Barry Lando’s Take on Iraq

One of the drawbacks of the political blogosphere is that there is very little dialogue between the left and right sides, or the anti-war and pro-war camps. And if it ever happens, it isn’t all that pleasant to read. Yet, the time has come to get an exchange of ideas going and I was prompted to do so after reading Barry Lando’s Web of Deceit and noticing that it was mostly discussed on the left side of the blogosphere. That in my mind is somewhat absurd as Lando has written an instructive book – buy it here – on how Iraq’s destiny has been manipulated over the years by western powers in not exactly the most clever ways. If your background on Iraqi history is light, Lando’s book is a good primer, regardless of whether you agree with the author or not.

Lando was educated at Harvard and Columbia, was a correspondent for Time-Life and spent 25 years as an investigative producer with 60 Minutes and has authored many articles about Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Last year he launched his own blog which is focused on Iraq and Middle Eastern affairs. He currently lives in Paris. I decided to put a few thoughts forward to him and he has kindly taken the time to address them.

Barry, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. You’ve written a very instructive book about western influence in Iraq over the past 100 years and you start out by arguing that in addition to Saddam major western players should have been standing next to him for enabling the chaos and endless bloodshed. Is this an emotional call or do you really believe that the mandate for the Iraq tribunal should have been expanded?

I realize that, unfortunately, the way the international criminal justice is currently set up, there is no court that realistically could have delivered justice for the crimes of Saddam.

If the purpose of the Iraqi Tribunal was truly to punish those responsible for the crimes against humanity committed during the reign of Saddam –as the Tribunal officially claims– that goal can never be achieved by limiting those who can be tried to Iraqi citizens and residents as the regulations of the Tribunal have done. Many observers realized there was no way that the question of guilt for Saddam’s crimes could not be fully explored by a Tribunal based in Iraq, a Tribunal that also would have no participation by international jurists. The U.S. and its Iraqi allies, however, refused to consider such options.

Certainly the mandate should have been expanded. The fact that it was not, and that the Tribunal was so limited in the issues it covered, simply demonstrate what a farce the whole process has been. It has only in a very limited way contributed to an understanding of what happened during Saddam’s reign as 90% of the story remains untold.

Another approach might have been to have a Truth Commission –as South Africa and Argentina did– to examine their dark history, apportion guilt where appropriate, though exact no punishment. More of an emotional release for the countries involved, a way of putting the past behind them. At one point such a commission might have worked in Iraq, but no longer I think.

A few months ago, Dutch courts convicted Frans van Anraat a Dutch businessman to 17 years in prison for supplying chemical materials to Saddam’s Iraq. What do you make of that?

That was one court in one country and was a very welcome decision. Unfortunately, however, the great majority of the other businessmen and world leaders complicit in Saddam’s crimes have never been and will never be judged.

Barry, I am still struggling with the argument that the invasion of Iraq was ‘illegal’, a word that entered the lexicon in 2003 and it mistakenly argues that every act of war requires a UN stamp of approval. Can you elaborate on this?

There are a host of American and international experts who have pronounced the 2003 invasion illegal–as did the Secretary General of the United Nations himself. It violated the basic rules of the U.N. charter which requires countries to exhaust all peaceful means of maintaining global security before resorting to military action themselves. It permits use of force only in self defense only in response to an imminent attack.

For some specific opinions see Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP) and the Western States Legal Foundation (WSLF).

The two groups, the U.S. affiliates of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA), supported an open letter signed by 31 Canadian international law professors that called a U.S. attack against Iraq “a fundamental breach of international law (that) would seriously threaten the integrity of the international legal order that has been in place since the end of the Second World War.”

If the U.S. believed it already had the authorization–why did it attempt to get a resolution from the Security Council? Indeed, it was only after they realized they were not going to get Council approval that the U.S. and its allies decided to drop the attempt and act on their own. U.N. inspectors were still in Iraq and reporting that they had yet to discover the imminent threat the U.S. apparently feared. They asked for a few more weeks to continue their work. The U.S. would hear nothing of it. It is now clear to just everyone that the Bush administration knew at the time that their claims of imminent danger were false.

What is most outrageous is the Bush administration continues to lie about the lead up to the invasion and their justification for going into Iraq. Though the fact is that Saddam allowed UN inspectors in to search his country for WMD, the Bush White House has been attempting – with the cooperation of a lazy press – to rewrite history. For instance, on July 14, 2003, as the U.S.-led WMD search was coming up empty and only four months after Bush pushed the U.N. inspectors out of Iraq, he began asserting that Hussein had never let the inspectors in. Bush told reporters:

“We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”

Facing no contradiction from the White House press corps, Bush continued repeating this lie in varied forms over the next four years as part of his public litany for defending the invasion. At a press conference on May 24, 2007, Bush offered a short-hand version, even inviting the journalists to remember the invented history.

“As you might remember back then, we tried the diplomatic route: [U.N. Resolution] 1441 was a unanimous vote in the Security Council that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. So the choice was his [Hussein’s] to make. And he made a choice that has subsequently caused him to lose his life.”

In the frequent repetition of this claim, Bush never acknowledges the fact that Hussein did comply with Resolution 1441 by declaring accurately that he had disposed of his WMD stockpiles and by permitting U.N. inspectors to examine any site of their choosing.More on pre-emption. In your book you don’t spend any time on it, but do you think Israel was justified in destroying the Osirak reactors in 1981?

Israel was able to do it and get away with it. But if Israel was justified in taking out Osirak in 1981, India and Pakistan would be even more justified in destroying each others military reactors. Egypt and Syria would also have the right to destroy Dimona. The U.S. would take out North Korea’s and Iran’s. For that matter, Russia could attack America’s and vice versa. Why not?

I personally never liked Tony Blair, too much a master of spin. But on Iraq he surprised me with his deep conviction and political risk taking. Would you agree and if so, why do you think he went that far?

Probably from his desire to maintain Britain’s supposedly special role as some kind of intermediary between the U.S. and Europe. It was a disastrous decision for himself, for Britain -its men are still dying in Iraq – and certainly for Iraq. If Blair had refused to go along, I wonder if Bush would still have gone in? As it turned out, there is no indication Blair was able to influence Bush’s policies, other than to try to get U.N. approval for the invasion in the first place which of course they never did.

Is it not fair to say that Blair intuitively felt he was right and that in the post 9/11 world a moral take would play an increasing part in shaping foreign policy?

I don’t really see any “moral take” shaping British foreign policy after 9/11. Indeed, Blair seemed quite willing to close his eyes to the barbarities of U.S. policy, from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, to secret CIA renditions. Apart from also joining Bush in lying about the reasons for invading Iraq in the first place.

I would have chosen different words, but your reasoning about why the US went into Iraq is 2003 is clear and I agree (page 215). Yet especially for the first Gulf War you are less clear and offer the reader a hybrid of political and economic reasons. Will it ever be possible for the war critics to let go of the “it’s all about the oil” argument?

There were a mix of motives, but bottom line–I think was oil. Can you see the U.S. invading Botswana, or Myanmar?

George Bush Senior’s feckless policies were one of the main factors leading to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. One of the reasons for those policies was Bush’s desire to have entree to Iraq and its huge oil wealth. The Brits and Americans have made that focus clear since the end of World War I. Once Saddam had invaded Kuwait, the reason George Bush Senior suddenly turned on a dime and mobilized troops to toss him out was the fear that Saddam would take not only Kuwait’s petroleum resources, but conceivably the Saudi’s as well. Another interesting question is to what degree taking the nation to war, as Bush did, was a way of taking attention away from his disastrous domestic economic situation – remember “read my lips”.

In the book you lament ‘realpolitik’, the practice of teaming up with tyrants and getting rid of them whenever they become liabilities. The neo-con moment gave us another approach: create democratic friends in hostile neighborhoods. Is Iraq evidence that such a strategy has failed, or do you see room for a foreign and defense policy underpinned by moral principles?

What democratic friends have the neo cons ever created? The U.S. has lately backed away from the whole concept–i.e. Mubarak arresting his foes in Egypt; The U.S. and Israel attempting to annihilate Hamas in Gaza after the latter won democratic elections; the Saudi’s also refusing to extend real democratic representation.. No one’s pushing for that any more.

George Bush had congressional approval for the 2003 war and a pretty tangible approval from the UN to move forward. Can it ever be claimed that he is guilty of war crimes?

What tangible approval did he have from the UN to move forward? Apart from the invasion, there are a number of other possible charges that could be brought against Bush and some of his other leaders, beginning with condoning torture and killing of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo to the use of deadly force against civilian targets across Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, upwards of 300,000 Iraqis may have perished since the U.S. led invasion. This is not to mention other impeachable crimes in the U.S. itself, involving illegal eaves dropping, attacking what used to be the basic principles of the U.S. system of justice, lying to the Congress, and so on and on.

The link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. I don’t think there is evidence that it existed, Bush – judging from your book merely suggested that the possibility be investigated – yet America wanted to believe it, desperately. Why? Because Islamic fundamentalists as a concept are too hard to grasp and it is easier to pick an obvious bad guy? If that is so than is it not fair to say that America looked for an easy post 9/11 cleansing which war opponents now use to smear Bush?

There is no way to justify the claim that the Bush administration is somehow being unfairly smeared re the Saddam-Al Qaeda issue. I never said in my book that Bush ‘merely suggested that the possibility’ of a link with al-Qaeda and Saddam be investigated. To the contrary, I pointed out quite specifically that Bush and others in his administration repeatedly and falsely claimed that the link was real. As I wrote in Chapter 9, p.222:

“On September 26, the President warned another group of Congressmen that “Saddam Hussein is a terrible guy who’s teaming up with al Qaeda. He tortures his own people and hates Israel”

And again: “On September 25th, 2002, for instance, President Bush gave a speech conflating the two. “You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam,” the President declared. “The danger is, is that they work in concert. The danger is, is that al-Qaeda becomes an extension of Saddam’s madness and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction around the world.” Donald Rumsfeld claimed “bulletproof” evidence of a connection and insisted his charges were “accurate and not debatable.” Despite the fact that no evidence was ever uncovered to tie to Saddam to al-Qaeda, Cheney to this day insists they were linked and he seems to get away with it.

Again, let me return to Saddam trial. It was a farce, I agree. That said your argument to let the allies stand trial for past misdeeds is a bit disingenuous. By that logic we should posthumously charge Winston Churchill with war crimes for carpet bombing Dresden.

The Trial of Saddam Hussein was Victor’s Justice. So were the Nuremburg Tribunals after World War II, as I point out in my book. Not to say the Nazis weren’t guilty. It’s just we should never forget that the allies as well committed war crimes. Again, the problem with the way the trial of Saddam Hussein has been run – and reported in the media -is that it allows the West to forget its own tawdry role in Saddam’s crimes.

What’s your view on the way forward in Iraq?

There are many experts who feel that, rather than helping the situation, current U.S. policy is only exacerbating the situation. The ethnic cleansing continues apace throughout the country. I think the Iraq Study Group had the right approach. The U.S. has to start withdrawing. That is the only way Iraqi leaders are going to be forced to start dealing with each other. Neighboring countries have also to be brought in much more seriously than they have been approached to date. Current policy is simply a disaster. Whatever happens, however, the killing is going to go on until a de facto ethnic partition of Iraq has been established.

What no one is talking about though – or very little about -is the fact that the US has constructed four huge superbases in Iraq. Bush and company had planned to set up major bases there from the start-and have no plans to leave them now. That is going to be the major issue.

The Bush Administration has been hopeless in communicating the case for war in Iraq. A more direct approach outlining the need for would have yielded maybe less support but a sounder basis for sustaining a costly and deadly effort. Your thoughts.

My thoughts are that a U.S. military invasion of Iraq was a disastrous idea from the word go. Why invade Iraq when al Qaeda and terrorism was the threat?

How accurate is the information we are getting from Iraq? There are some great bloggers out in the field – Michael Yon, Bill Roggio – and there are the major media reporting from the Green Zone. Does this give us what we need, and if not, how can we improve on it?

The information about what’s doing in Iraq is extremely difficult to come by, simply because the security situation is so perilous. Reporters in the Green Zone are the first to admit it, though perhaps not publicly. Between the bloggers you mention and various well informed experts – such as Juan Cole – there certainly seems to be enough information out there for people who want to do the searching to form an opinion. Problem is that most Americans are not willing to do that. The mainstream media still tends to be uninformed and unwilling to take on the administration, in cases where officials are still out and out lying. The U.S. still seems more fascinated by the latest doings of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears than in the endless tragedy of Iraq.

Yes, I would agree with that. Barry, you live in France, any miracles to be expected from Mr. Sarkozy?

Hopefully. France has to change and reform. Sarkozy – so far – shows the desire and energy to do it. Problem is there are some entrenched, fairly powerful and privileged minorities – such as the transport unions – who don’t want that to happen. The next few months are certainly going to be interesting around here.


There is also a video documentary from Barry’s hand, entitled Saddam Hussein: The Trial You’ll Never See.


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