Jude Wanniski, the former Wall Street Journal editorialist whose book The Way the World Works popularized supply-side economics (and therefore helped create the deficit crisis that paralyzed domestic policy-making during the 1980s and 1990s), has a gift for forging screwball alliances. A decade ago, he romanced Jerry Brown, even though Wanniski himself was a conservative Reaganite. A few years later, Wanniski cozied up to Louis Farrakhan. He's even tried (unsuccessfully) to find common ground with Lyndon LaRouche. Now Wanniski has developed his most improbable crush of all. He's fallen for Saddam Hussein.
On March 26, Wanniski sent out an urgent e-mail message to his followers expressing distress that President Bush and Vice President Cheney had both recently "repeated the charge that Saddam Hussein had used poison gas to kill his own citizens. I believe the charge is without merit." Wanniski urged readers to eyeball two memos (click here and here) that he'd sent about the matter to Karl Rove, "the one counselor who has only one job, looking after the President's interests." The first memo elaborates:
There is no possibility that Saddam gassed his own people and no evidence that he did. None. Forget Iraq's protests that he never did, as I would not base any conclusion on "not guilty" pleas from Saddam or his team. But all the evidence is that whatever bad stuff he has done as Iraq's political leader, he has never presided over troops who dropped poison gas on his own Iraqi citizens.
Weirdly, this assertion contradicts not only a mountain of evidence accumulated by the United Nations, journalists, and various human rights groups (more on that below), but also the testimony of Stephen Pelletiere, former chief of the CIA's Iraq desk and Wanniski's main information source on the matter. Last year, Pelletiere published a book that Wanniski seems to think argued that Iraq never gassed Iraqi citizens. But as one can plainly see by scrolling down to the portion of Wanniski's memo that quotes Pelletiere at length, Pelletiere's claim is that in March 1988, both Iran and Iraq gassed the Kurdish city of Halabja, which they were fighting over. Pelletiere's view—which is not widely shared by others—is that the Iraqis used mustard gas, while the Iranians used a much deadlier cyanide-based gas, and that it was this cyanide gas that killed most or all of the thousands of Kurdish civilians who died at Halabja. Pelletiere further suggests that Israel conned the world into thinking that Iraq was a gas-wielding demon, and that it did so because Iraq posed a much greater menace to Israel than did Iran.
Joost Hiltermann of Human Rights Watch is writing a book about Halabja and other incidents in which the Kurds were gassed. He says that he's seen no evidence that Iran used chemical warfare during the Iran-Iraq war and plenty of evidence that Iraq did. Much of the latter is available online. Here, for example, is a description of the chemical attack on Halabja from the 1993 Human Rights Watch report, Genocide in Iraq:
Those outside in the streets could see clearly that these were Iraqi, not Iranian aircraft, since they flew low enough for their markings to be legible. In the afternoon, at about 3:00, those who remained in the shelters became aware of an unusual smell. Like the villagers in the Balisan Valley the previous spring, they compared it most often to sweet apples, or to perfume, or cucumbers, although one man says that it smelled "very bad, like snake poison." No one needed to be told what the smell was. … Some tried to plug the cracks around the entrance with damp towels, or pressed wet cloths to their faces, or set fires. But in the end they had no alternative but to emerge into the streets. It was growing dark and there were no streetlights; the power had been knocked out the day before by artillery fire. In the dim light, the people of Halabja could see nightmarish scenes. Dead bodies—human and animal—littered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of their cars. Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically, before collapsing.
United Nations reports from 1986, 1987, and 1988 confirm (based in part on reports from Iraqi soldiers who had been taken prisoner) that Iraq used mustard gas and nerve agents in the Iran-Iraq war and that these killed a growing number of civilians. In 1993, Physicians for Human Rights found evidence of nerve agents in soil samples in the Kurdish village of Birjinni and cited Kurdish eyewitnesses who said that one day in August 1988, they saw Iraqi warplanes drop bombs emitting "a plume of black, then yellowish smoke" and that shortly thereafter villagers "began to have trouble breathing, their eyes watered, their skin blistered, and many vomited—some of whom died. All of these symptoms are consistent with a poison gas attack." The March 24 New Yorker carries a lengthy account by Jeffrey Goldberg of Iraq's systematic gassing of the Kurdish population, based on extensive eyewitness interviews that Goldberg recently conducted in Halabja and other Kurdish-controlled areas in Northern Iraq. None of those interviewed seem to doubt that it was Saddam Hussein's army that gassed them. (Click here for Goldberg's recent Slate "Dialogue" about the piece with the Council on Foreign Relations' Warren Bass.)
If one does not wish to take the word of journalists, human rights groups, and the United Nations that Iraq conducted a deliberate campaign to eradicate the Kurdish population, there's always the word of the Iraqis themselves. Goldberg's New Yorker piece cites an audiotape from the 1980s of Saddam's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, discussing the Kurds in an address to members of Saddam's Baath Party:
I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them! The international community and those who listen to them.
Human Rights Watch has a cache of documents that the Kurds captured from the Iraqis during the war. Search for the word "chemical" or the word "special" (the Iraqi euphemism for gas attacks was "special attacks"), and you'll see the Baath Party was as good as its word.