Thursday, August 2, 2012

"Conspiring Bastards": Brands & Palkki on Saddam

Hal Brands and David Palkki recently published a fascinating article in Diplomatic History called "'Conspiring Bastards': Saddam Hussein's Strategic View of the United States" (I unfortunately cannot post the full-text, but the abstract is here).  The article makes extensive use of captured documents from Iraq available at the Conflict Records Research Center in providing a colorful tour of the development of Saddam's views of the United States from the late 1960s until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

On the value of the captured documents, the authors note at the start:
Until recently, the paucity of internal, primary-source documentation on Saddam's regime forced scholars to resort to a sort of Kreminology to divine the strategic calculus that drove his decision making. This is beginning to change. With the toppling of the Baathist regime in 2003, U.S. and coalition forces recovered millions of pages of Iraqi state records from various ministries and government offices. These records document the activities of the Republican Guard, the intelligence agencies, the Presidential Diwan, and other offices. They include everything from routine administrative correspondence to tapes and transcripts of meetings between Saddam and his top advisors. While gaps in coverage remain, the captured records shed considerable light on Iraqi decision making and national security policy under Saddam.
Particularly interesting, and entertaining, is the account of the 1986 revelation to Saddam, Iraq, and the rest of the world that the Reagan administration had been secretly selling arms to Iran, what Saddam apparently called "Irangate." Brands and Palkki state that "Saddam mounted a surprisingly subdued diplomatic response" designed to "shore up U.S. backing for Baghdad by taking a moderate public line" and note that "[t]o the extent that this strategy aimed to win the moral high ground in dealing with Washington, it worked" noting that "[a]s Ambassador Newton later put it, 'I never thought Iraq would be in a position to take the high road with us, but they did.'" Privately, however:
It is difficult to imagine an episode better tailored to exacerbate Saddam's fears and suspicions in this regard - his constant wariness of conspiracies, his mistrust of American intentions, his worries about U.S.-Israeli-Iranian encirclement. Viewed through this lens, Irangate appeared not as the half-baked scheme it was, but rather as evidence of a grand conspiracy against the regime.
Brands and Palkki note the consequences of this, stating "from the late 1980s onward, Saddam would often refer back to this incident as the opening shot in an American onslaught against Iraq" and quote Saddam from a captured document from the CRRC's collection dated after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait stating "The war was launched on us long before all this" and "It officially started in the 1986 meeting, and was exposed under the title 'Irangate.'"

The article concludes that "From the time Saddam came to power in the late 1960s through the invasion of Kuwait more than two decades later, his view of Washington was dominated by remarkable suspicion and hostility," but notes that
these perceptions derived from a conspiratorial mindset that was, in its own way, eminently useful, in that it led Saddam to create overlapping layers of internal security that allowed him to sustain the Baathist regime for thirty-five years. And while Saddam's fears were exaggerated, they were not completely baseless. Harming Iraq was never the primary purpose of U.S. policy during this period - broader considerations such as containing Soviet influence and maintaining regional stability took pride of place - yet American initiatives were frequently prejudicial to Saddam's government. From U.S. support for the Kurds in the 1970s through Irangate in the 1980s, Washington's policies confirmed Saddam's gravest suspicions and made the conspiracy theorist, at least in his own eyes, a prophet.