Thanks principally to the reports of Barton Gellman in the Washington Post since last October, we know that US intelligence services fatally misused the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) for disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The spy agencies did this as a cover to intercept not only communications between different branches of Iraq’s security services–suspected of concealing proscribed weapons and documents–but also routine military communications unrelated to UNSCOM’s mission.
At least one other account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s perfidious ways, going as far back as spring 1992, is available in Scott Ritter’s just-published Endgame. Ritter, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer, became chief inspector with UNSCOM, which relied solely on personnel supplied by UN member states. But a broader account of Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War is offered by brothers Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, and Andrew Cockburn, a Washington-based defense and international affairs specialist. Each writer brings to the book a respective strength. Patrick Cockburn has visited Iraq several times since the early nineties and is well connected with Iraqi exiles. Andrew has contacts with the intelligence and defense bureaucracies in and around Washington. The result is a clear, lively, well-researched narrative, which moves along at a brisk pace.
Since the end of the Gulf War, Iraq has altered little politically. But its economy is in tatters, its middle class in terminal decline and its economic infrastructure has deteriorated to the point where it is becoming irreparable. The cost of returning Iraq to pre-1991 standards in infrastructure is put conservatively at $50 billion. And, as a direct result of the UN sanctions, an estimated 1 million Iraqis have died, more than half of them children.
As the book title indicates, the authors focus on the survivability of Saddam Hussein. He is still in power despite repeated and varied endeavors by the United States, ranging from debilitating airstrikes to attempted military coups; a string of high-level defections from Baghdad; bloody rifts within Iraq’s first family; the blatant pauperization of Iraqis; and the near-collapse of the country’s economy, caused by the crippling UN sanctions. Washington finds this intolerable, and its top officials are seething with frustration and bewilderment.
Yet it is not the first time the United States has failed to impose its will on a Third World country. Socialist Cuba is a glaring example of US failure. Despite forty years of unremitting hostility, a string of attempts to kill President Fidel Castro and/or to overthrow his regime through a coup, Cuba is still firmly in “resist” mode.
Compared with Cuba, though, Iraq is a big fish. It has the world’s second-largest proven petroleum reserves. It sits at the center of a region possessing two-thirds of the world’s oil deposits. So the stakes are astronomically high, especially when the region has already spawned another oil-rich, strategic state–Islamic Iran–in the habit of branding America “the Great Satan.”
Internally, the reason for Saddam’s survival lies partly in the secretive, repressive and brutally efficient regime he heads, and partly in the fractiousness of the opposition, which is rooted in history. On his appointment as head of the British Colonial Office in 1921, Winston Churchill said, “I feel some misgivings about the political consequences to myself of taking on my shoulders the burden and odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement.” Four years later when a League of Nations arbitration committee awarded the disputed Kurdish-dominated province of Mosul (an integral part of Turkey before World War I) to Mesopotamia, thus creating modern Iraq, the “entanglement” became unbearably convoluted.