The US and Saddam’s use of poison gas

The National Security Archive (a private group that sues to declassify government documents) released a set of very important materials today. This is the story they tell: in 1983 and 1984, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran and against Kurdish “insurgents” within Iraq. On March 5, 1984, the US acknowledged and publicly criticized these attacks. However, there followed a series of private meetings with Iraqi officials that had a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” quality to them. At a meeting involving Secretary of State George Schultz, the Americans “clarified that our cw [chemical weapon] condemnation was made strictly out of our opposition to to the use of lethal and incapacitating cw, wherever it occurs. They emphasized that our interests in (1) preventing an Iranian victory and (2) continuing to improve bilateral relations with Iraq, at a pace of Iraq’s choosing, remain undiminished.” (Emphasis added.) These are quotes from a briefing memo for Donald Rumsfeld, who was preparing to go to Iraq, where he presumably delivered a similar message while shaking Saddam’s hand. On Nov. 26, 1984, the US and Iraq restored diplomatic relations. In 1988, Saddam used chemical weapons on a much larger scale against Kurdish villagers.

I recognize that the US had a legitimate interest in containing Iran. Furthermore, there is something to be said in defense of our system: despite its desire for good relations with Iraq, the US government had to acknowledge Saddam’s use of poison gas publicly, thus embarrassing him before the world. On the other hand, the public denunciation had little force if very senior US officials also conveyed the message that our interest in good relations “remained undiminished.” Thus the record should show that the US chose not to warn Iraq against using poison gas in 1984. The subsequent use of chemical weapons against Kurds constituted genocide, for which the United States must therefore bear some moral (if not legal) responsibility.