The Survival of Saddam
an interview with james chritchfield
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James Chritchfield is former CIA Near East Division Chief and was the leading behind-the-scenes architect of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East during the Cold War..
How did you become involved in the Middle East?

A few days before Christmas, in 1959, Allen Dulles invited me to his office. He was the director of central intelligence. After I spent ten years in Europe being involved in American intelligence, I had returned to Washington, and had joined the Central Intelligence Agency. Allen told me his conclusion that the Soviet Union, after 1955, had redirected its principal strategic interests away from the Stalin effort to take western Europe, and toward the Third World, particularly towards the Middle East. He said that he expected a full effort by the Soviet Union to establish itself physically in the Middle East. He said that the CIA had done a very effective analysis of the vulnerability left in that area by World War II. He proposed that I leave Europe, and go to the Middle East and south Asia. to be responsible for our operations there.

I had a comparable experience in Europe in the ten years after the war, so I found this an exciting assignment. Europe had become extremely stable after the Warsaw Pact. I very enthusiastically went to the Middle East. For ten full years, I was the head of the Middle East operations, starting in 1959. Allen's analysis, detailed to me before Christmas, 1959, turned out to be the reality. The Soviets did pull out all the stops in their effort to take over the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Suez Cannel, and the Arabian peninsula. But in the end, they totally failed to achieve their objective.

Why do you think they failed?

photo of james critchfield The Soviets, like the United States, did not really understand the character of Arab nationalism, and the deeply ingrained sense of independence following years of colonial experience. They also failed, as we did, to put in full perspective the impact of Islam on these new nations that were emerging in that part of the world. The Russians failed very badly when they saw the creation of Israel as essentially an instrument that they could play upon, because it created a difference between the Arabs and the United States. The Russians greatly underestimated Israel's determination to preserve their national interest, and above all, to maintain access to the Indian Ocean and through the Mediterranean to the rest of the world. And so, the 1967 war that the Soviets rather foolishly provoked turned out to be an enormous disaster to the Soviet Union. It created the conditions for Anwar Sadat to replace Gamal Nasser, and it certainly destroyed the whole Soviet initiative in the Arabian peninsula, the Red Sea, and the efforts to take Aden. So the Soviet effort failed. The United States was clearly emerging as a greater power. The United States had done more to increase its presence in the Middle East in carrying out its containment policy, than the Soviets thought we would be able to do, given our growing involvement in Asia--first, in Korea, and then later in Vietnam.

When you took over the assignment in the Middle East in 1959, how important was Iraq in the general "great game" that was going on in the Middle East? Was it a focal point of Soviet and American concern?

By 1959, Iraq was becoming important, because they had gone through one or two revolutions. The conservative monarchy established there by the British had fallen in a coup. Gamal Nassar was extremely active in the Ba'ath politics. We recognized in the Ba'ath. They were probably opposed to Egyptian nationalism, but we thought they were equally opposed to Soviet communism. Aside from that, we had no clear U.S. policy in which Iraq was either central or even very important. The Soviet effort in the Middle East tried to penetrate the Fertile Crescent from Damascus, to Baghdad, toward the Gulf, and through Egypt and the Suez Cannel to the Red Sea. So it was equally important for them to get control in Baghdad. I think the U.S. policy was essentially containment of Soviet efforts there--Baghdad was merely a piece on the board.

What about the Ba'ath Party?

When a government personalizes an attack on a leader like Saddam, in a country like Iraq that is inherently quite nationalistic, then attacking the leader makes his task of staying in power simpler. In 1961 and 1962, we increased our interest in the Ba'ath--not to actively support it--but politically and intellectually, we found the Ba'ath interesting. We found it particularly active in Iraq. Our analysis of the Ba'ath was that it was comparatively moderate at that time, and that the United States could easily adjust to and support its policies. So we watched the Ba'ath's long, slow preparation to take control. They planned to do it several times, and postponed it.

We were better informed on the 1963 coup in Baghdad than on any other major event or change of government that took place in the whole region in those years. But we did not identify a radical movement within the Ba'ath that would, six months later, stage a kind of counter-coup, and replace the moderate elements in the Ba'ath. That was our mistake--that surprised us.

And were you also surprised, as time went on in the 1960s, by the increased violence of the Ba'ath Party? It eventually shifted from being a party of a lot of intellectuals, to being a party of some intellectuals on top of a lot of thugs.

Quite clearly after Saddam Hussein took power, America slowly developed, not a hostility, but enormous reservations about the ability of the Ba'ath to

constructively bring Iraq along. But during those years, the oil companies continued to deal with Iraq, and there were a lot of American business interests.

By the end of the 1960s, what had changed with regard to the U.S. attention or interest in Iraq?

Within a year or two after the 1967 Six-Day War, our growing involvement in Vietnam became apparent. About the time that President Nixon went to Moscow, he conceived the idea of placing increased reliance in the region on Iran. On the way back from Moscow, he stopped and, in effect, said to the Shah, "We are looking to you to assume leadership in this whole region--what do you need?" The Shah was very adept at exploiting that, and we became quite a major arms supplier at that point. Our increasing involvement in Iran was part of the effort to offset our growing problems in maintaining a presence in Europe and in the Middle East, while we were so deeply engaged in Asia.

Around that time, Saddam made his trip to Moscow and signed a friendship agreement. How significant was that? What do you think he was trying to achieve, and what were the Soviets hoping to get out of that?

Saddam Hussein's trip to Moscow didn't impress us very much. By then, we had sorted out that any Arab revolutionary who needed help inevitably got the invitation to come to Moscow. All of them went, and in the end, nothing very much came of this. They became temporary Soviet clients for arms and other support in the Middle East, but we know that none of these lasted--at least they've never lasted in the sense that the Soviets intended them to last. The independence deeply ingrained in the Arab leaders, colored additionally by Islam, makes the average Middle East leader very difficult for major foreign powers to influence decisively.

Saddam was also hoping to develop his country quite rapidly. It seems like he concluded that he wouldn't get the kind of technology that he needed from the Soviets, and was actively looking for Western technology. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Of course. We were all obviously impressed that the Iraqis, the Syrians and the Lebanese were greatly ahead of the rest of their world in education, in technology, and in development in general. So we thought that Saddam Hussein might be brought along in that sense--showing increased interest in working with United States, its instruments, its companies and its government, because of the infatuation for modern technology. This was Saddam Hussein being totally pragmatic. When he was interested in making a bigger and better missile or a bomb, he wasn't interested in it to increase American influence in the region. He was interested purely in increasing his own influence. So this theme of independence comes up again and again, and is still today a very prevalent characteristic of the Middle East.

If you wanted to bring Saddam along at that time, what would be the way to do that?

At that time, the policy that we followed of trying to stabilize the area with leadership in Teheran was probably a good policy. But it didn't work, because we had underestimated the resistance to the Shah. When he was overthrown, we didn't have a very good policy that we could put forth.

And that changed Saddam's role?

I think it did change Saddam's role. It made him more ambitious, since he had the military force, the political influence. Saddam probably figured that he benefited by the break in the Shah's relation with the United States. When the Shah left Iran, this left him the opportunity to replace the Shah. There's no doubt that, in that period, he worked quite hard with our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and with our oil companies to strengthen the American position in Iraq.

And were the Americans receptive to that?

I think many of them were. There were various business groups in the United States that were dedicated to expanding our business interests. Some of the American oil companies, more than others, made a major investment of time, attention and money. Mobil Oil Company was very active during this period, in the dialogue that was very much with Saddam Hussein and his top oil people.

Should America be trying to overthrow that regime today?

We should probably not be actively attempting to overthrow Saddam Hussein at this point. We should be pursuing an almost equal dialogue with Iran, who is showing signs of change. Iraq is under great pressures, and Saddam Hussein is an aging ruler. As we go into the next century, the United States should stand back a little bit, and conduct very active dialogues with Iran and Iraq. Both of them are potentially dangerous with weapons of mass destruction, and could disrupt the whole Middle East region again.

So, if he is a threat, why not try to overthrow him?

We don't really have the means to overthrow him without leaving the policy of containment, in which, inherently, you don't go around attacking people or shooting them, unless they've threatened you directly, as he did in Kuwait. It isn't credible to try and overthrow Saddam Hussein, unless there is some credibility in an announced change of policy towards the use of force. The United States using force in the world today, including in Iraq, is not a very good answer. We should be very laid-back, as we go into the next century. We should have a growing dialogue with Saddam Hussein, and with the moderates in Iran, and coordinate these very carefully with all of the other Arab leaders. We should see if we can gradually move them together to end the current sharp division and hostility that is present in Iran and Iraq.

To what extent has American policy toward Iraq become too personalized towards Saddam Hussein?

When a government personalizes an attack on a leader like Saddam Hussein, in a country like Iraq that is inherently quite nationalistic, and has attitudes that are reinforced by its religion, then attacking the leader makes his task of staying in power simpler. A quiet dialogue engaging other nationals is much more effective.

When was the end of Soviet attempts to gain a foothold in the Middle East?

If you had to fix a point when the when the Soviet influence was destroyed in the Middle East, it would have to be the 1967 war. You remember that Khrushchev made his famous statement that Israel was a bone in his throat. That war was the turning point, but it was only one of many things that happened. With Nasser's death, there was a shift of influence to the Shah, to King Faisal in Saudi Arabia, and to Sadat in Cairo, which produced a change in the environment in the Middle East. The Soviet position was significantly downgraded. But it was the 1967 war that was the beginning of the end.

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