What does this say about America?
Not that Americans are “terrible people,” as one commenter put it, or that President Reagan and the folks in his administration were terrible people. The lesson to be drawn from this historical episode, as from so many others, is that U.S. leaders do in secret things they’d never do openly. With great power and the cloak of secrecy, the temptation to act immorally proves irresistible.
Most people in the Reagan Administration would’ve been mortified to stand in front of TV cameras and say, “I decided that we should help Saddam Hussein to kill Iranians with chemical weapons.” Forced to embrace that approach openly or not at all, policy may have been different.
But the policy never had to be explained to the American people or the world. The American personnel who carried it out never needed to defend their actions to a critical press or the public.* Some people believe America did right back then. The rest of us should reflect on the lessons to take from our wrongs. Taking sides in a war like Iraq versus Iran almost inevitably meant sullying ourselves. Acting in secret all but guaranteed questionable actions would be carried out in our names. And hindsight hasn’t been kind to those who claimed our morally dubious acts were necessary. What did the U.S. gain from an Iraqi victory in that war? It’s an enormously complicated, ultimately unknowable geopolitical question. But seen in light of the fact that the U.S. went on to spend trillions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting Hussein’s Iraq, in part to “rid him of WMDs,” it’s hard to believe aiding his sarin attacks in 1988 was a necessary evil.
What we must understand as citizens of a superpower, if we’re to restrain our excesses even minimally, is that Americans are as capable of acting immorally as anyone else. This country has often been a force for good in the world, but not because our people are more moral than people elsewhere. It’s our system of government that’s exceptional. The people who designed it understood that power corrupts, and that no one can be trusted to wield it without checks and balances. Representative democracies almost always do a better job than autocracies restraining the worst impulses of the people in charge — but when American policy is made and carried out in secret, often in ways its own citizens would reject, we start to act more like an autocracy.
And our reputation deservedly suffers when the truth outs, as it always does.
CONOR FRIEDERSDORF, writing in The Atlantic, "What Complicity In Iraq’s Chemical Weapons Use Says About America."
I know I am late to this article and the one that prompted it. And I acknowledge that our country does indeed have its dark, terrible, immoral moments that put our current intentions at odds with our own history. Saying that all this took place during the Iran / Iraq conflict — in which the U.S. sided with Iraq and future enemy Saddam Hussein — does not even begin to excuse this deplorable episode. (And come to think of it, Secretary of State John Kerry cited Saddam Hussein’s use of gas as one of the three documented chemical weapons cases in recent memory; whether he failed to mention the CIA’s complicity in those acts was deliberate or not, he should address this fact directly, and publicly condemn that it happened.)
Yes, past is prologue. But I would argue that what happened more than 25 years ago should not preclude us from carrying out a limited, proportional strike against a tyrant who has killed his own people — including hundreds of children — with poison gas, and then sends out his reps to deny, deny, deny it ever happened. If only to help ensure that such barbarism does not happen again.
We stood by as chemical weapons were unleashed in the Iran / Iraq conflict in the 1980’s. We invaded Iraq and brought an end to one war and remain in the process of ending another. We aided NATO in their strikes on Libya to weaken Muammar Qaddafi and provide aid to Egypt where a coup took place and are a staunch ally of Israel, to whom we also provide substantial aid.
Our country’s history is full of maddening contradictions and hypocrisy, yes. But for the most part, I believe our intentions are good. For the most part.
Which is why we’re being so careful with Syria, where 100,000 people have already died and from which two million people have fled. Did it take two and half years to contemplate taking action? Yes. Did it take the use of chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 people, including 400+ children, for us to contemplate taking action? Yes. Is it only the United States that believes that punitive measures against Bashar al-Assad must be carried out? No. Are we putting this before Congress for debate? Yes. Can we square our potential action in Syria with our own history? No.
But in this case, we’ve taken just about every consideration and have been deliberate about it. In the end, we decided — correctly, I believe — that we can’t not make a move.
Reply with agreements or disagreements in the comments, please.
I agree with everything you’re saying, up to a point, and think it’s ridiculous that the media has framed this debate as “Will this be another Iraq?” when it will undoubtedly be another Libya (as far as US involvement goes, hopefully the outcome is better). The isolationist theme of many of the arguments against intervention (on the left and right) has been disturbing; the US as a superpower does have a responsibility to affect positive change when it can, especially in regions that it has historically destabilized.
I also think that the argument that letting Assad slide on chemical weapon use sends a strong message to other countries about their options when it comes to quashing dissent is an important one. However, in my mind the question raised by the revelations about US complicity in Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks is not whether it denies the US moral standing to disapprove of their use now, but whether this “signaling” argument holds much weight. Saddam got away with chemical weapons attacks in the 80’s, did this lead to a rise in their use or the proliferation of the weapons?
My problem with independent intervention by the US, France, and the other individual countries that jump on the bandwagon is that once again the countries intervening would be undermining the international legal process designed to deal with war crimes. God knows it’s hard to get anything through the Security Council and I don’t doubt that Russia would spare no effort in preventing Security Council approval of intervention, but when the US steps outside the confines of international law what sort of message does that send? There are few things more harmful to an effective international code of ethics than the US taking actions that validate the idea that international law only matters when the US says it matters. If the US stresses that the responsibility for intervention is international rather than unilateral, maybe in the future other countries will be more willing to spearhead international law enforcement.
omg it’s on again. but actually where do you find an acapella “heart of glass”? how did that make it onto this, like, 10 song long soft rock playlist loop?
Where the hell did this airport find a doo-wop cover of Blondie?
The Frederick Engels of the 1840s was a gregarious young man with a facility for languages, a liking for drink and a preference for lively female company. (“If I had an income of 5,000 francs,” he once confessed to Marx, “I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces.”) It was this Engels who arrived in England in December 1842–sent there to help manage a factory part-owned by his wealthy father, by a family desperate to shield their young radical from the Prussian police. And it was this Engels who, to the considerable alarm of his acquaintances, met, fell for and, for the better part of two decades, covertly lived with an Irish woman named Mary Burns.
Burns’ influence on Engels—and hence on communism and on the history of the world in the past century—has long been badly underestimated. She makes at best fleeting appearances in books devoted to Engels, and almost none in any general works on socialism. And since she was illiterate, or nearly so, not to mention Irish, working-class and female, she also left only the faintest of impressions in the contemporary record. The sterling efforts of a few Manchester historians aside, almost nothing is known for certain about who she was, how she lived or what she thought. Yet it is possible, reading between the lines of Engels’ writings, to sense that she had considerable influence on several of her lover’s major works.