions placed on the executive branch by Constitution and Congress, after misrepresenting the safe harbor Saddam played for a terrorist, now, at least, the ball was rolling.

In exchange for the kindness from the White House, Saddam on November 4, 1983, Abu Nidal, upon returning from one of his regular trips to Poland, was summoned to the offices of Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. Nidal and his organization were ordered to leave Iraq immediately. 

In November 1983, Donald Rumsfeld (who was later to play such a key role in the American invasion of Iraq) was appointed Special Envoy to the Middle East by President Reagan. Shortly after removing Iraq from the terrorism sponsorship list, the Reagan administration approved the sale of 60 Hughes helicopters. Saddam could rest assured that more high armaments and first class intelligence would be flowing. 

Accompanying Rumsfeld on one such trip to Baghdad between December 1983 and March 1984 was director of Political-Military Affairs on the National Security Council, Howard Teicher. What went on during those visits to Iraq was revealed over a decade later in a sworn affidavit:
[T]he United States actively supported the Iraqi war effort by supplying the Iraqis with billions of dollars of credits, by providing U.S. military intelligence and advice to the Iraqis, and by closely monitoring third country arms sales to Iraq to make sure that Iraq had the military weaponry required. The United States also provided strategic operational advice to the Iraqis to better use their assets in combat...
The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq. My notes, memoranda and other documents in my NSC files show or tend to show that the CIA knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, munitions and vehicles to Iraq.
In January of 1983, in his State of the Union address to an often uncooperative Congress and to the naive but patriotic public, President Reagan had said of his country:
We should be proud of our role as peacemakers.
But at least when it came to Iraq, peace was not what Reagan or CIA director William Casey had in mind.

Promise of A Divine Country
As the war dragged on the situation became more desperate. The early Iraqi victories had turned to a stalemate but by 1982, to everybody's shock, the tide had turned in the Iranian favor. By June 1982, Iranian forces had recaptured all of its territories and were now winning battles, albeit at a terrible price. 
When Hussein announced that he was prepared to accept a ceasefire, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, rejected that peace offer. And he added that Iran would invade Iraq and would not stop until the Saddam regime was replaced by an Islamic Shia republic. 
That statement must have caused some real anxiety at the State Department. 
Ultimately that foolhardy decision by Khomeini was to prolong the war for another six years. 

One particularly horrific tactic used by the Iranian regime was “human waves,” which was basically waves of lightly armed, poorly trained soldiers thrown onto the battlefield in such large numbers that the sheer mass would overwhelm the enemy. 
Because this type of attack grossly underestimated the killing power of modern weapons, the number of Iranian war dead was staggering. It was an offensive infantry tactic that belonged in an earlier age.

It was also exposed something that US military strategists had not fully appreciated about the revolution and the Shiite theology. The deeply-ingrained attraction of martyrdom, use of martyrdom as a propaganda and inspirational tool, and the shocking willingness of the Iranian leaders to sacrifice its most valuable resource, teenagers, and children, in the name of Allah. 

In this circumstance, how does one measure victory and defeat? To lose an entire generation of children is, by most standards, a sign of defeat, not victory.

According to a report by the Brookings Institute:
In 1984, Iranian President Ali-Akbar Rafsanjani declared that “all Iranians from 12 to 72 should volunteer for the Holy War.” Thousands of children were pulled from schools, indoctrinated in the glory of martyrdom, and sent to the front lines only lightly armed with one or two grenades or a gun with one magazine of ammunition.
Wearing keys around their necks (to signify their pending entrance into heaven), they were sent forward in the first waves of attacks to help clear paths through minefields with their bodies and overwhelm Iraqi defenses. Iran’s spiritual leader at the time, Ayatollah Khomeini, delighted in the children’s sacrifice and extolled that they were helping Iran to achieve “a situation which we cannot describe in any way except to say that it is a divine country.”
(It is important to note here that the Basij, formed during the Iran-Iraq war through a decree by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, are also the motorcycle-riding, para-military organization that effectively put down the protests in Iran in 2009. Originally part of a civil defense force, during the war, the organization was largely made up of young boys aged between ten and sixteen.)

Meanwhile, as children were being sent to their deaths, the US was engaged in a top-secret intelligence-sharing arrangement with Iraq which offered data gleaned from satellite photos of the battle zones. This information played a crucial role in alerting Saddam to troop movement prior to a human wave attack and allowed him to shore up any weakness in his defensive line. In addition, the intelligence was critical in determining the success and failure rate of bombing raids. 

And the CIA director Casey also had a more effective alternative solution to offer. As Teicher noted in his testimony:
When I joined the NSC staff in early 1982, CIA director Casey was adamant that cluster bombs were a perfect “force multiplier" that would allow the Iraqis to defend against the "human wave" of Iranian attackers. 
Whether or not Casey was aware that those human waves were made up in many cases of children, we have no way of knowing. Given the stakes involved and the American determination, most likely it wouldn't have mattered.

However, one thing was becoming clear: America was quickly on its way to becoming an active participant in the Iran-Iraq war, through a proxy they could only barely control. 


In the third and final part, we shall examine how Reagan's foreign policy in the Middle East changed from simply being immoral and into something tragic, reckless and clearly impeachable.