Kissinger in the Gulf

Henry Kissinger was fond of telling Congress that he was in the business of real estate, not social work. Real estate, much like empire, is suited only to thugs and tyrants — as Kissinger’s decades of meddling in the Persian Gulf make clear.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, January 1, 1975. (Wally McNamee / Corbis via Getty Images)

Henry Kissinger is certainly not the only architect of the American empire with blood on his hands, but he may be the only one to have worn that blood so proudly. Few leaders in this day and age still think of world affairs as a game of Risk, describing other countries as spaces on a board to be occupied by plastic game pieces. Yet Kissinger was willing to justify US human rights abuses by appealing to the value of “strategic real estate,” as he did to justify US support for the shah’s brutal regime in Iran.

It seems evidence for Kissinger’s villainy rested, in part, on his own tongue.

He once told a horrified Congressional committee that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” He was also known to use a variation of that phrase: “one should not confuse undercover action with social work.” By the time Kissinger said these words in the late 1960s, the CIA’s pattern of using covert action to overthrow democratically elected governments, back authoritarian regimes, and provide cover for massacres and genocides had come under popular scrutiny. With mass movements against the war in Vietnam tying domestic racism and repression to American imperialism, the CIA was for the first time put on the defensive, and elected officials had to at least feign concern.

In 1975, Congress established the Church Committee in the Senate and the Pike Committee in the House of Representatives to investigate just what the CIA, NSA, FBI, and other security-state apparatuses had been up to. While more people know the Church Committee’s history, the Pike Committee has its own interesting backstory. Unlike its Senate counterpart, its final report was never formally released, as official channels made sure it stayed classified.

Still, what is done in the dark shall be brought to the light— someone leaked Kissinger’s closed-door testimony to the press. The Village Voice published excerpts as “The CIA Report the President Doesn’t Want You To Read,” and, in 1977, a British publisher brought out the entire report with no redacted sections. The United States government won’t release it to this day, but a copy of the British version is listed in the Library of Congress’ catalog.

Considering the revelations contained in the document, this level of secrecy isn’t surprising. Through the Pike Committee report, the world first learned of Kissinger’s betrayal of Iraq’s Kurdish population.

A Cynical Operation

The Pike Report described Kissinger’s mission in the Gulf as a uniquely “cynical operation,” a turn of phrase that prompted him to remind the horrified legislators that he was not a social worker. What had Kissinger done?

Ever since the British drew the borders of the modern Middle East at the end of World War I, Kurds have pursued a variety of strategies to win an independent state, including armed struggle. By the 1970s, the shah of Iran had begun arming and training Iraq’s Kurds to support them in their rebellion against the Iraqi government. Kissinger, fearing that Iraq was orbiting too closely to the Soviet Union, decided to join his stalwart ally and throw his support behind the Kurds. At his behest, the CIA and Israel began colluding with the shah to further grow the Kurdish resistance.

The Pike Committee noted the covert action took place in a “setting of almost unprecedented secrecy within the US gov- ernment,” which it believed was intended to keep the State Department — which had opposed such measures in the past —  from learning of it. To create plausible deniability, the United States and Israel supplied the Kurds only with captured Soviet arms. The founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Mustafa Barzani, had no faith in the shah and recognized that his people were being used as pawns in Iran’s ambitions against Iraq. Yet he had full faith in the United States: “America is too great a power to betray a small people like the Kurds,” he said.

But, according to the Pike Committee, “Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the Shah] hoped our clients [Barzani] would not prevail…” Although Kissinger encouraged hostilities, the US government would at one point restrain the Kurds from an all out-offensive they feared would have succeeded. A Kurdish victory in Iraq would have had intolerable effects on American interests. Kissinger only wanted to arm the Kurds enough to menace the Iraqi government, not enough that they would achieve any real success. So when the United States and Iran warmed to Iraq, they had no qualms about abandoning the Kurds.

In 1975, after two years of diplomatic negotiations, Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Agreement. The treaty ostensibly resolved a long-standing border dispute, but Iraq hoped it would also end the shah’s support for the Kurdish rebels. Iraq got its wish: the borders were defined, and Iranian aid ceased. Kissinger claimed to have been shocked by the shah’s participation in the Algiers Agreement. The Israeli government told him that Iran had not only betrayed the Kurds, but Israel as well.

Yet, despite their shared astonishment, the United States and Israel also cut off aid to the Kurds shortly after the agreement was signed. The Kurdish resistance had fulfilled its purpose and brought Iraq to the bargaining table. Still, Kurdish leaders frantically tried to contact the CIA, Kissinger, and even President Ford to remind them of their moral obligation and warn them of their decisions’ dire consequences. But they received no response.

The Iranian military went home; the United States and Israel cut off the weapons supply; and soon the Iraqi army squashed the rebellion. The results were devastating—according to the Pike Committee’s findings, without the United States’ decision to prop up the Kurdish rebellion the Kurds most likely would have reached an agreement with Iraq, “thus gaining at least a measure of autonomy while avoiding further blood- shed. Instead, our clients fought on, sustaining thousands of casualties and 200,000 refugees…” The “cynicism of the US” not having “completely run its course,” the United States then refused to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees it had helped create.

During a 1975 meeting, Kissinger and his advisors concluded that, thanks to the resolution of the “Kurdish thing,” Iraq was improving relations with its neighbors. Later that same year, he met with a high-level Iraqi official to discuss normalizing relations and admitted that Washington had armed the Kurds to keep Iraq from getting too close to the Soviet Union. Kissinger’s team was eager to establish a relationship with Saddam Hussein. Through Kissinger’s meddling, Iraq spun back into the United States’ global orbit and gradually improved relations with Western regimes.

Fifty-Seven Years of Intervention

The Kissinger-Kurdish affair may have been a particularly cynical enterprise, but it fits the pattern the United States established over fifty-seven years of intervention in Iraq; American officials have often armed resistance fighters one year, only to support the Iraqi government when it massacres them a few years later.

After the United Kingdom created the modern state of Iraq, they installed a puppet monarch to maintain Western (that is, British) access to Iraqi oil. In 1958, however, a coup displaced the monarchy, and Abd al-Karim Qasim came to power. He declared Iraq neutral in the Cold War, withdrawing from an anti-communist military alliance that included Iran, and kicking British military bases out of the country. This development upset CIA chief Allen Dulles, who warned Eisenhower that the coup could set off a domino effect and remove the Americans’ preferred regimes across the entire Middle East. Fearing the spread of anti-Western sentiment, Eisenhower intervened in Lebanon that same year.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Communist Party had grown into a mass party whose appeal cut across sectarian lines. Dulles warned Congress that the Communists would soon completely run Iraq, making it the most dangerous country in the world. In a scene repeated throughout American history, the United States declared Iraq a unique and pressing danger and began plotting regime change. A year later, Washington almost got its wish — the violently anti-communist Ba’ath Party attempted to assassinate Qasim. But the plot was badly bungled, and, though his driver was murdered, Qasim was only wounded.

The extent of CIA involvement in the assassination plot remains unclear. We know that the agency backed the Ba’athists, and there are serious indications that it also provided training, even going so far as to pay the rent of one particularly promising member of the assassin’s party — Saddam Hussein. In the aftermath, the CIA continued to train the Ba’ath party, including Hussein. And in 1961, the United States, along with Iran, once again supported the Kurds against the central Iraqi government.

These machinations finally paid off in 1963, when a joint military–Ba’athist coup successfully ousted Qasim and began exterminating the Communists. The CIA helped by providing the new government with suspected party members’ names. Hussein participated by torturing — in famously brutal fashion — members of the working class believed to be Communists. In addition to encouraging the military-Baathist regime’s most violent impulses, Washington responded to their request for help against the Kurds. The Iraqi government used American–supplied napalm on the very people who had received US support just two years earlier. This happened a full decade before Kissinger reminded us that covert action isn’t missionary work — yet it reveals an identical perspective.

But the American success was short lived — it didn’t take long for the new regime’s non-Ba’athist elements to purge their Ba’athist comrades. While the regime had originally renounced Qasim’s nationalist oil policies, the new government now decided to continue them. From the United States’ perspective, this would not do. It continued to support the Ba’ath Party, which had promised, should it come to power, to grant oil concessions to American corporations.

In 1968, the CIA and their British allies backed a successful Ba’athist coup. Hussein would not officially become president for another decade, but he carried out a bloody program of repressive measures and eventually became the country’s de facto leader. As his power grew, he moved away from his former allies, asserting Iraqi control over its oil and nationalizing the petroleum industry. He also developed closer Soviet relations and let Communist Party members into government.

These events spawned Kissinger’s cynical enterprise and the eventual slaughter of the Kurds. Hussein then oversaw the execution of Communists; the once strong Iraqi Communist Party, which had gambled by joining Hussein’s government, would become irrelevant. At this point, the remainder of the story is quite well known.

The shah of Iran, once the United States’ top regional ally and Kissinger’s preferred partner in the Middle East, was deposed in the 1979 revolution. The United States supported Hussein in the ensuing war, sending chemical weapons that he used against both the Iranians and the Kurdish rebel groups they backed. But when Hussein invaded Kuwait — possibly with what he thought was a green light from American diplomat April Glaspie — he once again became an enemy. The Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations would, like the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations before them, pursue regime change in Iraq.

In yet another cynical enterprise, Washington used Hussein’s chemical weapon attacks on the Kurds — which American support made possible — to justify its intervention. Hussein began his career as a CIA asset, but he died in a thinly veiled political assassination carried out by a kangaroo court convened by the American-controlled government in Iraq.

This is not meant to describe Hussein as a martyr — he was a ruthless tyrant guilty of any number of crimes against humanity. But in many ways, he was a monster of American foreign policy’s own making. And once he had fulfilled his purpose, the same imperial force that had cleared his path to power in the first place simply disposed of him.

Good for Business

Jimmy Carter best summed up American policy in the Middle East during his 1980 State of the Union speech. He warned that Soviet intervention in Afghanistan posed “a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil” and that any “attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The definition of an “outside power,” of course, does not include the United States’ 2003 invasion, nor does it include the multiple British interventions in Iraq to assure its control of Iraq’s oil. It does, however, include governments who nationalize foreign holdings.

What Carter really meant was that the region’s oil must make it to the global market. While the United States acts in the interest of its own corporations, its special role as shepherd of global capitalism means it also works to ensure the system functions as a whole, even when domestic corporations are not the immediate beneficiaries. This explains both why the United States took action in the 1950s in response to threats on British oil holdings and why, in 2011, the State Department desired for Iraq to boost production. As Alan Greenspan explained, removing Saddam Hussein was essential — to world oil supplies.

Iraq not only provides oil to the world economy; for a long time, it was also a major weapons consumer. When Qasim came to power fifty years ago, the British were troubled both by the threat he may have posed to foreign control of Iraq’s oil and his decision to buy Soviet — as opposed to British — arms. When Iraq grew closer to the West, arms dealers — especially French, British, Italian and Brazilian manufacturers—rapidly embraced the country. And when US–Iraq relations were repaired in the 1980s, Iraq would again become a major purchaser of American-made arms. Iraq has remained among the top ten buyers of US weapons well into the twenty-first century.

It isn’t just arms and oil though; keeping Iraq open to global capital is generally good for business. After the 1963 coup, the Kennedy administration promoted American business interests, and US corporations quickly moved into the country. Hussein’s aggressive modernization opened the doors to American companies further. And, of course, international corporations profited massively during the US occupation, which saw the country importing cement while state-owned factories — dubbed inefficient by the American regime — sat idle.

Kissinger’s role in the latter part of this saga is minor but worth noting. When Hussein invaded Kuwait, many American conservatives opposed military action. This included paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, widely considered responsible for the neoconservative movement. Kissinger, however, made numerous public appearances to shore up conservative support for American intervention. He went on to become a fervent proponent of regime change in Iraq and backed the 2003 invasion. In 2007, he argued against withdrawal, while simultaneously cautioning that, while Iran may have “legitimate national interests,” “industrial nations cannot accept radical forces dominating a region on which their economies depend.” Iraq, like Iran, was strategic real estate.

Thus, Kissinger had come full circle — supporting the Kurds against the Ba’athist government, viewing Hussein as a key asset, and then calling for his ouster. This cynicism doesn’t belong to Kissinger alone, no matter how macabre a figure he may have been. It is the defining characteristic of US–Iraq policy. The United States is — like Kissinger was — in the business of real estate, not social work. And real estate, much like empire, is suited only to thugs and tyrants.