Published on Friday, October 11, 2002 by the New York Times
by Nicholas Kristof
President Bush and Vice President Cheney portray Saddam Hussein as so menacing and terrifying that one might think they've lain awake at night for years worrying about him.
But when Mr. Cheney was running Halliburton, the oil services firm, it sold more equipment to Iraq than any other company did. As first reported by The Financial Times on Nov. 3, 2000, Halliburton subsidiaries submitted $23.8 million worth of contracts with Iraq to the United Nations in 1998 and 1999 for approval by its sanctions committee.
Now let me say right up front that this wasn't illegal — or even, in my view, sleazy. This was legitimate business conducted through joint ventures that had been acquired as part of a larger takeover in September 1998. Zelma Branch, a Halliburton spokeswoman, says that the subsidiaries completed their pre-existing Iraq contracts but did not seek new ones.
So this is not evidence of scandalous conduct or egregious misjudgment. This is not like a politician being found, as former Gov. Edwin Edwards of Louisiana put it, in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.
But as we debate whether to go to war with Iraq, it's a useful reminder of how fashions change in our perceptions of rogue states. Public Enemy No. 1 today is a government that Mr. Cheney was in effect helping shore up just a couple of years ago.
More broadly, the U.S. has a long history in which Saddam, though just as monstrous as he is today, was coddled as our monster. In the 1980's we provided his army with satellite intelligence so that it could use chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers. When Saddam used nerve gas and mustard gas against Kurds in 1988, the Reagan administration initially tried to blame Iran. We shipped seven strains of anthrax to Iraq between 1978 and 1988.
These days, we see Iraq as an imminent threat to our way of life, while just a couple of years ago it was perceived as a pathetic dictatorship hardly worth the bother of bombing. What changed? Not Iraq, but rather our own sensibilities after 9/11.
"What is driving this?" asked Raad Alkadiri, an analyst at the Petroleum Finance Company in Washington. "It's not driven by any Iraqi provocation. You've got a regime there that has kept its head down. It's been driven by a domestic constituency in the U.S."
We need to be wary that we are not just pursuing the latest fashion in monsters. Iran was the menace of the 1980's, so we snuggled up with Iraq. The Soviet threat led us to cuddle with Islamic fundamentalists like those now trying to blow us up.
In 1994 the vogue threat changed, and hawks pressed hard for a military confrontation with North Korea. We came within an inch of going to war with North Korea, in a conflict that a Pentagon study found would have killed a million people, including up to 100,000 Americans.
In retrospect, it is clear that the hawks were wrong about confronting North Korea. Containment and deterrence so far have worked instead, kind of, just as they have kind-of worked to restrain Iraq over the last 11 years, and we saved thousands of lives by pressing diplomatic solutions.
If we spent money on hypocrisy detectors as well as anthrax detectors, they would be buzzing. For example, Republicans are trying to defeat the Democratic senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota by running commercials featuring Saddam Hussein.
(When I was writing from Iraq lately, some peeved readers suggested I stay there for good; they might have had their wish if they'd been shrewd enough to have sent effusive e-mails thanking me for the fine spying, signed George Tenet.)
The fact is that neither Tim Johnson nor any lily-livered columnist ever bolstered Saddam's government the way Vice President Cheney did — perfectly legitimately — in 1998-99.
Before we prepare to go to war, we need to take a deep breath and make sure we are doing so to overcome a threat that is real and enduring, not one that we are conjuring in part out of our trauma of 9/11.
Old monsters like Libya, North Korea and Iran have proved — well, not ephemeral, but at least changeable, less terrifying today than they used to be. And the Iraqi threat, for which we're now prepared to sacrifice hundreds or thousands of American casualties, just a few years ago was simply another tinhorn dictatorship where C.E.O. Cheney was earning his bonus.
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