In his most recent justification of his Pentagon stewardship, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reached back to the 1930s, comparing the Bush administration's critics to those who, like US Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, favored appeasing Adolf Hitler. Rumsfeld avoided a more recent comparison: the appeasement of Saddam Hussein by the Reagan and first Bush administrations. The reasons for selectivity are obvious, since so many of Hussein's appeasers in the 1980s were principals in the 2003 Iraq war, including Rumsfeld.
In 1983, President Reagan initiated a strategic opening to Iraq, then in the third year of a war of attrition with neighboring Iran. Although Iraq had started the war with a blitzkrieg attack in 1980, the tide had turned by 1982 in favor of much larger Iran, and the Reagan administration was afraid Iraq might actually lose. Reagan chose Rumsfeld as his emissary to Hussein, whom he visited in December 1983 and March 1984. Inconveniently, Iraq had begun to use chemical weapons against Iran in November 1983, the first sustained use of poison gas since a 1925 treaty banning that.
Rumsfeld never mentioned this blatant violation of international law to Hussein, instead focusing on shared hostility toward Iran and an oil pipeline through Jordan. Rumsfeld apparently did mention it to Tariq Aziz, Iraq's foreign minister, but by not raising the issue with the paramount leader he signaled that good relations were more important to the United States than the use of poison gas.
This message was reinforced by US conduct after the Rumsfeld missions. The Reagan administration offered Hussein financial credits that eventually made Iraq the third-largest recipient of US assistance. It normalized diplomatic relations and, most significantly, began providing Iraq with battlefield intelligence. Iraq used this information to target Iranian troops with chemical weapons. And when Iraq turned its chemical weapons on the Kurds in 1988, killing 5,000 in the town of Halabja, the Reagan administration sought to obscure responsibility by falsely suggesting Iran was also responsible.
On Aug. 25, 1988 -- five days after the Iran-Iraq War ended -- Iraq attacked 48 Kurdish villages more than 100 miles from Iran. Within days, the US Senate passed legislation, sponsored by Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island, to end US financial support for Hussein and to impose trade sanctions. To enhance the prospects that Reagan would sign his legislation, Pell sent me to Eastern Turkey to interview Kurdish survivors who had fled across the border. As it turned out, the Reagan administration agreed that Iraq had gassed the Kurds, but strongly opposed sanctions, or even cutting off financial assistance. Colin Powell, then the national security adviser, coordinated the Reagan administration's opposition.
The Pell bill died at the end of the congressional session in 1988, in spite of heroic efforts by Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to force it through by holding up a raft of administration nominations.
The next year, President George H.W. Bush's administration actually doubled US financial credits for Iraq. A week before Hussein invaded Kuwait, the administration vociferously opposed legislation that would have conditioned US assistance to Iraq on a commitment not to use chemical weapons and to stop the genocide against the Kurds. At the time, Dick Cheney, now vice president, was secretary of defense and a statutory member of the National Security Council that reviewed Iraq policy. By all accounts, he supported the administration's appeasement policy.
In 2003, Cheney, Powell, and Rumsfeld all cited Hussein's use of chemical weapons 15 years before as a rationale for war. But at the time Hussein was actually doing the gassing -- including of his own people -- they considered his use of chemical weapons a second-tier issue.
The Reagan and first Bush administrations believed that Hussein could be a strategic partner to the United States, a counterweight to Iran, a force for moderation in the region, and possibly help in the Arab-Israel peace process. That was, of course, an illusion. A ruthless dictator who launched an attack on his neighbor, Iran, who used chemical weapons, and who committed genocide against his own Kurds was never likely to be a reliable American ally. Hussein, having watched the United States gloss over his crimes in the Iran war and at home, concluded he could get away with invading Kuwait.
It was a costly error for him, for his country, and eventually for the United States, which now has the largest part of its military bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire. Meanwhile the architects of the earlier appeasement policy now maintain the illusion that they have a path to victory, if only their critics would shut up.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, is author of ``The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End."
Copyright 2006 Boston Globe