by Jeremy Scahill
“Man and the turtle are very much alike. Neither makes any progress without sticking his neck out.”
-- Donald Rumsfeld
Five years before Saddam Hussein’s now infamous 1988 gassing of the Kurds, a key meeting took place in Baghdad that would play a significant role in forging close ties between Saddam Hussein and Washington. It happened at a time when Saddam was first alleged to have used chemical weapons. The meeting in late December 1983 paved the way for an official restoration of relations between Iraq and the US, which had been severed since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
With the Iran-Iraq war escalating, President Ronald Reagan dispatched his Middle East envoy, a former secretary of defense, to Baghdad with a hand-written letter to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and a message that Washington was willing at any moment to resume diplomatic relations.
That envoy was Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld’s December 19-20, 1983 visit to Baghdad made him the highest-ranking US official to visit Iraq in 6 years. He met Saddam and the two discussed “topics of mutual interest,” according to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. “[Saddam] made it clear that Iraq was not interested in making mischief in the world,” Rumsfeld later told The New York Times. “It struck us as useful to have a relationship, given that we were interested in solving the Mideast problems.”
Just 12 days after the meeting, on January 1, 1984, The Washington Post reported that the United States “in a shift in policy, has informed friendly Persian Gulf nations that the defeat of Iraq in the 3-year-old war with Iran would be ‘contrary to U.S. interests’ and has made several moves to prevent that result.”
In March of 1984, with the Iran-Iraq war growing more brutal by the day, Rumsfeld was back in Baghdad for meetings with then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. On the day of his visit, March 24th, UPI reported from the United Nations: “Mustard gas laced with a nerve agent has been used on Iranian soldiers in the 43-month Persian Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, a team of U.N. experts has concluded... Meanwhile, in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, U.S. presidential envoy Donald Rumsfeld held talks with Foreign Minister Tarek Aziz (sic) on the Gulf war before leaving for an unspecified destination.”
The day before, the Iranian news agency alleged that Iraq launched another chemical weapons assault on the southern battlefront, injuring 600 Iranian soldiers. “Chemical weapons in the form of aerial bombs have been used in the areas inspected in Iran by the specialists,” the U.N. report said. “The types of chemical agents used were bis-(2-chlorethyl)-sulfide, also known as mustard gas, and ethyl N, N-dimethylphosphoroamidocyanidate, a nerve agent known as Tabun.”
Prior to the release of the UN report, the US State Department on March 5th had issued a statement saying “available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical weapons.”
Commenting on the UN report, US Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was quoted by The New York Times as saying, “We think that the use of chemical weapons is a very serious matter. We've made that clear in general and particular.”
Compared with the rhetoric emanating from the current administration, based on speculations about what Saddam might have, Kirkpatrick’s reaction was hardly a call to action.
Most glaring is that Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq as the 1984 UN report was issued and said nothing about the allegations of chemical weapons use, despite State Department “evidence.” On the contrary, The New York Times reported from Baghdad on March 29, 1984, “American diplomats pronounce themselves satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United States and suggest that normal diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name.”
A month and a half later, in May 1984, Donald Rumsfeld resigned. In November of that year, full diplomatic relations between Iraq and the US were fully restored. Two years later, in an article about Rumsfeld’s aspirations to run for the 1988 Republican Presidential nomination, the Chicago Tribune Magazine listed among Rumsfeld’s achievements helping to “reopen U.S. relations with Iraq.” The Tribune failed to mention that this help came at a time when, according to the US State Department, Iraq was actively using chemical weapons.
Throughout the period that Rumsfeld was Reagan’s Middle East envoy, Iraq was frantically purchasing hardware from American firms, empowered by the White House to sell. The buying frenzy began immediately after Iraq was removed from the list of alleged sponsors of terrorism in 1982. According to a February 13, 1991 Los Angeles Times article:
“First on Hussein's shopping list was helicopters -- he bought 60 Hughes helicopters and trainers with little notice. However, a second order of 10 twin-engine Bell "Huey" helicopters, like those used to carry combat troops in Vietnam, prompted congressional opposition in August, 1983... Nonetheless, the sale was approved.”
In 1984, according to The Los Angeles Times, the State Department—in the name of “increased American penetration of the extremely competitive civilian aircraft market”—pushed through the sale of 45 Bell 214ST helicopters to Iraq. The helicopters, worth some $200 million, were originally designed for military purposes. The New York Times later reported that Saddam “transferred many, if not all [of these helicopters] to his military.”
In 1988, Saddam’s forces attacked Kurdish civilians with poisonous gas from Iraqi helicopters and planes. U.S. intelligence sources told The Los Angeles Times in 1991, they “believe that the American-built helicopters were among those dropping the deadly bombs.”
In response to the gassing, sweeping sanctions were unanimously passed by the US Senate that would have denied Iraq access to most US technology. The measure was killed by the White House.
Senior officials later told reporters they did not press for punishment of Iraq at the time because they wanted to shore up Iraq's ability to pursue the war with Iran. Extensive research uncovered no public statements by Donald Rumsfeld publicly expressing even remote concern about Iraq’s use or possession of chemical weapons until the week Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, when he appeared on an ABC news special.
Eight years later, Donald Rumsfeld signed on to an “open letter” to President Clinton, calling on him to eliminate “the threat posed by Saddam.” It urged Clinton to “provide the leadership necessary to save ourselves and the world from the scourge of Saddam and the weapons of mass destruction that he refuses to relinquish.”
In 1984, Donald Rumsfeld was in a position to draw the world’s attention to Saddam’s chemical threat. He was in Baghdad as the UN concluded that chemical weapons had been used against Iran. He was armed with a fresh communication from the State Department that it had “available evidence” Iraq was using chemical weapons. But Rumsfeld said nothing.
Washington now speaks of Saddam’s threat and the consequences of a failure to act. Despite the fact that the administration has failed to provide even a shred of concrete proof that Iraq has links to Al Qaeda or has resumed production of chemical or biological agents, Rumsfeld insists that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
But there is evidence of the absence of Donald Rumsfeld’s voice at the very moment when Iraq’s alleged threat to international security first emerged. And in this case, the evidence of absence is indeed evidence.