Foreign Policy's website has an excellent report on the C.I.A.'s disgraceful backing of Saddam Hussein during the time that he used chemical weapons against Iran. In 1988, as Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid explain, Iraq was on the verge of losing territory during the country's pointless and bloody war with Iran. American spies decided to relay information on troop movements to Saddam's government, despite the knowledge that he could very well use sarin gas against those same troops. Moreover:
The intelligence included...the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence.
Shane and Aid also nicely sum up the meaning of these disclosures:
It has been previously reported that the United States provided tactical intelligence to Iraq at the same time that officials suspected Hussein would use chemical weapons. But the CIA documents, which sat almost entirely unnoticed in a trove of declassified material at the National Archives in College Park, Md., combined with exclusive interviews with former intelligence officials, reveal new details about the depth of the United States' knowledge of how and when Iraq employed the deadly agents. They show that senior U.S. officials were being regularly informed about the scale of the nerve gas attacks. They are tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched.
This may not exactly redefine anyone's opinion of the CIA's behavior during the cold war, but it does add more evidence to the already gruesome picture. (I wonder if any CIA officers paused to wonder whether the gassed Iranians were using any of the weaponry that the Americans had sold them). The disclosures also provide, inadvertantly, one way to help think about what's currently going on in Syria.
Anyone who followed the debate over the Iraq war in 2003 surely remembers that opponents of the war would often use the United States's previous support of Saddam Hussein as a means of undermining the Bush administration's case. In one regard this was reasonable: the history of American foreign policy is full of blunders and immorality, and thus it is worth approaching any American case for war with real skepticism. But the hypocrisy argument, which Noam Chomsky and others frequently made, never made the smallest bit of sense. If anything, America's previous support for Saddam Hussein made it more imperative that the country take some action to remove him. I certainly don't think this was a sufficient reason to support a disastrous war, but it gives ammunition to the opposite case than the one that anti-war activists were making. The same argument cropped up when Mubarak lost United States support in 2011. Would it have been better to go on supporting him? (I often wonder whether there were lefties who scorned American criticism of Stalin in the late 1940s for preciesly this reason. The hypocrisy! He was recently our ally!)
Now to Syria, where the Assad regime appears to have just used chemical weapons. The Obama administration is clearly contemplating, along with several of its allies, some sort of military response. There are plenty of reasons to support or oppose a Western intervention in the country, but opponents—should intervention occur—are sure to rely on some version of the hypocrist argument. When Qaddafi was overthrown and killed, much of the antiwar commentary focused on Tony Blair's close dealings with him. This time around, look for a similar focus. Haven't we looked the other way during previous atrocities? Didn't we previously reach out to Assad and try to make deals with him? And, given the latest revelations, how can America condemn the use of chemical weapons when we aided Saddam Hussein's crimes? For these questions to have any merit, someone needs to explain why having previously aided an atrocity is a reason for ignoring the next one.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.