The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By MICHAEL LEDEEN
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America's behavior in Iraq over the past month "bears a close resemblance to the disaster of the Bay of Pigs, but unlike President Kennedy, no one is apologizing for this one." So said former Defense Department official Paul Wolfowitz before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As in 1961, brave men prepared to risk their lives in common cause with the United States have been abandoned to a tyrant's murderous pleasures. And, as in 1961, our friends and enemies around the world will draw very dangerous conclusions from the event.

Saddam Hussein's Aug. 30-31 invasion of the American-guaranteed safe zone in northern Iraq was no surprise. All the interested parties -- the American and British governments, the two Kurdish clans, and the only effective Iraqi opposition to Saddam, the Iraqi National Congress -- had discussed it. The Americans in contact with the Kurds and Shiites had promised a speedy and forceful response to the invasion.

Moreover, despite numerous reports to the contrary, the U.S. was not surprised when one group of Kurds -- the "Barzani Kurds" -- made a tactical alliance with Saddam to support the elite Iraqi military forces, the Republican Guard. "It wasn't," one CIA veteran told me, "a tough intelligence mission." The Republican Guard staged an armored attack not only against the rival "Talabani Kurds" but also against the headquarters of the Iraqi National Congress -- killing many, kidnapping others, and grabbing files and computers containing lists of contacts elsewhere in Iraq. We've known the Kurds for decades, and despite our periodic betrayals of them (first under Nixon/Kissinger at the Shah's request, then under Bush/Baker), we generally know what they're up to. We had known for weeks that Barzani's treachery was in the works, and we knew within hours that the deal had been cut.

So there was not, as the Clintonite leaks would have it, an "intelligence failure." No, Saddam's entry into the Kurdish zone was a policy debacle, pure and simple. The Kurds and the Iraqi National Congress asked us for protection against the impending invasion, and we reassured them: If the Iraqis moved into the zone, we said, there would be terrible consequences.

Then we watched. We watched Saddam assemble his armored column, composed of virtually every operational tank in Iraq, more than 300 in all. And we watched him advance slowly northward, and we sent him warnings of dire consequences. We had plenty of time to send attacking planes from bases in Turkey or from carriers. In open country, with none of the problems of weather and terrain that make operations in Bosnia so difficult and dangerous, the Iraqi tanks were sitting ducks for our fighter-bombers. Hitting those tanks would have been a real blow to Saddam, would have given a muchneeded morale boost to his opponents, and would have made it clear to everyone in the region that the United States was serious about defending its friends and advancing its interests.

Instead, Bill Clinton told his foreign-policy people that his top priority was to avoid American casualties of any sort: No body bags delivered to weeping families back home, no planes shot down over hostile territory, no hostages dragged behind jeeps through dusty streets. Therefore no risk, and therefore no serious action.

The cruise missiles belatedly lobbed into radar and antiaircraft bases in southern Iraq neatly demonstrated the president's obsession with keeping Americans out of harm's way, and its fatal consequences. Freedom fighters died instead of storm troopers, and, as even CIA director John Deutch bravely admitted to Congress, Saddam is now much stronger and we much weaker than before the Iraqi blitz.

How could it be otherwise? Potential friends and allies have seen that the brave Iraqis foolish enough to believe that the United States was serious about fighting Saddam Hussein have been abandoned to the Butcher of Baghdad.

Some of Clinton's defenders have tried to pretend that U.S. prestige and credibility were not involved since Saddam had merely intervened in an internal Kurdish conflict after being invited in by one of the contending sides. Too bad for the losing Kurds, they say, but it wasn't really our problem; we were just enforcing our no-fly zone, and we taught Saddam a lesson by extending it further south, and to make the point, we punished him with our Tomahawks.