The Globe and Mail

Saturday, August 28, 1999

How Uncle Sam helped the bad guys

Iraqi rebels had Saddam Hussein on the run after the invasion of Kuwait, but the U.S. wouldn't let them finish the job.

OUT OF THE ASHES: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein

By Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn
HarperCollins, 322 pages, $38

© Charles Maurer

During the Gulf War, a joke circulated about a green speck seen on television between George Bush's legs: It was Brian Mulroney's necktie.

Nasty but appropriate, some thought, since Mulroney vitiated 35 years of peacekeeping by blindly following the United States into war. On the other hand, Saddam Hussein was so evil that most Canadians supported routing him in favour of decency and democracy.

In fact, democracy has never existed anywhere in the Persian Gulf and Bush did not want it in Iraq. Veteran British journalists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn make this clear in Out of the Ashes, an excellent, multifaceted history of the Gulf War's antecedents and aftermath (although not of its battles).

A popular rebellion began in Iraq shortly after Iraqi troops left Kuwait. Hussein and his governing Ba'athist party were so detested that within days, the government lost control of 14 of Iraq's l8 provinces. However, the Americans prevented rebellious citizens from obtaining arms and permitted troops still loyal to Hussein to quash the uprising. In one incident, Iraqi helicopters poured kerosene on columns of fleeing refugees and then set them alight with tracer fire, while U.S. aircraft circled overhead.

The National Security Council's director for Middle East affairs explained things this way: "You don't understand. Our policy is to get rid of Saddam, not his regime."

The Cockburns -- Patrick has been a senior Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times and the London Independent since 1979; Andrew is the author of several books on defence and international affairs, and has written about the Middle East for The New Yorker -- show that Hussein blundered into war because of surprising ignorance of the United States, and that the Bush administration blundered throughout the war because of comparable ignorance of Iraq.

The Bush administration knew about Iraq through the same intelligence apparatus that had just failed to see the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. The authors describe this apparatus in the words of a CIA operative: "All the analysts in State, CIA, DIA, NSA were in agreement. . . . There wasn't a single dissenting voice. . . . None of these analysts had ever set foot inside Iraq. Not one."

The Cockburns point out that in a country as chaotic as Iraq, nothing is clear and little is certain. Iraq is a collection of battling clans and tribes. These clans and tribes adhere to several warring sects and speak a handful of languages. Their government is not institutionalized. Whenever any group of men becomes strong enough to enforce obeisance, they become the government.

Governments in Iraq have changed so often that few books bother to detail them all, including Out of the Ashes. This century alone, approximately 10 Iraqi governments have been overthrown violently (the exact number depends on how you count fatal accidents). The strong man has been called at various times, sultan, pasha, king, general, prime minister, chairman and president.

In a country like this, it is possible to defeat the army and to kill the leader, but it is not possible to do anything more unless you are willing either to govern the people yourself or to set up someone else to do so. Thus, as war aims, political considerations must be paramount. Nevertheless, the Cockburns write, when U.S. diplomat James Akins offered to brief the Pentagon on Iraqi politics, a general told him: "Oh, no, Mr. Ambassador. You see, this war has no political overtones."

Indeed, the Cockburns show that the United States waltzed the world into war without even beginning to consider what might follow. They quote Charles Freeman, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia: "The White House was terrified of leaks about any U.S. plans that might unhinge the huge and unwieldy coalition that George Bush had put together to support the war, so officials were discouraged from writing, talking or even thinking about what to do next."

What to do next was ad-libbed by Bush. Economic sanctions were originally intended to push Hussein's army out of Kuwait, but soon after the ceasefire, Bush mentioned casually that those sanctions would continue until Hussein was out of power. Three weeks later this policy was announced formally. In short, Bush wanted Hussein kicked out -- not by the populace, but by the military. To induce the military to rebel, Bush held the population hostage.

Clinton has continued this policy, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them children. Currently, 4,000 to 5,000 children are dying from starvation and disease every month.

This book is not an apology for Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, it details his monstrousness to terrible effect. However, no one can come to rule a country solely by being a monster, and no one has yet been made a saint through democratic anointment by an electorate. The Gulf War is a complex story, with not merely two sides, but many sides, all of which have generated some good as well as horrific evil. Out of the Ashes shows this in riveting, if depressing, detail.

The contents of Out of the Ashes will surprise most readers, but much of it has appeared over the years in publications that are less wedded to American wire services than Canadian newspapers. Detailed descriptions of the CIA's operations in Iraq and Washington come from anonymous sources, but the overall picture of the CIA is consistent with published materials as well as with conversations I have had myself with former employees of the organization. All in all, Out of the Ashes appears to be credible, even model, reportage.

Charles Maurer is a freelance writer in Dundas, Ontario. He has written for newspapers and magazines across North America.