"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Banality of Evil 

Juan Cole has written something so important that I feel compelled to quote at length:
Investigators delved into the contents of one of 40 mass graves identified in Iraq, discovering 300 bodies of Kurds killed in 1987 or 1988. The victims appear to have included a large number of women and children.

In the face of such horror (one little boy's skeletal hand still grasped a plastic ball), it is hard to remember history dispassionately. But the context for this barbarous crime is part of the crime itself. The Kurds had sought greater autonomy from Baghdad for decades. In the later years of the Iran-Iraq War, some Kurdish groups sided with Iran against their own government, in hopes of winning independence. The Baath regime of Saddam Hussein replied with a virtual genocide, killing large numbers of Kurds, and employing in some instances poison gas, as at Halabjah. The sheer vindictiveness of the Anfal Campaign is demonstrated by the fact that so many of the villages targeted were far from the Iranian border and not obviously part of the war effort.

The Reagan administration, then strongly allied with Saddam, did not so much as issue a condemnation of the regime's vicious attacks on the Kurds. Some congressmen spoke out. In 1983, Secretary of State George Schultz had sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet with Saddam and explore an alliance. The meeting went well. But then later in 1983, the State Department issued a condemnation of Saddam for using chemical weapons at the front against Iran. Saddam was furious and almost called off the deal. Schultz then sent Rumsfeld back to Baghdad a second time, in 1984, this time with the message that the State Department condemnation was pro forma. So Donald Rumsfeld and George Schultz are guilty of having winked at the only major use of weapons of mass destruction in the modern Middle East. See "Rumsfeld, Bechtel and Iraq."

So the Kurdish mass grave is not only a testament to Saddam's monumental brutality. It is also a sad commentary on the immorality of US policies in the region in the 1980s under Reagan. It is not a legacy over which Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other figures on the Right can take any pride in, or political comfort from.

Let me state the obvious - Saddam Hussein is a right bastard, a despicable little beast whose defeat should trouble no one. This fact is beyond debate. When Cole describes the corpse of the little boy still holding his ball, the toy he instinctively grasped for comfort in his last moments of life, I thought of course of my own little boy. A regime that murders children - coldly and efficiently, without remorse or even much thought - is a horror almost too stark to face.

But face it we did. And worse yet, we supported it.

I show my age when I say that I well remember the Reagan administration's dalliance with the Butcher of Baghdad. I was outraged by it then, and I said so. Too often, I was told that I was being naïve. The world of realpolitik is not for the squeamish, Reagan's apologists would say, and the enemy of my enemy is by necessity my friend. Iran was the problem, and Saddam was a key part of the solution. It's an imperfect world, and we don't always get to choose our allies.

Well, as Dr. Phil would say (and I swear to God I'll never quote Dr. Phil again!) - "...and how's that working out for you?"

I sometimes think that America's foreign policy since the Cold War has been based on that children's song, The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly. We form alliances of convenience with ever more dangerous regimes, in a pathetic attempt to outflank the enemy du jour - and then we wonder what went wrong when our new friend turns on us like a wet dog. Think, for instance, of bin Laden (Reagan again, arming the noble Afghan mujahadeen in their heroic struggle against Soviet hegemony - oops!).

Hussein, of course, has become the archetypical example of this phenomenon (and the bizarre role of Rumsfeld in '84, then again in the current war, just underscores how surreal the whole process inevitably becomes). Worse yet, we're still doing it. Don't believe me? I have one word for you: Uzbekistan.

It's time to stop it.

The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Much of the world seems to understand this simple fact - you didn't see the Iranians lining up to join our "coalition" to occupy Iraq, did you? Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is himself a monster. We need to recognize that truth, and not let short term tactical concerns hijack our broad strategic interests. Until we acquire the discpline to stay focused on our real goals and values, we will bear the burden of exhuming mass graves all over the world, and cradling in our arms the broken bodies of the children we helped slaughter.




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