Iraq through a partisan lens

Kenneth Timmerman President, Foundation for Democracy in Iran
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Ten years ago this week, President George W. Bush issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein to complete his disarmament obligations under 17 United Nations Security Council resolutions or face the full brunt of a military assault from an allied coalition of 40 nations.

In the intervening years, even the basic facts of what happened that caused the second war in Iraq, let alone the overwhelming unanimity that bound together the president, Congress, the American people, and most of the world, has been trampled underfoot by President Bush’s political adversaries, to be replaced by the Code Pink mantra, “Bush lied, people died!”

Like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, and countless others in Congress, I was a strong supporter of the president’s decision to end the long stalemate with Saddam.

Unlike those distinguished former senators, I remember well that the strategy established by the president and his secretary of defense, a strategy that had strong bipartisan support, was simple yet powerful: smash Saddam Hussein’s regime and his ability to threaten his neighbors or his own people, then hand over the reins of power to the Iraqis and leave.

The war plans never called for an occupation. That was the work of Jerry Bremer, President Bush’s hand-picked representative in Baghdad.

For someone who had never been posted in the Arab world, Bremer arrived in Baghdad on May 12, 2003 with all the certainty of someone who had been waiting for that moment all his life.

Within days of taking his new job, he issued three fateful orders that set aside the president’s strategy and substituted something quite different: 1) he dissolved the Iraqi army, effectively creating 300,000 unemployed, frustrated, and increasingly angry young men with guns; 2) he outlawed the Baath Party, right down to school teachers and ordinary traffic cops; and 3) he fired the Iraqi Governing Council, the very group of brave Iraqis the United States had been grooming for years to take over power after the liberation.

I have written all the sordid details of this amazing coup d’état in “Shadow Warriors: Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender.

The book and this story were featured by Rush Limbaugh on his show and in his monthly newsletter at the time it appeared. And yet, even today, Bush opponents still conveniently forget the facts.

I have just returned from Iraq, where I took part in another painful anniversary: the commemoration of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Iraqi Kurds in the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988.

In the years following Halabja, much of the media and most politicians got the basics right: Saddam Hussein was a genocidal maniac who was willing to use chemical weapons on his own people, and the international community needed to do a better job of ensuring that the dangerous technologies that enabled him to build those weapons never again be transferred to dangerous regimes.

I sat for hours listening to painful stories from survivors. One teenager, Kamil Abdelkader Wais Muhammad, was crouching with nine other family members in a crowded basement as the Iraqi bombers kept hitting their block with chemical bombs. During a lull in the bombings, they ran outside and piled into a wagon hitched to a tractor and fled to the mountains. When Kamil woke up the next morning, he was the only member of his family left alive.

The Halabja massacre stunned the world. As the truth of what happened reached the outside world a week or so later, President Ronald Reagan harshly condemned Saddam Hussein for using chemical weapons on his own people, and joined with French President Francois Mitterrand in calling for a new international arms control regime aimed at preventing the spread of chemical weapons technologies.

Here in Washington, we have come to expect partisan politicians (and members of the media) to tarnish the lens of history, so that past events appear distorted beyond any resemblance to the truth. It’s unfair and often despicable. And it has made many Americans cynical about both the media and the political class.

But when we as Americans go overseas, we still expect — I still expect — that a sense of national pride and self-respect will move us to refrain from a partisan and selective reinterpretation of our country’s history.

I expect Democrats and Republicans to set aside their partisan differences when visiting Iraq, and to acknowledge a few basic facts. For example, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis — Shias and Kurds — still thank us profusely for liberating them from a brutal dictator they were unable to overthrow on their own.

So I was stunned to listen to former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith in Erbil last week, telling an audience of Iraqi Kurds and international media how treacherously the last three Republican presidents had acted toward the Kurds.

As a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1980s, Galbraith visited Iraqi Kurdistan before Halabja and afterwards to document Saddam’s attempt to eradicate the Kurds. His efforts led to the Prevention of Genocide in Iraq Act of 1988 that was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by both houses of Congress.

The State Department Arabists hated it — because they saw Saddam as a bulwark against creeping Iranian expansion — and managed to sabotage the bill and prevent it from becoming law. And yet, to hear Galbraith tell it, President Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney were the villains, cynically favoring U.S. exports to Saddam’s regime over the lives of Iraqi Kurds.

With the same smarminess one would expect of Keith Olbermann, he announced that “the same people who opposed the Genocide Act called for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Think how many lives could have been saved if only my bill had become law.”

It took a Swedish photographer, Stefan Yatan — no friend of Republican presidents, for sure — to set the record straight. He pointedly reminded the audience members (who knew the story well) that it was President George H.W. Bush who ordered U.S. troops to create a safe haven for the Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the first Gulf war in 1991, so Saddam couldn’t massacre them in the mountains along the borders of Turkey and Iran.

These are not details of history. They are history. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a Democrat — liked to say, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own set of facts.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is the founder and president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran.