“Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down… Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.” (Woodrow Wilson, 1907)

Stony Silences – The Comsat Commissars

Reviewing the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein on the day of his capture by American troops, ITN’s Trevor Macdonald described yet again the gassing of civilians at Halabja in March 1988:

“It was an atrocity met by a stony silence from the West who at that stage regarded the Iraqi president as a much needed ally in the Middle East.” (ITN News Special, December 14, 2003)

In fact the British government’s view of the atrocity was expressed loud and clear in its doubling of export credits to Baghdad, which rose from £175 million in 1987 to £340 million in 1988. A UK Department of Trade and Industry press release of November 1988 described how “this substantial increase reflects the confidence of the British government in the long term strength of the Iraqi economy and the opportunities for an increased level of trade between our two countries following the ceasefire in the Gulf War”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.36)

Five months after Halabja, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe noted in a secret report that “opportunities for sales of defence equipment to Iran and Iraq will be considerable”. In October 1989, Foreign office minister William Waldegrave wrote of Iraq: “I doubt if there is any future market of such a scale anywhere where the UK is potentially so well-placed” and that “the priority of Iraq in our policy should be very high”. (Ibid, p.37)

In the first year after Halabja, the British government steadfastly refused to accept that its ally had used chemical weapons, stating that the evidence “was compelling but not conclusive”. Human Rights Watch reported recently that the evidence it collected on Halabja at the time was simply ignored by the Foreign Office. The British government, it seems, was “singularly unreceptive”. (Ibid)

On August 18, 2002, the New York Times reported how in the 1980s the Reagan administration secretly provided “critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war”. Walter Lang, a former senior US defence intelligence officer added: “The use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern.”

The Times’ story was quickly buried and forgotten.

Soon after Halabja, the US approved the export of virus cultures and a $1 billion contract to design and build a petrochemical plant that the Iraqis planned to use to produce mustard gas. Profits were the bottom line. Indeed “so powerful was the grip of the pro-Baghdad lobby on the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan”, Dilip Hiro notes in the Observer, “that it got the White House to foil the Senate’s attempt to penalise Iraq for its violation of the Geneva Protocol on Chemical Weapons to which it was a signatory”. (Hiro, ‘When US turned a blind eye to poison gas’, The Observer, September 1, 2002)

The US continued to support Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war because of “our duty to support US exports” the State Department declared in early 1990. (Quoted Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, p.111)

Recent reports by the US Senate’s Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban affairs, reveal that the US sold anthrax, nerve gas, West Nile fever germs and botulinum to Iraq up until March 1992, even after the 1991 Gulf War, and four years after Halabja.

This is the same “pragmatic” Western approach being pursued now in support of mass murderers in Russia, Turkey, Colombia, Algeria and elsewhere – leaders who could become the next “new Hitler” at the drop of a hat were they ever to repeat Saddam’s mistake by crossing the West.

Warning shots were fired earlier this year when the Turkish government refused to allow a US land attack on Iraq from its borders. Having consistently ignored atrocities against Turkish Kurds with US weapons, the US media suddenly began writing of “Turkey’s ghastly record of torturing, killing, and ‘disappearing’ Turkish Kurds and destroying more than 3,000 of their villages.” (Editorial, Boston Globe, March 6, 2003)

The murderous history of crucial, vigorous US-UK support for Iraqi crimes is rewritten by ITN as the West responding with “a stony silence” – disapproving, we might presume, but helpless to intervene.

Very Important And Very Ironic

Why has “the Left” so abjectly failed to support the people of Iraq by opposing the war to topple their tyrant? So asks Nick Cohen in the Observer:

“Just before the war, Jose Ramos-Horta, one of the leaders of the struggle for independence of East Timor, looked on the anti-war protesters and asked: ‘Why did I not see one single banner or hear one speech calling for the end of human rights abuses in Iraq, the removal of the dictator and freedom for the Iraqis and the Kurdish people?’.” (Cohen, ‘By the left… about turn’, The Observer, December 14, 2003)

Cohen’s comments are a good example of exact mainstream truth-reversal. While media commentators had next to nothing to say about the West’s complicity in Saddam’s atrocities – just as they have nothing to say about support for Turkey, Russia and Colombia’s atrocities now – dissidents vigorously opposed Western support for the tyrant. In 1992, Jeff Cohen of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) described how the media, shrieking with horrified outrage at Saddam’s crimes now, responded at the time he was actually committing those crimes with our support:

“During that whole period when the United States was helping build up the military and economic might of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the issue of his human rights abuses was off the media agenda. There was this classic in the New York Post, a tabloid in New York. After the [Gulf] crisis began, they had a picture of Saddam Hussein patting the British kid on the head and their banner headline was ‘Child Abuser’. That was very important to us and very ironic, because Amnesty International and other human rights groups had released studies in 1984 and 1985 which showed that Saddam Hussein’s regime regularly tortured children to get information about their parents’ views. That just didn’t get the coverage.

“It shows one of the points FAIR has made constantly: that when a foreign government is in favour with the United States, with the White House, its human rights record is basically off the mainstream media agenda, and when they do something that puts them out of favour with the US government, the foreign government’s human rights abuses are, all of a sudden, major news.” (Jeff Cohen in conversation with David Barsamian – Stenographers To Power, Common Courage Press, 1992, p.142)

Even this level of media subservience was insufficient for US leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. When a delegation led by Majority Leader and future presidential candidate Bob Dole visited Saddam in April 1990, they conveyed President Bush’s greetings and assured Saddam that his problems did not lie with the US government but with “the haughty and pampered [US] press”. Senator Alan Simpson advised Saddam to “invite them to come here and see for themselves”. Dole assured Saddam that a commentator who had been critical of Iraq on Voice of America had been removed. (Quoted Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, op., cit, p.112)

On the same news special, ITN’s International Editor Bill Neely added of a possible war crimes trial:

“Awkward things will come out of this trial. Saddam will love saying, ‘Who backed me in the 1980s? Who armed me? Who gave me the weapons of mass destruction? Why, the United States!'”

The exposure of participation in crimes consistently described as “genocidal” by the media is merely “awkward”. This together with Macdonald’s earlier comment was as much as ITN managed to say of Western support for Saddam Hussein in a report lasting 40 minutes.

Over on BBC1, Rageh Omaar made a similarly fleeting gesture in the direction of truth in reviewing Saddam’s life over (one more time) footage from Halabja:

“Saddam Hussein has not always been our enemy. Indeed he was our ally when he committed this atrocity.

“And he was supported by Britain and the US in the catastrophic war against neighbouring Iran, an eight-year titanic struggle which left a million dead and in which Saddam Hussein again used chemical weapons. But for the West he was a useful bulwark against the spread of Ayatollah Khomeini’s branch of radical Islam, and so support of him was maintained.” (Omaar, BBC1, December 14, 2003)

In fact Saddam was an ally of the West long before Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979 and long before (and after) the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Author Roger Morris observes:

“As its instrument the CIA had chosen the authoritarian and anti-Communist Baath Party, in 1963 still a relatively small political faction influential in the Iraqi Army. According to the former Baathist leader Hani Fkaiki, among party members colluding with the CIA in 1962 and 1963 was Saddam Hussein…

“According to Western scholars, as well as Iraqi refugees and a British human rights organization, the 1963 coup was accompanied by a bloodbath. Using lists of suspected Communists and other leftists provided by the CIA, the Baathists systematically murdered untold numbers of Iraq’s educated elite – killings in which Saddam Hussein himself is said to have participated.” (Morris, ‘A Tyrant 40 Years in the Making,’ The New York Times, March 14, 2003)

As we have seen, the “duty to support US exports” meant that the US continued to support Saddam long after Iran’s capitulation ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Again, Omaar’s vague comments of how Saddam had been an “ally” who “was supported by Britain and the US” was as much as the BBC had to say in its 35-minute report. Vast crimes against humanity, direct and vital US-UK involvement in mass killing – why bother with details? The emphasis on Saddam as a “bulwark” against “radical Islam” is classic media distortion transforming the horrific subordination of human beings to profit and power into a reasoned act of self-defence against the “mad Mullahs” that the public have been trained to hate and fear.

As ever, while detailing Saddam’s crimes in minute detail, it was impossible for the media to suggest that Western support for the Iraqi tyrant might have been something other than a random blip; that it might have been part of a well-documented and extremely consistent pattern in US and UK foreign policy.

To sample at random, a month after the CIA, with British support, helped install a regime which went on to kill some 200,000 people in Guatemala, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wrote to the newly-installed puppet:

“Please convey to His Excellency the President the good wishes of Her Majesty’s Government and accept the assurance of my highest consideration.” (Quoted, Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p.154)

The Shah of Iran, also installed by a CIA coup, presided over a boiling bloodbath of torture and killing. As the death toll peaked, President Carter declared:

“Iran under the great leadership of the Shah is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you.” (Quoted, James Bill, Foreign Affairs, Winter, 1978-79)

In 1983 Vice President Bush expressed his admiration for Romanian dictator Ceaucescu’s political and economic progress and his “respect for human rights”. (Quoted, Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, op., cit, p.113)

Current favourites include dictators in Central Asia – Uzbekistan’s Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Niyazov, for example – serving US interests in resource-rich areas. US assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, William Burns, says Washington has “much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism”. (Ibid, p.115) This of the generals who have subjected the country to a reign of terror since the country’s first democratic elections were cancelled having produced the wrong result in 1991 – victory for an Islamist party. The list goes on…

Our journalists somehow fail to notice the entire historical record (including state documentation), and find nothing strange in the fact that the West has long supported the likes of Suharto, Pinochet, the Shah, Papa and Baby Doc, Somoza, Galtieri, Trujillo, Diem, Amin, et al.

The US and UK select, arm, install and protect these thugs because an “iron fist” is required to ensure “good investment climates” in the Third World.

A good investment climate means low cost access to resources, unimpeded by democratic constraints. Low cost access means poverty wages, no welfare safety system (which would give the poor an option other than working for poverty wages), no trade unions (which might seek to improve the condition of the poor), no community organisations (which might threaten to raise costs by enabling peasants to organise against exploitation). Workers should have minimal rights: no restrictions on hours worked, no safety standards, no restrictions on the use of dangerous pesticides and banned Western products generally, all of which would increase costs.

The consistent nature of Western foreign policy suggests that focusing on individual leaders and parties – finding cause for optimism in Tony Blair’s endearing smile or George Bush’s Christian faith – is a gross form of self-deception at best. Policy flows from a stable framework of domestic power pursuing similar goals in similar ways over many decades.

This institutional framework is rooted, not just in greed, but in the limitless greed of corporate fundamentalism – there are no limits, no acceptable costs that have to be tolerated where they can be avoided. People pay the price.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Ask the media why they have so little to say about US and UK complicity in the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein. Cut and paste and send them all or part of this Media Alert – ask the journalists and editors below why they have failed to mention these readily available facts.

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