As the United States government prepares for war with Syria over an alleged chemical weapons attack, a report by Foreign Policy magazine details CIA files that prove that the U.S. knew Saddam Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history and provided him assistance anyway. Previously it was a matter of debate as to how familiar American officials were with Hussein’s chemical weapons use. Now there is no doubt that the U.S. government knew about the attacks and continued support.
In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.
The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.
To be clear, the United States government not only knew that Saddam was using chemical weapons they were helping him effectively use them by providing actionable intelligence to him. Perhaps this underwrote some of the confidence by the Bush Administration – packed to the gills with former Reagan officials - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction going into the 2003 invasion.
In any case, the CIA files aptly demonstrate American complicity in Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons complicating public commitments the U.S. government had made to non-proliferation and the use of WMDs.
In contrast to today’s wrenching debate over whether the United States should intervene to stop alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government, the United States applied a cold calculus three decades ago to Hussein’s widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war. And even if they were discovered, the CIA wagered that international outrage and condemnation would be muted.
In the documents, the CIA said that Iran might not discover persuasive evidence of the weapons’ use — even though the agency possessed it. Also, the agency noted that the Soviet Union had previously used chemical agents in Afghanistan and suffered few repercussions.
Such moral courage. Is this not the greatest country in the history of history?
Regardless of the posturing America takes regarding the use of chemical weapons, the reality is evident – unacceptable for our enemies, acceptable for our friends. So in the future, or really the now, it would be advisable to look at the complete picture of a conflict before pretending that certain “red lines” such as the use of chemical weapons wholly drive policy decisions. It is a line America doesn’t mind everyone crossing. In fact, we’ll even help you under the right circumstances.