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Did U.S. Help Create Saddam Hussein?

Aired September 20, 2002 - 12:35   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: As President Bush tries to sell his Iraq gameplan to Russia's President Putin, we look at the history between the U.S., the old Soviet Union and Iraq. "Newsweek" chronicles this history in its cover story, "How We Helped Create Saddam Hussein, and Can We Fix Iraq After He's Gone?" The article details how the West helped turn President Hussein into the leader he is today. Christopher Dickey co-wrote the article for "Newsweek" and joins us live from New York.
Mr. Dickey, good to have you with us again.


O'BRIEN: The article begins with a meeting that a lot would be sort of surprised I suppose to hear about, Donald Rumsfeld meeting Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld at the time a private citizen, on behalf of President Reagan at the time. What was the purpose of that meeting, and what did that lead to?

DICKEY: Well, it was a critical moment during the Iran-Iraq war in 1983, when there was a fear in Washington that Iran was going to win the war and that the Ayatollah Khomeni forces were going to sweep into Baghdad, so the United States decided basically that it would start to help Saddam Hussein, help him to survive, and eventually help him to fend off the Iranian attacks and declare victory in the war against Iran some six years later.

O'BRIEN: So essentially, the U.S. at that time -- which was often the case in foreign policy, made the decision that Iraq was the lesser of two evils. This happens all of the time. And at that time, that probably made perfect sense, didn't it?

DICKEY: Well, It did make sense. We know now it wasn't perfect sense. We know that it was the lesser of two evils, at least to extent that Khomeni was perceived to be an enormous threat.

And there was also worry about the Soviet Union. There was the idea that if Saddam were not supported by the United States, he'd be ever more tied to Moscow, and we didn't want that.

O'BRIEN: All right, I am told we do have a picture of that meeting I just told you about. Let's look at it briefly as we continue our discussion. There is Saddam Hussein and Donald Rumsfeld, who at the time his description in the cable, back to United States, was that Saddam Hussein was vigorous and confident.

Was he sort of swept away by the charms of Saddam Hussein? Just saying that seems odd.

DICKEY: I don't think he had any illusions about Saddam Hussein. I think he knew perfectly well that Saddam was a murderous thug. I think he knew that Saddam had used poison gas in the war with Iran. I think he knew that Saddam support had supported terrorists, like Abu Nidal, who were fighting against Israel, and also fighting against any Arabs or Palestinians who wanted to make peace with Israel.

No, I don't think that there were illusions. There just a decision that Saddam might be an SOB, but he could be the American's SOB, and that kind of thinking continued on right up until the time when Saddam invaded Kuwait.

O'BRIEN: I guess it is axiomatic in foreign policy that the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and this has come back to haunt nations time and again. I don't know exactly how things might have been done differently. As you look at record, do you see some crucial mistakes?

DICKEY: Yes, I think there were some crucial mistakes, but they really came later. They came at the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when the first President Bush called for an uprising by the Iraqi people, and then stepped aside and allowed Saddam to crush that uprising, both in the north and the south of the country.

I think it came maybe the year later, when first President Bush or at least the Pentagon in his administration decided to suppress its own investigation into Saddam's war crimes, and I think it came all through the 1990s, under the Clinton administration, where the efforts to overthrow Saddam ultimately were very half-hearted and the decision was made again and again that you couldn't really get rid of this guy, because nobody knew what would come after him. Part of the point of the article is to say, has that situation changed? Do we know what comes after Saddam now, or the risks we wanted to avoid any better now?

O'BRIEN: In reading the article, you do come away with that bad as Saddam Hussein is, he is the devil we know there.

Perhaps there is some advantage to having that knowledge and working toward some sort of containment, as opposed to unleashing who knows what.

What is your sense of where it will head?

DICKEY: Well, there is a big fear that they will just be chaos after Saddam goes, that the country will break apart into two or three different pieces, that the only way to avoid that may be for the United States to essentially occupy Iraq, which is a huge investment of time and men, and a very dangerous enterprise. There is also the risk that Saddam will be replaced by somebody who is a strong man just like he was, who has the same kind of ambitions that he does, who really is just Saddam with another name, and that while me may hold Iraq together, we won't be solving the long-term problems that helped create Saddam in the first place. O'BRIEN: Christopher Dickey is one of the coauthors of "Newsweek's" cover story, how we helped create Saddam Hussein. Thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

DICKEY: Thank you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: A fascinating and somewhat scary read.


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