Christmas came 11 days early for Donald Rumsfeld two years ago when
the news broke that American forces had pulled Saddam Hussein from a spidery
hole. During interviews about the capture, on CBS and ABC, the Pentagon's top
man was upbeat. And he didn't have to deal with a question that Lesley Stahl
or Peter Jennings could have logically chosen to ask: "Secretary Rumsfeld,
you met with Saddam almost exactly 20 years ago and shook his hand. What kind
of guy was he?"
Now, Saddam Hussein has gone on trial, but such questions remain unasked by
mainstream U.S. journalists. Rumsfeld met with Hussein in Baghdad on behalf
of the Reagan administration, opening up strong diplomatic and military ties
that lasted through six more years of Saddam's murderous brutality.
As it happens, the initial trial of Saddam and co-defendants is focusing on
grisly crimes that occurred the year before Rumsfeld gripped his hand. "The
first witness, Ahmad Hassan Muhammad, 38, riveted the courtroom with the scenes
of torture he witnessed after his arrest in 1982, including a meat grinder with
human hair and blood under it," the New York Times reported Tuesday. And:
"At one point, Mr. Muhammad briefly broke down in tears as he recalled
how his brother was tortured with electrical shocks in front of their 77-year-old
The victims were Shi'ites – 143 men and adolescent boys, according to
the charges – tortured and killed in the Iraqi town of Dujail after an
assassination attempt against Saddam in early July of 1982. Donald Rumsfeld
became the Reagan administration's Middle East special envoy 15 months later.
On Dec. 20, 1983, the Washington Post reported that Rumsfeld "visited
Iraq in what U.S. officials said was an attempt to bolster the already improving
U.S. relations with that country." A couple of days later, the New York
Times cited a "senior American official" who "said that the United
States remained ready to establish full diplomatic relations with Iraq and that
it was up to the Iraqis."
On March 29, 1984, the Times reported: "American diplomats pronounce themselves
satisfied with relations between Iraq and the United States and suggest that
normal diplomatic ties have been restored in all but name." Washington
had some goodies for Saddam's regime, the Times account noted, including "agricultural-commodity
credits totaling $840 million." And while "no results of the talks
have been announced" after the Rumsfeld visit to Baghdad three months earlier,
"Western European diplomats assume that the United States now exchanges
some intelligence on Iran with Iraq."
A few months later, on July 17, 1984, a Times article with a Baghdad dateline
sketchily filled in a bit more information, saying that the U.S. government
"granted Iraq about $2 billion in commodity credits to buy food over the
last two years." The story recalled that "Donald Rumsfeld, the former
Middle East special envoy, held two private meetings with the Iraqi president
here," and the dispatch mentioned in passing that "State Department
human rights reports have been uniformly critical of the Iraqi president, contending
that he ran a police state."
Full diplomatic relations between Washington and Baghdad were restored 11 months
after Rumsfeld's December 1983 visit with Saddam. He went on to use poison gas
later in the decade, actions which scarcely harmed relations with the Reagan
As the most senior U.S. official to visit Iraq in six years, Rumsfeld had served
as Reagan's point man for warming relations with Saddam. In 1984, the administration
engineered the sale to Baghdad of 45 ostensibly civilian-use Bell 214ST helicopters.
Saddam's military found them quite useful for attacking Kurdish civilians with
poison gas in 1988, according to U.S. intelligence sources. "In response
to the gassing," journalist Jeremy Scahill has pointed out, "sweeping
sanctions were unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate that would have denied
Iraq access to most U.S. technology. The measure was killed by the White House."
The USA's big media institutions did little to illuminate how Washington
and business interests combined to strengthen and arm Saddam Hussein during
many of his worst crimes. "In the 1980s and afterward, the United States
underwrote 24 American corporations so they could sell to Saddam Hussein weapons
of mass destruction, which he used against Iran, at that time the prime Middle
Eastern enemy of the United States," writes Ben Bagdikian, a former assistant
managing editor of the Washington Post, in his book The
New Media Monopoly. "Hussein used U.S.-supplied poison gas"
against Iranians and Kurds "while the United States looked the other way."
Of cours,e the crimes of the Saddam Hussein regime were not just in the future
when Rumsfeld came bearing gifts in 1983. Saddam's large-scale atrocities had
been going on for a long time. Among them were the methodical torture and murders
in Dujail that have been front-paged this week in coverage of the former dictator's
trial; they occurred 17 months before Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad.
Today, inside the corporate media frame, history can be supremely relevant
when it focuses on Hussein's torture and genocide. But the historic assistance
of the U.S. government and American firms is largely off the subject and beside
A photo of Donald
Rumsfeld shaking Saddam's hand on Dec. 20, 1983, is easily available. (It
takes a few seconds to find via Google.) But the picture has been notably absent
from the array of historic images that U.S. media outlets are providing to viewers
and readers in coverage of the Saddam Hussein trial. And journalistic mention
of Rumsfeld's key role in aiding the Iraqi tyrant has been similarly absent.
Apparently, in the world according to U.S. mass media, some history matters
profoundly and some doesn't matter at all.