Wednesday, 25 September 2002

How Saddam Happened

America helped make a monster. What to do with him—and what happens after he’s gone—has haunted us for a quarter century

The once and future defense secretary, at the time a private citizen, had been sent by President Ronald Reagan to Baghdad as a special envoy. Saddam Hussein, armed with a pistol on his hip, seemed “vigorous and confident,” according to a now declassified State Department cable obtained by NEWSWEEK. Rumsfeld “conveyed the President’s greetings and expressed his pleasure at being in Baghdad,” wrote the notetaker. Then the two men got down to business, talking about the need to improve relations between their two countries.

Like most foreign-policy insiders, Rumsfeld was aware that Saddam was a murderous thug who supported terrorists and was trying to build a nuclear weapon. (The Israelis had already bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.) But at the time, America’s big worry was Iran, not Iraq. The Reagan administration feared that the Iranian revolutionaries who had overthrown the shah (and taken hostage American diplomats for 444 days in 1979-81) would overrun the Middle East and its vital oilfields. On the—theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Reaganites were seeking to support Iraq in a long and bloody war against Iran. The meeting between Rumsfeld and Saddam was consequential: for the next five years, until Iran finally capitulated, the United States backed Saddam’s armies with military intelligence, economic aid and covert supplies of munitions.

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