Pollyanna's Guide to World Politics
Tim Dunlop blogs an approving link to a piece by an American blogger styling himself MyDD, who in turn posts a photo of (now) US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld meeting with Saddam Hussein back in 1983 (during the Iran-Iraq war). Now, part of the thrust of MyDD's piece was to suggest (not unreasonably) that CNN appeared to have edited a story to reduce any embarrassment factor for Rumsfeld. The other message, however (which Tim apparently also endorses) is the suggestion that there was something inherently sinister about Rumsfeld meeting with Saddam (and that it's relevant to the current situation of contemplated military action against Iraq). MyDD says:
"Here's the photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. And recall, this is after Saddam had used biological weapons against Iranians, the Kurds, and other Iraqi's."
For a start, that's just not correct. First, both sides used chemical weapons against each other during the Iran-Iraq war, although Iraq almost certainly made more extensive use of them. However, I'm not sure that there had been extensive use of WOMD as early as 1983 (here's an excellent account of the course of the war for reference purposes). Certainly, and contrary to what MyDD says, as far as I know, neither chemical nor biological weapons had been used against the Kurds in 1983. As we know from Tim's own blog as recently as yesterday, the Halabja incident didn't happen until 1988. Moreover, it involved chemical weapons (either mustard gas, sarin, tabun or VX), not biological ones. I don't claim to be a font of encyclopedic knowledge on the Iran-Iraq war, but I haven't previously heard it claimed that Saddam used biological weapons at all against the Kurds. According to this chronology, Iraq didn't begin developing a biological weapons capability until 1985, although it first used a chemical weapon (mustard gas) against Iranian forces in August 1983 (about 4 months before the photographed meeting between Saddam and Rumsfeld). Finally, although Iraq undeniably developed biological weapons starting in 1985, I haven't heard it suggested that it ever actually used them during the Iran-Iraq war (although there are unconfirmed claims that they were used during the 1991 Gulf War). Some on the Left seem to have no qualms about switching almost instantaneously between exaggerating and minimising the extent of Saddam's misdeeds, depending on which stance happens to assist their argument.
However, the more important point to make about MyDD's Rumsfeld slag (and Tim's approving linkage of it) is this one made by a contributor to MyDD's comment box:
"So What? Times change as do the situations. This is so stupid. We worked with Noriega in Panama before he went wacko. And with the Afghani’s when they were fighting the Russians. We work with those people who have an enemy in common with us, when we need to. This meeting was before Saddam attacked Kuwait. You try to make something out of nothing for some pathetic attempt to smear a good man for your sick political agenda. Our State Department Heads need to meet with all kinds of foreign leaders, even the ones who are not such good people. Now the situation is completely different."
I agree. Realistically, liberal democratic nations like the US have little choice but to make occasional expedient alliances with some fairly smelly regimes. If they confined themselves to alliances with other liberal democracies which respect human rights, they wouldn't have too many alliances outside Europe (in 1983 anyway - things have improved considerably in South America since then, and in parts of Asia). Geo-political decisions, like decisions in just about every sphere of human endeavour, more often than not involve choosing between a range of very imperfect alternatives. A leader who waited for a perfect alternative would be condemning himself to permanent supine impotence. Doing nothing is in itself a positive choice. Where choosing to do nothing has probable consequences worse than those involved with taking positive action (however imperfect), inaction can hardly be reasonably regarded as the preferable choice. Lefties frequently scoff at 'realpolitik': I have to confess I've done it myself. However, the reality is that leadership in the real world necessarily requires hard choices involving shades of grey. The really hard bit is maintaining a reasonably clear vision of where to draw the line to avoid undermining fundamental principles that may destroy the very values you're fighting to preserve. You can mount a plausible argument that US foreign policy has crossed that line rather more frequently than one might have liked, but it's easy to be wise in hindsight.
We need to keep in mind the context of Rumsfeld's meeting with Saddam in 1983. The Ayatollah was at his peak of lunacy in Iran, and the Teheran hostage crisis was still very fresh in mind. Moreover, 241 American marines had recently been murdered by a terrorist bomb in Beirut (as Rumsfeld observed to CNN). The Soviet Union and communism generally remained a very real threat, with the USSR still occupying Afghanistan, and US-backed mujihadeen rebels (including Osama Bin Laden) actively trying to dislodge them. American policy throughout the Cold War involved forging expedient alliances with anti-communist regimes, including some pretty odious ones. Although that policy had some very unfortunate and unintended consequences (not least the creation of the Taliban and the training of Bin Laden), it was ultimately successful in achieving its primary aim of the overthrow of communism.
The US forged an expedient alliance with Saddam in the 1980s not only as a bulwark against communism, but also as a counter to the threat of extremist militant Islam represented by Khomeini's Iran. Saddam was (and remains) a secular strong-man of the Middle East, so the choice was understandable, even though we can now see it was ill-judged. One can reasonably criticise the US for being far too slow to wake up to the fact that it had made a bad choice of ally and to cut Saddam adrift. In fact, they didn't do so until after Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to well-justified expressions of alarm from Israel and all Iraq's Arab neighbours. However, that slowness doesn't provide any logical basis for the Left's standard argument (usually by way of tacit assumption - as with MyDD's post and Tim's approval of it) that America's previous expedient alliance with Iraq somehow disqualifies it from taking action now. Better late than never.