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Spider's Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq.

By Alan Friedman Bantam Books. 454 pp. $23.95.

Until August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Bush Administration pursued a policy of constructive engagement toward Iraq. Having tilted to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. Government viewed Iraq as a bulwark against a fundamentalist revolutionary Iran and Saddam as a predictable if brutal asset.

In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, Bush Administration officials claimed there had been no alternatives to this policy of befriending Saddam, and they denied allegations of misconduct. As one senior Administration official told me in an interview, "Everybody knew Hussein's reputation, and no one thought he was a potential member of the Kiwanis Club. But could he become a better member of the region? It was worth exploring the possibility, and we didn't have a lot to lose."

Not true; they had a lot to lose, and they did.

The policy of engaging Saddam Hussein must rank as one of the major failures of recent American history. Saddam was not moderated, and he was only strengthened by American aid before the invasion of Kuwait. A brief look at his past behavior would have been enough to bury any hopes that he might become "moderate" or "reasonable," and no one could have seriously believed that he would not lash out militarily, in the face of intractable economic problems and his own megalomaniac ambitions. Yet calculations of American interests in the Middle East led the Reagan and Bush Administrations to ignore reality, avoid hard decisions, and bend over backward to accommodate Saddam Hussein.

When Saddam became the enemy of the U.S. Government, the embarrassing past coziness was downplayed by Bush and company. When U.S. Representative Henry B. Gonzalez and the banking committee he chairs began asking questions about pre-Gulf war policy toward Iraq, the Bush Administration stonewalled. When Gonzalez, William Safire of The New York Times, and others raised allegations of illegal weapons sales, the Bush crowd angrily denied ever having "coddled" Saddam and refused to say more.

When a Justice Department investigation of the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) uncovered more than $5 billion in loans to Iraq which had been partially underwritten by the Agriculture Department, Bush operatives pleaded ignorance. And when they did that, the media, the Congress, and the Atlanta judge in charge of the BNL case charged them with conspiracy, a conspiracy of illegally aiding Iraq before the war and covering up their crimes after.

One of the leading proponents of conspiracy theory is Alan Friedman, a reporter for the Financial Times who had a part in uncovering the BNL scandal. His book purports to document White House illegalities and attempts at a coverup. It does not. In almost 300 pages of text accompanied by dozens of documents, Friedman does not provide one shard of hard evidence of illegalities or conspiracy.

That is unfortunate, because he does provide compelling evidence of massive stupidity and of a Government guided by Machiavellian calculations of power. He demonstrates, as did Gonzalez in dozens of statements on the floor of Congress, that Reagan and Bush supported Saddam in the face of mounting evidence of Iraqi human-rights abuses, unconventional weapons programs, and a tendency to use those weapons.

Friedman documents shady arms deals involving individuals who were connected with the CIA and shows that these transactions were in line with White House policy. In fact, Friedman provides enough evidence to demand further investigation of the complicity of the Reagan White House in illegal arms deals.

However, after tracing the career of such people as Chilean arms merchant Carlos Cardoen, who sold cluster bombs to Iraq and once met with Robert Gates, he only spends thirty-three of his pages on the pre-Gulf war Bush Administration. Another hundred pages are devoted to the efforts of White House counsel C. Boyden Gray and special assistant Nicholas Rostow to evade the questioning of Gonzalez. The fact is that Friedman found no evidence of Bush illegalities prior to the war. He bases his case on circumstantial evidence; because the White House was unwilling to talk, Friedman assumes the Bush crowd was trying to cover up illegalities, especially illegal weapons transfers. However, guilty behavior is not proof of guilt.

It may be that Friedman's allegations are correct, and I agree with his call for an independent prosecutor. He does not demonstrate a compelling motive. The legal policy of guaranteed loans combined with legal arms sales by the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese achieved the aims of the White House. There was thus no reason to arm Iraq illegally, and no motive. As for the subsequent coverup, the prewar policy was deeply flawed and embarrassing to the Bush Administration. Officials' attempts to disguise what they did are as easily explained by the fear of political fallout as by fear of indictments.

In short, while Friedman may be right, he has made a mistake by casting his work as a proof of a "systematic abuse of power." By raising the stakes so high, he and others allow the Bush Administration to duck responsibility for their actions. It is as if a thief had been accused of murder; he is brought to trial and found not guilty. But he gets away with robbery.

Friedman has demonstrated that the Bush Administration was guilty of systemic stupidity, short-sightedness, willful ignorance, and an appalling lack of morality. He goes too far.

But Robert Kaplan does not go nearly far enough. In The Arabists, Kaplan attempts to capture the mindset of those State Department officials in charge of Middle East policy. The term "Arabist" refers to the Middle East hands at State; traditionally, Arabists were diplomats who learned Arabic and immersed themselves in Middle Eastern culture.

Kaplan, a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, has written what is essentially a book of anecdotes within anecdotes, many of them concerning diplomats who were active decades ago. But Arabists of the past interest him because of his belief that "the famous encounter in July 1990 between U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was, in reality, two centuries in the making. Glaspie entered Saddam's lair freighted with the baggage of a venerable Arabist tradition."

Because of this baggage, Kaplan writes, America's Middle East diplomats were anti-Israel and favorably disposed toward Arab governments and in the end to Saddam Hussein himself. It is often difficult to tell what Kaplan thinks of these Arabists; he quotes them liberally without assessing the validity of what they say. For instance, he reports an interview with Joseph Sisco, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, saying that Sisco believed "the very breadth, depth, and texture of the Arabists' knowledge of the Arab world . . . worked to immobilize their analytical thinking." This, we assume, is an explanation for why Glaspie was so conciliatory toward Saddam, but is Kaplan accepting Sisco's rationale?

It seems he is, and that is a problem. By placing Arabist culture at the root of American policy toward Iraq, Kaplan makes a determinist argument. He suggests that, because they were blinded by their knowledge and empathy, the Arabists were conditioned to sympathize with Saddam.

Fair enough. But with one exception he has such empathy for them that he fails to hold them responsible for their decisions. The exception is April Glaspie. Kaplan has no trouble blaming Glaspie for the tilt toward Saddam, and he makes snide remarks in support of those who claimed that it was inappropriate for a woman to serve as ambassador to Iraq. Kaplan believes that Glaspie, who was far from the Washington inner circle, exerted significant influence. Such a belief flies in the face of evidence. Glaspie was, like many ambassadors, an instrument of policy, not an architect of it.

There are bound to be many more books on the Gulf war and American policy toward Iraq. One can only hope that future authors will be more careful.

Zachary Karabell is a national-security fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He recently completed a study of U.S. policy toward Iraw before the Gulf war.)
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Author:Karabell, Zachary
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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