Shadow legacy

Thursday, December 18th, 2003

In a celebrity-fixated world, wow, we’ve landed the biggest name in evil out there right now, the rock ‘n’ roll anti-Christ.

As the bearded ex-torturer emerged blinking from his rat hole and a superpower gloated, the moral lesson you didn’t hear anyone drawing was: Look what can happen to you, children, when you collaborate with the CIA. I bring up our sordid, four-decade-old connection with the despot not to be a spoilsport or detract, as if I could, from the glee and relief felt by all those who had reason to fear Saddam Hussein, suffered at his hand or lost loved ones to his bloody rule. Ding dong the witch is dead — well, unmanned.


But his history is worth a look-see right now (and this is a country that fervently believes in learning lessons from history) because of how much it could tell us about the consequences of making foreign-policy decisions in a moral vacuum.

Just as we go blithely to war with no concern for the absolutely predictable collateral damage or environmental consequences — indeed, with no intention to measure the true costs of war, which is the moral failing at the core of everything we call criminal — so we evince no interest in any possible long-term political consequences of our actions.

For instance, the only link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin-Laden is that they’re both our creations.

In the early ’60s, we began forging an alliance with the Baath Party of Iraq, in which Saddam was a rising but minor player, because the country’s then-strongman, Abdel Karim Kassem, had become a threat to Western interests (can you spell o-i-l?). We wanted Kassem replaced, just as we earlier felt the need to undermine the popular Mohammed Mossadeq of Iran, in whose place we installed the brutal shah.

Not only did the United States, via CIA operatives based in Kuwait, lend invaluable support to the Baathist coup that ousted Kassem in 1963, but we also forged an alliance of blood culpability with the new leadership.

The Baathists went on a rampage after taking power, murdering “untold numbers of Iraq’s educated elite,” Roger Morris wrote in the New York Times in March. The victims —”hundreds of doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military and political figures”— were names on a list of suspected leftists and “communist sympathizers” supplied by the CIA.

A communist sympathizer was anyone who believed the poor had rights. Saddam was a middle-management party thug and torturer at that point, and is said to have participated in the killings. His first blood, in other words, is on our hands.

We armed the Baathists and were, of course, Saddam’s allies in the early ’80s – when he was gassing Kurds — during Iraq’s war with fundamentalist, post-shah, death-to-America-the-Great-Satan Iran.

Oh, why do they all hate us so much?

The fruit of our grotesque “shadow legacy,” in plain view to most of the world but invisible to most Americans, is, of course, terrorism. The war we’re currently waging against it is a war against our own Cold War foreign policy, and we’re waging it in the same single-minded, ends-obsessed, means-oblivious way.

Indeed, there is a strain of amorality, a syndrome of ignorance, in our national dialogue with ourselves that sends shivers through me. A recent example was the big news in the war on terror prior to the capture of Saddam: our appallingly sloppy mullah hunt in Afghanistan, which resulted in the bombing deaths of 15 children in a single weekend.

The national indifference to those deaths landed with a thud. In the first wave of reportage and analysis in our major newspapers, at any rate, the operative term, literally, was “embarrassment.”

A scan of the pace-setting papers — New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times — yielded that word by about the fourth paragraph, the “nut graph,” as we say in the biz: The deaths were “an embarrassment to the U.S. military” or (West Coast variation) “embarrassing (to) interim President Hamid Karazi.”

But all that is forgotten now, as we gaze at the spectacle of our own ghost emerging from his rat hole.