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The Real Iraq Scandal

The US's tilting toward Iraq as a counterweight to Iran wasn't a mistake; the error was ignoring Saddam's designs on Kuwait

ON several recent occasions, Rep. Henry Gonzales, the Texas Democrat who chairs the House Banking Committee, has gone public with information classified "secret" regarding United States dealings with Iraq in the period prior to Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The information has provided a rich vein of information for investigative journalists and commentators. The term "Iraqgate" has been attached to the series of diplomatic, economic, and political transactions that began during the Iraq/Iran war. One must question the kind of scandal-mongering mentality suggested by the term "Iraqgate."

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The documents that have thus far come to light suggest no administration criminality or constitutional abuse, let alone anything resembling what occurred during the Watergate period of the Nixon presidency. The memos, notes, and briefing papers, as well as National Security Decision Directive 26 signed by President Bush in October 1989, show that internal and external efforts of the Reagan and Bush administrations were entirely consistent. Both were seeking to block the expansion of the sort of Islamic f undamentalism personified by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, and to cultivate Iraq as a force for regional moderation and stability.

More important, the "Iraqgate" indictment blocks analysis of policies that over a decade had their ups and downs.

By the early 1980s, Khomeini's disciples had already sought to overthrow regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain. They were well entrenched in Lebanon and most likely had a hand in the assassination of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat.

The war with Iran, moreover, was going badly for Iraq, posing the threat of a virulently anti-Western regime gaining control of the vital Persian Gulf area.

To help Iraq, Washington removed it from the list of nations supporting terrorism, enabling trade with the US to resume. Agricultural sales and Export-Import Bank credits were restored, as were diplomatic relations.

The US also shared with Baghdad military intelligence on the deployment of Iranian forces. "Operation Staunch" was launched to stem the flow of arms to Iran. Washington turned an indifferent eye toward allied arms deals with Baghdad.

By 1987, the US tilt toward Iraq had became increasingly overt. The American Navy escorted Kuwaiti tankers (bearing US flags) through the Strait of Hormuz and punished Iran for interfering with the tankers.

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The policy worked. Iran finally sued for peace on terms the Ayatollah likened to "taking poison." Its threat to the region was contained, just as the Soviet threat to neighboring Afghanistan had been contained with the assistance of US arms funneled through Pakistan. There, too, the US dealt with allies of necessity, not choice, putting Stinger missiles into the hands of Afghan resistance fighters and looking the other way as Pakistan edged toward nuclear arms.

AFTER the war's end, the Bush administration pursued improved relations with Iraq. The Commodity Credit Corporation was pushed to provide $1 billion in loans for the purchase of US agricultural commodities despite some internal warnings that Baghdad might have trouble repaying the loans. Computers and other "dual use" equipment of potential benefit to Iraqi weapons programs were approved for sale.

Critics, both at the time and in retrospect, argue convincingly that the administration's enthusiasm for improved ties with Baghdad was excessive, particularly in view of Saddam's murderous use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, and considerable intelligence confirming his push to develop nuclear weapons. Hints that Iraq was swapping US grain for weapons should have been taken more seriously as a reflection of Baghdad's priorities.

Still, Saddam was on good terms with moderate governments in the region, particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Intelligence said he was more anxious to rebuild his economic base than to seek new military adventures.

Little advantage was seen in restricting US trade on dual-use equipment that Baghdad could just as easily obtain from France, West Germany, or other Western suppliers. And intelligence confidently if wrongly predicted Iraq's limited supply of fissionable material would inhibit its efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal. As for repaying agricultural loans, it is not customary for accountants to dictate US foreign policy.

None of this, of course, explains the fawning incompetence of US diplomacy toward Baghdad in the months and days prior to the invasion of Kuwait. Saddam's disputes with the Kuwaitis over money, borders, and oil were well known. His threats were explicit, his army large, and his positioning of 100,000 troops on the Kuwaiti border was provocative.

It is fine for the White House or State Department to seek and even anticipate a best-case resolution of conflicts. But an administration that is prepared for no other outcome has flunked an elementary leadership test.

During the months of regional crisis prior to Aug. 2, 1990, the US exerted no real diplomatic pressure on the parties to resolve their dispute. It gave no hint it would treat the invasion of Kuwait as a threat to vital Western interests. It moved no forces into the area, nor did it seek any diplomatic help from Iraq's principle arms supplier, the Soviet Union, until after the invasion occurred.

Would any other course have deterred the attack? Given the failure of diplomatic efforts after Aug. 2, there is cause for doubt. That does not change the fact that while most administration actions were defensible, at the 11th hour they were clearly wrong. In their mindless search for criminality and constitutional abuse, many journalists and other critics are simply missing the point.

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