Sep 1 2002

The Washington Post’s Gas Attack

Today's outrage was yesterday's no big deal

Victims of chemical weapons in Halabja (Sayeed Janbozorgi/

Victims of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons in Halabja. (photo: Sayeed Janbozorgi/

In the midst of the 1998 standoff over Iraqi weapons inspections, an almost frantic editorial ran in the Washington Post (8/28/98). Brimming with urgency, the editorialists declared that

22 days have now passed without United Nations inspections of Saddam Hussein’s weapons-making capabilities. That is 22 days during which he could work unimpeded to develop chemical, biological and nuclear arms. This is a dictator who has used chemical weapons, on his own people and on his enemies, and who would use them again.

It wasn’t the first reminder from the Post that Iraq has used gas. From time to time the editorialists drop references to “Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons against his own people” (3/13/02). “He has used such weapons before,” they note (1/7/99), “against his own people.” “Saddam Hussein has indeed used poison gas to murder thousands of his own people” (2/3/02). “He is a man who had used chemical weapons on his own people” (6/8/91)–and he also heads “a regime that has used poison gas on its own people” (11/13/97).

Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas in the 1980’s is, for the Post, Exhibit A–proof that 1) Iraq poses a terrifying threat to the world; 2) the global oil embargo on Iraq must be maintained; 3) the U.S. and other countries should periodically bomb Iraq when it is seen to be defying Washington; and 4) the U.S. should overthrow the Iraqi government by force when the right moment arises.

“Only Saddam Hussein’s removal from power can ultimately erase the threat that Iraq currently poses to its region and the world,” the Post wrote in a typical editorial (12/17/98)–proving the point a few paragraphs later by once again recalling Saddam’s use, a decade earlier, of the aforementioned “weapons…against his own people.”

It has been almost 15 years since Iraq last made use of chemical arms. If the memory of Baghdad’s use of poison gas in the now largely forgotten Iran/Iraq War (1980-88) still conjures up such violent reactions from the Washington Post more than a decade later, one wonders: What must the paper’s fury have been like at the very moment of the deed, in the aftermath of the carnage, when the horror of Saddam’s cruelty stood fresh in the mind, without years of distance to mellow the shock? How did the Post react when Iraq actually used poison gas “on his own people and on his enemies”?

Endorsing a verbal reprimand

It was not until 1984 that Iranian allegations about chemical warfare were finally confirmed beyond doubt. At the time, the Reagan administration was pursuing a policy of “tilting” towards Saddam Hussein in his war against revolutionary Iran–a stance the Post had greeted with cautious endorsement: “Iran is the inspiration, if not the actual source, of both the terrorism plaguing the United States and friendly states in Lebanon and elsewhere and of the revolutionary Islamic currents lapping at the conservative oil-producing states of the gulf,” the paper explained (“Tilting Toward Iraq,” 1/9/84). So there were geopolitical interests to think about, including oil.

On March 5, 1984, the shattering news arrived: “The United States has concluded that the available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical weapons” against Iranian troops, the State Department said in a prepared statement.

Despite its tilt towards Iraq–the previous year it had authorized the sale of 60 U.S.-made Hughes helicopters to Baghdad–the Reagan administration was resolute. In the face of Saddam’s brazen use of outlawed weapons of mass destruction, it issued a stern verbal reprimand. In the same prepared statement, read out by State Department spokesperson John Hughes, it said: “The United States strongly condemns the prohibited use of chemical weapons wherever it occurs.” That was the totality of the U.S. response.*

“Privately, some officials were less harsh on the Iraqis,” the Post reported in a news article the following day (3/6/84). They said it was “not surprising” that Iraq would use gas, given the fierce Iranian attacks in which “any major crack in the Iraqis’ defenses could bring down the army and the government.”

Meanwhile, the administration’s pro-Saddam tilt continued.

The Washington Post’s editorial reaction to these momentous events was measured. On the one hand, “there is an irreducible element of arbitrariness in any international decision to sanction one form of warfare and not another” (“Iraq’s Chemical Warfare,” 3/11/84). But at the same time, the editorialists recognized that there is also “an irreducible element of civilization in the effort to limit some of the means employed to wage war.”

So the Post endorsed the State Department’s verbal condemnation of Saddam Hussein: “No other American response would be consistent with the long-range interest of the United States in outlawing this repellent form of warfare.”

In a follow-up editorial the next month (“Against Chemical Warfare,” 4/2/84), the paper again praised the administration’s oral reprimand–“to its credit, it did so even though it has been tilting toward Iraq in the Gulf war”–and even added a further suggestion: Companies might be banned from selling Iraq ingredients for chemical weapons. The editorialists mused that “condemnations of one sort or another, publicity and export bans may seem like slight obstacles to put in the way of Iraq’s conduct of this outlawed form of warfare.” But in the long run, they concluded, the only realistic solution to the dilemma of outlawed weapons was a durable peace: “The most urgent need is to redouble efforts to stop the war.”

“A bit odd…to worry”

By year’s end, the United States had established full diplomatic relations with Iraq for the first time since 1967. The editorial page (“The Baghdad Connection,” 12/2/84) sent the administration a hearty congratulations. With its newfound links to Baghdad, Washington was “coming into a better position to play a useful regional role”–it could “identify more closely with an Arab cause” and maybe help Saddam “balance off Syria’s bid for dominance in the Arab world.” As a bonus, the move was a “useful reproof to the careless talk one often hears” that U.S. support for Israel was undermining its relations with the Arabs.

It’s useful here to pause a moment and fast-forward to the late 1990s, a moment when the Post (2/1/98) was pushing for yet another round of bombing in the midst of a crisis over U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq. After belittling France and Russia because they “remain skeptical of a military solution,” the paper explained why attacking Iraq was such a no-brainer:

The gravity of letting a proven and unreconstructed aggressor defy international strictures and wield frightening weapons that threaten opposing armies and civilian populations alike can scarcely be exaggerated. This specter is what makes it necessary for law-respecting nations to unite to the extent possible and proceed against Saddam Hussein.

Now flash back to 1985. Although the Post had claimed (12/2/84) that Iraq “has been willing to tone down some of the cruder aspects of its policy,” like poison gas, in return for U.S. relations, by the spring Iraq was at it again–employing chemical weapons five times in March–and the Post wrote another editorial (“Iraq Is Waging Chemical War,” 4/1/85). “It may be a bit odd when you consider all the ways that people have devised to do violence to each other, to worry overly about any particular method,” the paper philosophized. Still, the Post was sticking to its line: The Reagan administration had been right to issue its strongly worded chiding. “Do protests matter?” the editorial asked. The evidence was mixed. “One cannot be laboratory-sure of cause and effect in these situations.” Still: “It cannot hurt for the Iraqis to be held up to obloquy and censure for the use of gas.”

Five months later, the administration authorized the sale to Iraq of 45 dual-use U.S.-made Bell helicopters. The editorial page had nothing to say about it. In fact, over the next 18 months, the Post started worrying about Iraq’s slipping position in the war. Following revelations in 1987 about Reagan’s covert U.S. arms sales to Iran, the paper (1/21/87) invoked Iraq’s perilous military situation as reason to lament the administration’s secret “support to the wrong side.”

“Too tough on Iraq?”

In March 1988, as the war wound down, Iraq was once again accused of using chemical weapons. This time, Saddam’s target was not fundamentalist Iran, but “his own people”–rebellious Iraqi Kurdish villagers who were thought to have been aiding the Iranian enemy.** The geopolitical equation had now changed somewhat; although top Reagan administration officials were still committed to the pro-Iraq tilt, Iran was no longer seen to be as much of a threat, and Iraq’s use of gas this time was not directly contributing to the struggle against the ayatollahs. Human rights groups and some in Congress, led by Sen. Claiborne Pell (R.–R.I.), were decrying Iraq’s targeting of civilians.

In September, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill to impose sanctions on Iraq. These sanctions were nothing like today’s global embargo. They called for a halt to U.S. military aid, commodity credits and loan guarantees and a ban on U.S. imports of Iraqi oil–which, in a global oil market, would have a token effect compared to the post-Gulf War global blockade imposed by the U.N.

The Reagan and Bush administrations “adamantly” opposed the bill, calling it “premature” (New York Times, 1/8/89, 9/15/88), and eventually the bill died quietly in a conference committee after being further watered down. Sanctions “would hurt U.S. exporters and worsen our trade deficit,” Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly told a congressional panel in June 1990, six weeks before the invasion of Kuwait. (Kelly is now the Bush administration’s top State Department official for East Asia.)

In its editorial on the bill, the Washington Post (“Too Tough on Iraq?” 9/20/88) defended the Senate against accusations that it was ruining America‘s relationship with Saddam Hussein: “It is being suggested that the unanimous Senate vote on sanctions against Iraq is one of those well-intentioned but misguided gestures to which representative government, given to instant enthusiasms, is regrettably prone.”

But these criticisms were unfair, the paper maintained. The Senate acted

not to spoil a relationship–one that was of tremendous value to Iraq in turning the tide of war–but to establish a more solid basis on which a relationship can continue now. Iraq is not being asked to do anything that it should find onerous: only to stop the practice of a horrible, outlawed manner of war in a campaign against the Kurds in which it will still be able to press its overwhelming advantage.

It’s hard to say how strongly the Post believed this. Over the next two years, as the bill was progressively diluted, killed, revived and killed again due to overwhelming opposition from the White House, the paper never ran a follow-up editorial.

Presumably, Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons were at least as deadly in the 1980s–when the Washington Post was serenely explaining that Reagan’s toothless admonitions were the only realistic option–as they have been afterward, when even a comprehensive U.N. embargo and the occasional airstrike are not enough for the Post.

Today, as the Washington Post demands bombings, sieges and the violent overthrow of the Iraqi government for merely possessing chemical weapons, it’s enlightening to read what the paper had to say back in the mid-’80s (4/1/85) about the U.S. response to Iraq’s actual use of them:

The United States sees a strategic interest in supporting Arab Iraq and containing fundamentalist Iran. But this political tilt has not kept the Reagan administration from going public, as well as private, with a [verbal] protest against Iraq’s CW policy. It is only by this demonstration of a single standard that a government gains the authority to have its protests heard when its target is an unfriendly government.


* To avoid alienating Saddam Hussein, the State Department was careful to balance its criticism of Iraq by also condemning Iran: “The United States finds the present Iranian regime’s intransigent refusal to deviate from its avowed objective of eliminating the legitimate government of neighboring Iraq to be inconsistent with the accepted norms of behavior among nations.” In later years, the State Department came to adopt Iran’s “regime change” policy as its own, presumably revising its definition of “acceptable norms of behavior” in the process.

** A casual reader might assume that Saddam Hussein is himself a Kurd; actually, the Kurds are only Hussein’s “own people” in the same sense that the Cherokees were Andrew Jackson’s “own people.”