America suffers from loss of short-term memory on Iraq

Posted: Tuesday, November 30, 2004

I have been reading with interest many letters regarding Iraq, Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush, and U.S. policy. A debate certainly is raging in the community, a well as the country. Much of the debate, however, tends to suffer a particularly American malaise of short-term historical memory.

There are many important areas left out of the discussion, which renders it random rants at neighbors. We must always bear in mind the historical record and our role in history when trying to understand out current predicament.

Some of us have lived through these events; they are all, regardless, in our history books. There is, for example, a coup in 1958 supported by the U.S. government, in which the Bathist Party took power (they later became the 'bad guys'). U.S. Middle Eastern policy was based on ruthless, very un-democratic, regimes in Iran and Iraq. Saddam's role was of U.S. friend and client. When Iran fell (that is, when the Iranian factions deposed our client dictator, the Shah), Saddam became an even more important part of U.S. policy. He was a favorite of Carter, Reagan, and Bush I - armed and trained by U.S., British, and yes, even French experts at warfare and torture. He could have been described accurately, in the words of a very renowned Secretary of State when he said, "sure he is a bastard, but he is our bastard."

The important event of nearly 15 years ago was not Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, but the collapse of the Soviet Union. Without a 'Soviet Threat' to justify massive defense expenditures (of which our major industries are dependent) the U.S. government needed a new threat. Hey Presto, Saddam invades Kuwait (how confusing the reaction of the west must have to Baghdad, seeing that the last invasion - of Iran - was rewarded). Enter the age of "unpredictable" rulers and renegade regimes.

Saddam, by being allowed to stay in power by Bush I's refusal to support the uprising, and through sanctions, became the useful tool he always was in U.S. attempts to control Middle Eastern resources. Give him credit where due, Bush II saw it wasn't necessary to continue such games and, with successful military bases in the surrounding regions (a distant dream of a Secretary of State quoted below) the U.S. now has a substantial military presence in Iraq itself.

Nowhere in this outline is "democracy," "national security," "weapons of mass destruction," "national sovereignty," etcetera painted as motives behind U.S. policy - because they are not. Control of a vital resource and thus influence over European and Asian economies (dependent, unlike us, on those resources) has guided U.S. thinking since the Truman administration discovered that the United States emerged as the world's only real super power after World War II. One of my favorite quotes by another renowned Secretary of State, talking about the problem of convincing the populace to support their power grab, was that "we will have to scare hell out the American people."

Enter "terrorism," "WMD," "renegade regimes," and "Axis of Evil." Scary enough to foster support and start a debate about the latest part of the power grab. We must, to retain any semblance of democracy within the United States, continue our discussion about what is happening. But we must delve deeper than the latest press release. Only then can we begin to understand and solve some of this world's problems.

• Chris McMaster lives and teaches in Juneau. He has returned recently to the United States after living in Europe for much of the past 15 years.

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