“There's no question that the leader of Iraq is an evil man. After all, he gassed his own people,” President Bush once said in the lead up to the Iraq war of 2003. In fact the past usage of chemical weapons by Iraq was a major legitimization tool for the case to invade the country. Substitute Syria with Iraq and you get a picture of US policy towards Syria these days. We should ask ourselves: Does the US have the legitimacy to decide on Syria? We can answer this question by briefly looking at Washington’s policy regarding the use of chemical weapons in the past.
In the 1980s Saddam Hussein extensively used chemical weapons in its war against Iran. In September 2002, President Bush correctly told the UN, “Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980……He has gassed many Iranians and 40 Iraqi villages.” Of course what was omitted from the speech was that that these crimes were committed when Iraq was an ally of the United States and received financial, logistical and even military assistance from Washington. A recent Foreign Policy article by Shane Harris and Matthew Aid uses declassified CIA documents to show that not only did the US know about the usage of chemical weapons by the Iraqis, but Washington also aided Saddam with crucial logistical and intelligence support in his fight against the Iranians.
The United States even played an instrumental role in the development of Iraq’s WMD program. An investigation by the US Senate Banking Committee done in 1994 showed that dozens of biological agents were shipped to Iraq during the 1980s under license from the Commerce Department, including various strains of anthrax, subsequently identified by the Pentagon as a key component of the Iraqi biological warfare program, The report identifies 70 shipments from the US to Iraq over three years, adding "It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States were identical to those the UN inspectors found and recovered from the Iraqi biological warfare program” (Riegle May 25, 1994) and (U.S. Senate Committee on Banking 1994).
Even when Saddam Hussein “gassed its own people” in Halabja in 1988, the United States did little to pressure Iraq. Former ambassador Peter Galbraith who was the Senate’s Iraq expert later claimed “Secretary of State Colin Powell was then the national security advisor who orchestrated Ronald Reagan’s decision to give Hussein a pass for gassing the Kurds” (Rampton and Stauber 2003). In fact the Los Angeles Times reported that in the following year (1989) President H.W. Bush signed a top-secret order for closer ties with Baghdad as well as one billion dollar in new aid. This took place in the fall of 1989, just nine months before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait began. Apart from financial aid, senior Bush administration officials as late as the spring of 1990 insisted that Saddam Hussein continue to be allowed to buy so-called "dual use" technology, advanced equipment that could be used for both civilian and military purposes, even though concern was mounting from Congress. Iraq was given such sensitive equipment, even though emerging evidence showed that they were working on developing WMD, including nuclear arms. (Frantz and Waas February 23, 1992).
In fact US support for Iraq was so strong and overt that the Halabja genocide was rarely mentioned in the run up to the first Gulf War by the American government or press because the story was so recent that it would be very difficult to cover up the fact that Iraq was a close ally of the United States at the time. Research done by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy shows that the Halabja genocide was mentioned in 188 news stories in 1988, which was when the crime took place, however in subsequent years the Halabja genocide was only mentioned in 20 news stories in 1989 and in 29 news stories in 1990, the year Saddam invaded Kuwait. Between the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the end of the first Gulf War in February 1991, the Halabja genocide was only mentioned in 39 news stories. In the following ten years Halabja was mentioned on average 16 times a year in the US media. In the year 2000 it was only mentioned in ten news stories. With the start of the administration’s propaganda effort in September 2002, the Halabja genocide suddenly took center stage. In the month of February 2003 alone, it was mentioned in 57 news stories. In the next month (March 2003 in which the invasion of Iraq began), the Halabja genocide was in 145 news stories (Rampton and Stauber 2003).
The point of these examples from recent history is that the primary driver of US foreign policy in the Middle East has been its regional interests as well those of Israel, and talk about the protection of human rights has only been a tool for legitimizing military action. This is why Joe Biden’s statement on Tuesday about the violation of an “essential international norm” should be scrutinized and why any decision to launch military operations against Syria, before the completion of a full UN investigation and before ample evidence has been presented to the world public about the complicity of the Syrian government in the alleged attacks, should be strongly opposed.
Frantz, D., & Waas, M. (February 23, 1992). Bush Secret Effort Helped Iraq Build Its War Machine. Los Angeles Times .
Harris, S. & and Aid, M. (August 26, 2013) Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran. Foreign Policy.
Rampton, S., & Stauber, J. (2003). Weapons of Mass Deception. New York: Penguin.
Riegle, D. W. (May 25, 1994). The Riegle Report. United States Senate, 103d Congress, 2d Session.
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, H. a. (1994, May 25). Second Staff Report on U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual-Use Exports to Iraq and The Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the War. Retrieved January 9, 2010, from http://www.gulfwarvets.com/arison/banking.htm