Why the West Saved Saddam Hussein in 1987

When Saddam Hussein Was a Western Hero

Back in September 1987, I wrote the following about the USA under Reagan saving Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from the consequences of the war he had launched against Iran.  It was part of the October 1987 Newsnotes, appearing in Issue 4 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.

The Bitter Sea

The past few weeks and months have seen a series of dangerous confrontations in a body of water that the Arabs call the Arabian Gulf, and the Iranians call the Persian Gulf, and to which the British media attach the bland label “The Gulf”. The ancient Mesopotamians, the first people to leave written records about it, had a name for it that might seem very suitable. They called it “The Bitter Sea”!

The Bitter Sea has been getting ever more bitter recently, in part as a follow-on from the “Irangate” shambles. What happened there is a perfect argument for democratic control over foreign policy. Naturally, some things have to be done in secret. Spying has to be organised secretly. It was quite reasonable for Nixon to make secret contacts with Peking [Beijing], for instance, before publicly ending many years of bitter hostility. But Irangate was another matter. It was secret, mostly in order to stop Congress from restraining President Reagan’s wishes, even though Congress was fully within its rights in restraining him.

Success might have justified such double-dealing. But the whole idea was a basically stupid one. Reagan had said, publicly, that there were going to be no concessions to terrorists. And of course he was right. If someone has a just claim, you should concede it before they need to resort to terrorism. If the claim is not seen as just, then it is pointless and short-sighted to give into it.

Plane hijackings are a case in point. The first hijackers were given everything they asked for. So naturally, everybody started doing it. There are no limits to the number of armed groups who want world-wide attention to their cause. A far higher price in blood was paid – is still being paid – than if the first hijackers had been resisted and given nothing.

Reagan seemed to know all this. And then behind the scenes he started trading arms for hostages, making it clear that hostage-taking could be a highly profitable business. Naturally, the Iranians and their allies snatched as many more hostages as they could lay their hands on.

To make up for the arms for hostages deal, and after cunning diplomatic manoeuvring by Kuwait, the US sent its forces into the Gulf. This was a risky move. A small body of water like the Gulf was and is dangerous territory for a navy. It is particularly dangerous for the US Navy, which is mainly designed for fighting on the great oceans of the world, and which relies on allies for some basic elements like minesweepers.

Nevertheless, the manoeuvre seems to have worked. Partly, perhaps, because it was done openly and publicly. Those who didn’t like the idea were able to say so, through the normal political channels. And it became clear that the opposition was not so strong as to prevent President Reagan from acting.

(The US Constitution is set up with “checks and balances”, which mean in practice constant strife between the President and the different factions within Congress. The President is free to do almost anything he likes, provided only that he does it openly, and that his opponents cannot get it ruled unconstitutional or deprive it of funds. Neither of these things are likely to happen.)

Iran could have chosen to fight. But this would have been unwise. The US had built up huge naval and air power in the region. They could have hurt Iran very badly. They would certainly have been able to cut off Iran’s oil exports, on which it depends for its war against Iraq. Besides, for a time it seemed as if Iraq had stopped its attacks on tankers carrying Iranian oil. But these attacks have now resumed, and still Iran has made no major response.

At the time of writing, the drift seems to be towards peace. Iran is no longer demanding that the Iraq’s leadership be overthrown. They will settle for an official UN declaration that Iraq was the aggressor which began the war. The presence of the US naval forces means that the dream of a Shiite Fundamentalist revolution spreading into Arabia no longer seems practical. The Iranian leaders are neither mad nor evil; they simply operate from . a world view very different from anything you can find in Europe. Hopefully, a continuing war no longer looks worthwhile from the Iranian point of view.


A view from 19th September 2019

Back in 1987, the US could probably have forced Saddam to step down as the price of their help, but at that time they seemed happy enough with him.  Happy even though torture, repression and the use of gas were exactly the same as they were in 1991, when tolerating him was declared morally unacceptable

Peace was indeed made, in August 1988.  But after the sudden decline in Soviet power in 1989, the USA may have decided it was a good idea to get rid of Saddam.  Just as they encouraged the removal of Ceausescu in Romania, Mobuto in Zaire / Congo and Suharto in Indonesia.  And hard evidence suddenly appeared about long-suspected criminal ties and corruption among Italy’s Christian Democrats, wrecking a party that had successfully made Italy strong.

What is known is that Saddam was being pressed hard for debts he had run up for a war that had damaged Iranian, then seen as the main Islamic threat.  Also Kuwait was stealing oil from shared oil fields.  This was the context of his foolish invasion of Kuwait.

Was he set up?  It is the sort of thing that happens in thriller films, and often presented as virtuous.

What we know is that the invasion of Kuwait began a process of US intervention, with the Soviet Union no longer balancing it.  A pattern that is now seen as a disastrous failure by an increasing majority.  So if someone thought they were being clever, they were much less clever than they supposed themselves to be.

Given this history, I am unimpressed by the current US attempt to find Iran guilty for Yemeni retaliation against Saudi Arabia’s huge oil plant.