Locking Away Iraqi History

In March 1979, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told his inner circle that leading the Arab countries to a final victory against Israel would first entail a showdown with the United States. Throughout the 1980s, even while the United States officially supported Iraq in its war against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saddam contended the CIA was behind the Iranian Revolution that toppled Washington’s strongman ally the Shah. Then, Washington had encouraged Iran to invade Iraq in September 1980, an interesting twist on reality, especially in light of the fact that Iraq had invaded Iran. Subsequent revelations from the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986 made the "conspiracy theorist a prophet" as diplomatic historian Hal Brands assessed Saddam, and only reinforced the prevailing anti-U.S. view from Baghdad. And as Iraq Study Group leader Charles Duelfer would conclude nearly two decades later, the Iraqi dictator was convinced from that point on that the United States "was out to get him personally."

Fast forward to July 25, 1990, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie met with Saddam to discuss rising tensions with neighboring Kuwait. By then, the administration of President George H.W. Bush hoped a carrot and stick policy of economic support for Iraq paired alongside US naval exercises with nearby Gulf countries would send a clear message of both friendship and deterrence. While the United States "took no position on these Arab affairs" when it came to the final demarcation of Iraq’s border with Kuwait, a dispute that had last erupted into armed clashes during the 1970s, Ambassador Glaspie reaffirmed that her government could "never excuse the settlement of disputes by other than peaceful means." Reagan administration ambassador to Baghdad David Newton once told this author "it was clear we lost whatever influence we had there after Iran-Contra." However, only the regime’s internal records would reveal just how differently Saddam and his officials interpreted ensuing events than did their American counterparts.

By April 1990, Saddam and the inner circle were convinced they were targets of an American-Israeli-Kuwaiti plot to destroy Iraq through economic warfare. "We will fight America, and with God’s help we will defeat it and kick it out of the whole region," Saddam told a visiting Yasser Arafat. He continued, "I wish America would bring its army and occupy Iraq. I wish they would do it so we can kill all Americans and sweep all of them." On the eve of Operation Desert Storm to expel Iraq’s forces from Kuwait in December 1990, Saddam looked back, "The war was launched on us long before all this. It officially started in the 1986 meeting, and was exposed under the title Irangate [Iran-Contra]." Despite the controversy that has surrounded Ambassador Glaspie’s July 25, 1990 meeting with Saddam, the Iraqi records indicate she neither encouraged Iraqi aggression against Kuwait nor misled Saddam. In fact, the Iraqi dictator’s view that the conflict with the United States was already underway likely made it impossible to encourage or deter him. Saddam ordered the Republican Guard to overrun Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The winds of war have swept Iraq ever since.

In the almost quarter-century since the 1990-1991 Gulf War, much of what has been written about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has posited that Ambassador Glaspie’s meeting with Saddam amounted to a "green light" for the attack, or at least past U.S. support for his regime led the Iraqi ruler to believe he could get away with it. However, the captured Iraqi records present a different picture. The Iraqi government did produce a copy of the Saddam-Glaspie meeting to the media for propaganda purposes after the invasion, but such factors seem to have not been discussed behind closed doors. Rather than Glaspie’s comments, Saddam explained on August 7, 1990, "But it was God who showed us the path. Our brain was worthless; it was God who guided us. We were heading in that direction and suddenly he turned us." He was also expecting a military response from the United States, albeit one Iraq could withstand. "All they can do is bring their airplanes and start bombing: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So what? Nothing will happen, we will give them hell. Give me one instance when an airplane has settled any situation. We are not like Panama, people to be scared by airplanes." Saddam and his regime planned for the international reaction to their actions, but they never anticipated Saudi Arabia hosting American forces and an international coalition for the purpose of expelling Iraq from Kuwait through a ground war. The common denominator between US foreign policy at this time, along with much of what has been written about Iraqi decision making, is that both have projected assumptions regarding Iraqi perceptions that were at odds with what we now know about the actual view from Baghdad.

These insights and many more were made possible by the Saddam Hussein Regime Collection at the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC). The center’s Washington D.C. holdings consist of more than fifty thousand pages of captured Iraqi documents, along with two hundred hours of conversations between Saddam and his officials. In short, the records have given researchers an unprecedented view of an Arab authoritarian regime’s inner workings while increasing general understanding of modern Iraqi history, an era in which Iraq-U.S. relations have been critically important. Articles and full-volume studies have been published using the CRRC records, written by scholars affiliated with the center and by outside researchers. These works have included Joseph Sassoon’s Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party, Dina Khoury’s Iraq in Wartime, Kevin Woods’ The Mother of All Battles, an edited volume in The Saddam Tapes, and forthcoming books such as Amatzia Baram’s Saddam Husayn and Islam and Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods’ The Iran-Iraq War. Researchers working with the CRRC have also produced studies based on interviews with former Iraqi officers and officials, including Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives on the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam’s War: An Iraqi Military Perspective of the Iran-Iraq War, and The Iraqi Perspectives Report. For decades, much of what was written about contemporary Iraq in English relied heavily on Western sources out of necessity. The CRRC and the works published using its holdings have helped bring Iraqi archival records to the forefront of discussion about the regime of Saddam Hussein for the first time.

Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, however, have not approved additional funding for the CRRC and, as it stands now, research using records at the center will come to an end before September 30. With funding only through the end of this fiscal year, the center will be forced to close its doors for good. If the CRRC shuts down, it will transfer its holdings to the National Archives. The CRRC records now available and unclassified constitute less than one percent of the material the center’s staff has been processing. In addition to reclassifying the available CRRC records for at least 25 years, the National Archives has no plans to process or release the more than 99 percent of the remaining records to the public, or give them back to Iraq for that matter. The National Archives has also said that future document releases would be available on a limited basis through Freedom of Information Act requests, which pertain only to English language translations (which are sometimes inaccurate) and not the original Arabic files. In short, a shroud of government secrecy is quickly being lowered over records and documents previously open to scholars and the opportunity for further study is being denied. If this is allowed to continue, it will be a grave injustice to Iraqis who are entitled to know their own history; and it will deprive Americans of their right to know how the United States became fatefully entangled in decades of turmoil and conflict in Iraq.

Immediate funding will be required to prevent the CRRC from beginning shutdown procedures. It is important to note that the captured Iraqi records have not vindicated the Bush administration’s case for war in 2003. The files have revealed much about Iraq under the rule of Saddam, along with U.S.-Iraqi relations, although they are still only a partial picture. Nonetheless, it should be obvious that the declaration of the Islamic Caliphate under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), along with the resurgence of authoritarianism in the region following the Arab Spring, makes this the most inopportune of times for America to rebury its head in the sand. Defense spending allocated for academic research, seeing the world through the eyes of others and especially former adversaries, is a far better long-term investment than more weaponry. Admittedly, the documents in their own right will be no more successful at "pacifying" Iraq than American military might was, but perhaps one of their greatest contributions can be helping to make the case for not embarking on regime change operations in the first place.

The continuation of Iraq’s conflict following the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, recently highlighted again for Western audiences by last month’s ISIS-led offensive, has shown the perils of redirecting attention away from the country associated with what President Obama once described as "a dumb war." Official US policy and popular sentiment in the United States have both failed at willing Iraq out of sight and of mind. Echoing a point Scott Horton has often made on his show, the Iraq War may have been a television series that went off the air in the US after its 2011 season, but for Iraqis, death and destruction have still been a daily occurrence since then. The Iraq War may have been re-launched for American audiences as of late, but it is going to keep running regardless of ratings. That said, in the midst of the present crisis that threatens Iraq and the wider region, will the United States government turn its back on Iraq’s history as well?