Lessons of United States-Iraqi Relations

by Stephen Lampe

As the Administration of President George Bush of the United States beats the drums of war on Iraq with the British Prime Minister Tony Blair tagging along and echoing the sounds, it is useful to reflect on a few highly instructive lessons of the relations between the United States and Iraq. The relations dramatize the failure of the principle of “national interest” in international relations. In simple terms, international affairs scholars and practitioners accept as an article of faith, that in dealing with other nations, a nation is guided, should be guided, or can be expected to be guided only by her own interests (defined in a purely materialistic sense without considerations of justice and morality). In other words, the international relations community considers it right and necessary for nations to care exclusively for their own material advantages in their dealings with other nations. This principle, which might at first seem reasonable, is completely misguided! Simply put, in the rapidly evolving global community, national interest is, paradoxically, no longer in a nation’s interest. The U.S.-Iraqi relations also demonstrate the working of the Law of Reciprocal Action in the affairs of nations; countries, like individuals, reap whatsoever they so.

First, let’s review some salient facts of the history of the relations between the United States and Iraq, which was the Cover Story of the American weekly magazine Newsweek of September 23, 2002. The writers, Christopher Dickey and Evan Thomas, characterize U.S. relations with President Saddam Hussein of Iraq as one “of the sorrier tales in American foreign policy” and as a “clumsy dance with the Devil”. According to them, the United States “created the Frankenstein monster which it now wishes to strangle.” Iraq’s oil reserves are reported to be second in size only to those of Saudi Arabia. And this fact automatically makes Iraq a zone of strategic interest in the calculations of U.S. policymakers, since the U.S. is by far the greatest guzzler of global oil, and Americans are not about to change their lifestyle. Iran, another large oil producer in the Middle East, had ceased to be an ally of the U.S. following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 by the Islamic fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, the theocratic regime had become an archenemy, humiliating the U.S. by holding her diplomats hostage in Teheran for 444 days during 1979-1981. Moreover, the U.S. feared that Iranian fundamentalism might overrun the entire Middle East and control its vital oil fields. Thus, when Iran and Iraq went to war, the U.S. sided with Iraq on the false theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. (Both my enemy and my enemy’s enemy may be devils; neither of them should be my friend, if I desire to act aright).

In December 1983, while Iraq was losing the war, President Ronald Reagan sent an envoy to Baghdad to discuss assistance for Saddam Hussein in the war. That envoy was the present U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was then a private citizen. Mr. Rumsfeld is, of course, the one right now directly in charge of preparations for America’s second war against Iraq. How fate works! Following Rumsfeld’s 1983 visit, U.S. intelligence began supplying the Iraqis with satellite photos showing Iranian military deployments. According to the Newsweek Cover Story, the U.S. secretly had battle tanks and other military hardware shipped to Iraq through a swap arrangement with Egypt; the U.S. sent American tanks to Egypt and Egypt in turn shipped Egyptian tanks to Iraq. Other items of military assistance, according to the Newsweek account, include numerous shipments to the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa that could be used to make biological weapons, including anthrax. The U.S. also supplied chemical-analysis equipment for the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission. Iraq subsequently used chemical weapons against Iranian troops as well as against his own nationals --- Kurdish civilians and opponents of his regime. When Saddam Hussein gassed his own people in 1988, the Republican Administration of Ronald Reagan at first blamed Iran before acknowledging, under pressure from congressional Democrats, that the culprits were the forces of Saddam Hussein. Later in the war between Iraq and Iran, U.S. commandos began blowing up Iranian oil platforms and patrol boats, as part of an operation to protect Iraqi oil from attacks by Iran as it was shipped through the Persian Gulf. In 1988, exhausted and fearing U.S. intervention, Iran gave up and Saddam Hussein became the hero and strongman of the Middle East. U.S. and European company officials trooped to Iraq seeking contracts; among those vying for the attention of Saddam Hussein were delegations of the U.S. Congress led by Senator Bob Dole (the Republican Presidential candidate in 1996) and Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming who sought to promote American farm and business interests.

The sad truth was that American officials knew all along the kind of person Saddam Hussein was and is. They recognized his psychopathic nature when, soon after he took the title of President of Iraq in 1979, he reportedly video-taped a session of his party’s congress during which he personally ordered several members executed on the spot. They were executed because they were thinking about plotting against him, not for actually plotting. Despite this knowledge, his Interior Ministry was allowed to acquire from the U.S. items which could facilitate keeping track of political opponents: computerized database and television cameras for “video surveillance applications”. In 1990, not long after Iraqi agents were caught in the U.S. trying to buy electronic equipment used to make triggers for nuclear bombs, Saddam Hussein threatened “to burn Israel to the ground”. Then in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, another oil-rich U.S. friend. And Saddam, the ally against Iran, became a mortal enemy of the U.S. The evil regime that the U.S. had helped to cultivate and to nurture was beginning to yield fruits for her to reap! As things stand, it is clear that the bitter harvest will continue for a few more years and may get bitterer. Nations sow through their policies as well as through their actions; and in accordance with the immutable laws of Sowing and Reaping, they too are bound to reap multiples of whatever they sow – good and bad – sooner or later.

U.S.-Iraq relations are yet another clear instance of the failure of the principle of national interest, first enunciated as a formal theory by Hans J. Morgenthau in his 1948 book entitled Politics Among Nations. He called it the "realist" theory of power politics. Morgenthau defined politics as the struggle for power, whether in domestic or international settings. According to this theory, collaboration and cooperation occur when interests coincide; rivalry, competition, and conflict result when these interests clash. Thus, the survival of nation-states and of the international system depends on what Morgenthau described as "the intelligent pursuit of national interests and on the realistic calculations of national power." It is not a matter of what is right or fair; there are no considerations of morality or legality. It is simply a matter of cold, naked power, and calculated selfishness.

Later in his life, Morgenthau acknowledged the limitations of his theory and its regrettable nature. He stated the limitations in a 1965 paper in the following words: “We think and act in terms of the pre-atomic age, while we live in an entirely different age which has made those ideas of the past obsolete as earlier ideas were made obsolete by the previous industrial revolution” (cited by Lester R. Brown in his book entitled World Without Border). But most present-day international relations experts simply cannot think beyond this principle of national interest. In the face of all the evidence that the world has become a global village, any nation that resolutely pursues its national interest, narrowly defined, can only be said to be swimming against a powerful current; it will eventually tire and drown. Incidentally, the same can be said for inter-ethnic relations within multi-ethnic countries such as Nigeria.

The foreign policies of nations and the conduct of international relations must increasingly be based on global interests and universal values. These values are embedded in the concepts of Love and Justice. To put these values into practice, a conviction about the Golden Rule (that we should do unto others as we would like them to do to us) will be a strong guide. The Golden Rule applies to individuals as well as to nations, and it does not matter whether the “others” are our friends or our foes. All the difficult issues in international relations today will remain irresolvable as long as nations pursue myopic national interests. Events in the coming Millennium will increasingly and forcefully confirm the futility of the principle of national interest as currently conceived.