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On the Dole: Saddam Hussein had at least one friend in 1990.

On May 17, 1990, Senator Al D'Amato was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it anymore. His arch-nemesis, Saddam Hussein, had brutally gassed 6,000 Kurds, executed a British journalist, and threatened to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons. D'Amato branded Hussein "the new mad dog of the Mideast" and introduced an amendment to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control Act that sought to impose economic sanctions. Clearly on a roll, the senator from New York unleashed a string of epithets, calling Saddam "the Butcher of Baghdad," "a terrorist," "a man who threatens civilization," and "a man with whom we should not have business."

Anyone familiar with D'Amato would not find his diatribe out of the ordinary. But the senator's rhetoric stood out in sharp contrast to that of his good friend Bob Dole, who just one month earlier had described the Iraqi leader as "an intelligent man." Continuing to follow that line of reasoning, Dole argued during the debate over sanctions that there was real "potential for improving our relationships" with the Iraqi dictator. He urged D'Amato to table the amendment, saying it was "inappropriate at this time." Ultimately, the Senate voted unanimously in favor of D'Amato's legislation, but only after Dole had tacked on a provision that would allow the President to waive sanctions for up to one year. Less than three months later, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City.

Bob Dole, what were you thinking? The Kansas senator had carved out a reputation as a champion of human rights in Middle East. During the Palestinian intifada, Dole had criticized Israel as a government that routinely murdered children. For years, he had sponsored legislation that sought to commemorate Armenian victims of Turkish genocide. So why was Dole willing to treat the gassing of 6,000 Kurds as a minor infraction?

The story of the Kansas senator and the Iraqi dictator began not in the halls of in Congress, but in the Oval Office. In October 1989, George Bush signed National Security Directive 26, which outlined U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. Although the directive expressed concern over Hussein's human rights record and his program to develop weapons of mass destruction, it also recognized that Iraq was a significant regional power that could not be ignored if the U.S. wanted to promote stability in the Gulf and peace throughout the Middle East. Hussein was a loose cannon, but he was considered a loose cannon that could be brought under control with cautious diplomacy and economic blandishments. Following this line of reasoning, the Bush administration continued to guarantee credit for the purchase of American agricultural commodities, which had been offered to Iraq since 1983. In January 1990, Bush overrode congressional opposition to continuing U.S. Export-Import Bank financing for commercial transactions with Iraq.

Where Iraq was concerned, Bob Dole played the role of George Bush's goodwill ambassador both at home and abroad. At home, he was tasked with the job of moderating legislation and toning down the rhetoric coming out of Congress, (D'Amato's "Butcher of Baghdad" remark prompted the Iraqi ambassador to lodge a formal complaint with the State Department.) Abroad, Dole was destined to play a key role in smoothing over U.S.-Iraq relations when a diplomatic crisis erupted in February. An editorial broadcast by Voice of America, claiming to reflect "the views of the U.S. government," criticized secret police abuses in Iraq and seven other countries. The broadcast declared that "the tide of history is against such rulers" and that the 1990s "should belong not to the dictators and secret police, but to the people." Two months later, Bob Dole led a delegation of five senators to the Middle East, making a point to meet with Saddam Hussein in Mosul. The Iraqi leader, who didn't appreciate being told that the tide of history was against him, charged that "an all-out campaign is being waged against us in America and the countries of Europe" in order to provide political cover for Israel to attack.

Speaking on behalf of the President, Dole assured Hussein that the U.S. wanted "better relations with Iraq." He hastened to remind the Iraqi leader that the U.S. had condemned Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981. Dole also told Hussein that the Voice of America staffer who had written the offensive editorial had been fired. (The author of the editorial, had, in fact, retained his job.)

Upon his return to America, Bob Dole played the role of Neville Chamberlain, declaring that, as far as Iraq was concerned, there would be peace in our time. He told The Washington Post that because of the meeting, "there might be a chance to bring this guy around." In a rambling speech before the Senate on April 20th, he said that Hussein, despite his bellicose rhetoric toward Israel, had problems of his own to deal with. His country had just endured a brutal seven-year war with Iran, Dole mourned, and had accumulated $50 billion worth of debt. Acknowledging that Hussein had accumulated a large arsenal of chemical weapons, Dole said that the Iraqi leader had personally assured him that they would be used only in retaliation to a nuclear strike by Israel in "an effort to preserve his country." When the Senate debated D'Amato's amendment to the chemical weapons act, Dole noted that Hussein had given him assurances that "he had no plans for any nuclear weapons, and that all they were doing in the so-called biological area was basic research."

Dole's support for Hussein was not limited to geo-strategic concerns. When the Senate considered imposing economic sanctions against Iraq, Dole once again proved the old axiom that all politics is local. U.S. loan guarantees had made Iraq the largest overseas importer of American rice, and one of the largest importers of American corn and wheat. Part of that wheat was grown in--you guessed it--Kansas. Senate debates regarding Iraq often sounded like seminars on free trade. "We do not gain anything." Dole argued, because Iraq "can find other places to sell its oil and find other places for other things it buys from us." Other farm state senators joined Dole in opposing economic sanctions, including Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Phil Gramm of Texas, who stated simply, "Denying credit is denying sales."

Buddy of Baghdad

Six years later, Senator Dole is now Candidate Dole. Lagging in the polls, he has gone after President Clinton on foreign policy, first by "revealing" that Clinton had tacitly allowed Iran to ship arms to Bosnia, in violation of the UN embargo. (This "discovery" has been a matter of public record for years. Dole himself mentioned it in a speech in June 1995.) Now, two congressional committees are investigating the matter, and yet another administration has to read headlines that carry the words "Iran" and "arms sales."

Most recently, Dole issued a blistering attack on the President, saying he "squandered the rich foreign policy record he inherited by making inconsistency, confusion, and incoherence the common features of American diplomacy." This attack is part of a carefully orchestrated assault on Clinton's foreign policy, led by congressional Republicans who routinely accuse the President of appeasement when dealing with so-called rogue states like Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. One would think, however, that Dole wouldn't want the notion of appeasement or "inconsistency, confusion, and incoherence" to be a campaign issue, as he might have to explain why he was willing to sell out our national interest for a farm subsidy.

Perhaps the senator could defend his record by arguing that no one, not even the Pentagon or the CIA, predicted Hussein would actually invade and occupy Kuwait. But the murder of 6,000 Kurds notwithstanding, there were other warning signs that all was not right in Baghdad. During this period, for example, The New York Times ran several articles detailing Saddam Hussein's quest to develop nuclear warheads and long-range missiles.

It's clear that Dole considers his tryst with the Iraqi dictator a period best forgotten. Al D'Amato, who is now acting as chairman of Dole's National Steering Committee, published his memoirs last year under the title Power, Pasta and Politics. The chief investigator of the Whitewater affair has proven that his true talent lies in white-washing history. In his book, D'Amato lashes out at the Bush administration for its "shameful codding" of Saddam Hussein. No one in the White House is spared from D'Amato's criticism--not Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly, or even George Bush himself. But on Bob Dole's role in the fiasco, there is not one word. Appropriately, Dole himself wrote the forward to D'Amato's book, praising the New York senator for warning America "about the dangers of Saddam Hussein."

In fact, Dole claims that "no one saw those dangers as early and as clearly as Al D'Amato"--suggesting that, where Iraq was concerned, all of us were in the dark. Dole fails to mention that many other senators, including one from his own state, had the foresight to take an early stand against Saddam. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas told the Senate in July 1990 that economic sanctions against Iraq would hurt "wheat from Kansas," but went on to say, "I cannot believe that any farmer in this nation would want to send his product ... to a country that has used chemical weapons and to a country that has tortured and injured their children."

In the end, Dole's waltz with Saddam Hussein may be less a reflection of his abilities as a statesman than a measure of his character. During the greatest U.S. foreign policy crisis of the last decade, Dole chose to cut deals rather than offer moral leadership. As one Republican official noted when Dole declined to campaign in Delaware, reportedly because of pressure from New Hampshire Governor Stephen Merrill, "If Bob Dole cannot stand up to the pressure of a small New England governor, how is he going to do when he's faced with the pressure of a Saddam Hussein?"
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Title Annotation:Bob Dole's support of Saddam Hussein
Author:Strauss, Mark
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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