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
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
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
"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
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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