Where Did Saddam Hussein Come From? Part I
Jude Wanniski
August 20, 1998


Memo To: Richard Holbrooke, U.N. Ambassador
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A different perspective on Saddam

I originally wrote this two-part report on February 18/19 as a memo to Chairman Jesse Helms of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the time, we were preparing for action against Baghdad because of one of several crises that developed as a result of our sanctions policy. Since 1994, I've been arguing that we have never had any intention of lifting the sanctions as long as Saddm remains in power, and that this policy is wrong-headed, unnecessary and provocative to the entire Islamic world. At the time, Jack Kemp took the initiative of proposing that if Saddam opened his whole country to us for a specific length of time -- six months perhaps -- it should be sufficient to wrap things up. Part of my argument to Senator Helms consisted of a background review of how the confrontation with Iraq began in the first place. I sent a copy of the report to your predecessor, Bill Richardson, although I don't know if he read it, or if he did, if it had any effect upon him. It certainly did not seem so. Nevertheless, because I don't think you are likely to get this view from anyone else, and that I believe it to be accurate, I send it along, with some important revisions.

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In the Gulf War, we lost 148 lives, a significant percentage by "friendly fire," but it still counts that as many as 300,000 Iraqi lives were lost before we decided to end the slaughter. It also counts that another 1.4 million Iraqi civilians died since the war ended as a result of the destruction of the water and sanitary facilities, which could not be repaired because we will not permit Iraq to sell goods or buy what is needed for their repair. Remember that even before Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, we were keeping such a tight hold on what he could buy that he complained to April Glaspie, our ambassador, that they are only premitted to buy wheat and pretty soon you will argue that gunpowder can be made out of wheat. We do tend to bury the past, especially when it becomes inconvenient to our present and future intentions. Here is a thumbnail account, my own analysis, of how we have arrived at this pretty pass. Please bear with me.

First of all, Saddam came to full power as president of Iraq in 1979, a very important year, as I will explain, in that it was also the year of the Iranian revolution. He had been vice president since 1974, when he was 37, and essentially ran the government under a titular leader. The biggest influence on his life was that of his stepfather, a man who despised Persians and Jews, who became mayor of Baghdad, and who inspired Saddam to became an Arab nationalist in the new Ba'ath (or Renaissance) Party. The Ba'ath Party grew out of the Great Depression, the way the New Deal surfaced in the Democratic party here. Its three component parts were (Arab) unity, liberation (from colonialism) and (economic) socialism. Saddam's various biographers more or less agree that his central core has been the acquisition of personal power and the retention of personal power. He has no moral or spiritual compass, no particular ideology. There is actually no evidence that he despises Persians or Jews as a class, but assesses them at different times according to whether they will add or detract from his secure political position. His biographers agree he is not megalomaniacal or irrational, but is certainly cold-blooded when it comes to dealing with any direct threat to his station.

When Saddam came to power in this pre-Reagan era, capitalism was not held in high regard throughout the world. It is not surprising that Saddam attempted to manage the Iraqi economy with socialist schemes mixed in with capitalist markets. He began his leadership of Iraq in the Jimmy Carter years, which saw the price of gold rise from $140 to as high as $850, settling to $625 in 1980 going through election day. These were marvelous days for the oil-producing states of the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq, as the price of oil rose to as high as $35 a barrel, more than ten times the price before President Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971. There were great differences, though, in the way Iran and Iraq managed this new wealth.

in Teheran, the Shah assumed the dramatic rise in the oil price was due to energy shortages that would continue indefinitely -- which was the dominant view in the world at the time. He decided to spend not only the cash coming in, but also borrowed heavily against future receipts, with a dream of building a modern Iran as his legacy. He did not anticipate the fact that the general price level would soon be catching up with gold and oil, and that the Iranian business community would have to catch up with wages and prices too. When the inflation rate soared as he pumped up the economy on top of the monetary inflation, the Shah decided to crack down on "profiteers" who violated his decrees of price controls. His ignorance of macroeconomics was not unusual at the time, and he never did make the connection of why ordinary people began to demonstrate against him in early 1978. The inflation was not only wrecking the creditor class and strangling the business community, it also was causing a breakdown in morality, as the linkages broke between effort and reward. Monetary inflation invariably tears apart the underpinning of trust and morality in any society. Opposition to the Shah developed though an amalgam of business and religious leaders -- the business leaders alarmed at being punished for charging enough for their products to cover the costs of production, and religious leaders observing the breakdown of morality in the underlying inflation.

The religious leader who came to power when the Shah was finally kicked out was the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had spent a good part of the 1970s watching the economic expansion and moral degradation of his country from exile, in Baghdad. As in Iran, these were exciting years for the Iraqi economy, but instead of building an expensive memorial to himself, Saddam Hussein directed the cascade of oil wealth into the improvement of the lives of ordinary Iraqi citizens. Our ambassador to Iraq in these years, Edward Peck, tells me there is no question that as much as ordinary people in Iran came to hate the Shah, the ordinary people of Iraq came to love Saddam. The wealth went into free education, K through university, modern hospitals, water and sewer facilities, and the greatest expansion of living standards in the history of modern Iraq. His biographers agree he was conscious of the need to share the benefits of the oil wealth as widely as possible in order to keep the support of the masses. There had been anti-Israel episodes in the earlier period, but in this period under Saddam, Israel saw a man who clearly had no wish to disturb a nation that could cause him trouble.

Trouble commenced when the Shah of Iran began to see his regime crumble, and understood the source of his trouble was sitting in Baghdad. Saddam bowed to the pressure from Teheran and invited the Ayatollah to take up residence in Kuwait. When Kuwait turned him down, Saddam assisted him in finding exile quarters in Paris, but the Ayatollah was not a happy camper. Remember, Iraq is dominated by Shi'ite Muslims, who account for 60% of the population, Sunni Muslims counting for 20%. The Ayatollah is also Shi'ite, as are the great majority of Iranians. When the Ayatollah replaced the Shah, Saddam Hussein immediately began courting his own Sh'ia population, donning their traditional religious garb at ceremonies up and down Iraq, and spending lavishly from state coffers on construction of places of worship. There was plenty of money. Oil revenues were up forty times their level of the 1960s.

As the Ayatollah began to call for an uprising of Sh'ia fundamentalists all over the Middle East, including his old neighbors in Iraq, Saddam also spent lavishly on a military buildup. The United States, Israel, and the NATO powers were happy to sell him anything it wanted. When we hear the President remind us that Saddam invaded Iran, we should remember that he did so "out of fear, not out of greed," which is how one of his biographers puts it. The historians also agree that he believed the war would be a quick one, because he was not interested in gobbling up Iran, a country with three times the population and land mass of Iraq. His military machine quickly knocked down the Iranian army in the western province, and instead of advancing toward Teheran, Saddam stopped when he had incorporated only the segment of the population that was pro-Iraq, anti-Ayatollah. He later saw the mistake in not increasing his hold until his forces had run out of steam. The Iranian forces turned out to be stronger than he had been led to believe by Israeli intelligence. They struck back, and the war dragged on for eight years. Each side suffered several hundred thousand dead, with most reports indicating Iran losing more. The total cost of the war was easily $1 trillion. The war ended when Iraq began to win back territory it had lost to the Iranian forces and the Iranians finally accepted a UN resolution of truce.

In that period, his biographers agree that Iraq used poison gas several times that we can be sure of. From my readings, I've gotten the impression that except in one instance, they were used as a last resort, when his forces were about to be overwhelmed by Iranian forces. In those cases where he used poison gas against his own people, the most egregious example was in 1988, when the city of Halabja was gas bombed in the Kurdish area. The UN estimates that 5,000 Iraqis were killed and 10,000 wounded, the bombing occurring after the city had surrendered to the Iranians. There were other Iraqi villages gassed in the Kurdish region, but my impression is that they were given warnings of several weeks to evacuate as Baghdad was relocating some significant portion of the Iraqi Kurds for reasons not clear to me. Even those historians clearly hostile to Saddam will point out that the western powers kept him supplied with the materials needed for chemical weapons right up to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, including material cleared by the U.K.

It is not at all clear to me that Saddam ever gassed his own people. There was a time when I was sure he had, because our news media repeated as fact this evil deed. The Iraqi government continues to insist the accusations are untrue. There also exists a report to the Pentagon that was issued in April of 1990, a few months prior to the invation of Kuwait, which I urge you to acquire and read carefully. It essentially concludes that whatever occurred at Halabja was not perpetrated by the Baghdad government. Edward Peck, our chief of mission in Baghdad in the Carter years and a career diplomat, tells me he tends to believe the contemporaneous Pentagon report, and that what gas was used was of a type our government had not supplied the Iraqi government with when it was at war with Iran. Iraq's UN Ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, with whom I've been in contact for most of this year, tells me that of course he cannot be sure of what happened at Halabja, but that he believes the Pentagon report was accurate. In the 1989 yearbook of the Encyclopedia Brittanica,  the charge that the gassing at Halabja was done by the Iraqi army is disputed by an Iraqi General, who said it was a ridiculous asserting because the Iraqi army was moving in the direction of Halabja when it was gassed.

Part II of this thumbnail history will continue tomorrow.