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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Behind the Handshake: The Rumsfeld-Saddam Meeting

By J.M. Berger

Around the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a photo of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein began circulating on the Web.

Declassified documents recently obtained by INTELWIRE under the Freedom of Information Act reveal details of the discussion behind the handshake, and how the meeting came to be.

Rumsfeld was appointed special envoy to the Middle East by President Ronald Reagan in November 1983. Rumsfeld was dispatched on a tour of the region shortly thereafter.

In December 1983, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq William L. Eagleton Jr. proposed a meeting between Rumsfeld and Iraqi officials as part of that trip. The Iraqis responded that the proposed timing of the visit "would not be convenient." A schedule change was offered on the condition that Iraq's president would receive Rumsfeld during the trip.

"The Iraqis will be aware that by meeting their scheduling needs he will expect to see Saddam Hussein," the Dec. 7 cable states. "The atmosphere for such a visit should be positive."

State Department Cable, Dec. 7, 1983

A message from President Reagan was drafted for the trip.

"I have become convinced of the important role Iraq can play in helping bring greater peace to the Middle East," Reagan wrote in the Dec. 8 draft.

"The United States strongly desires an end to the Iran-Iraq war. I have no illusions that the many differences between Iraq and the United States can be easily or quickly resolved," the message stated. "However, I am gratified that the dialogue between us, laboriously and patiently nurtured, has improved our understanding of each other.

"The United States stands ready to exchange ambassadors to make formal recognition of this fact whenever you decide that such a step will support the interests of your country. Until then, I want you to know that I attach great importance to continuing and improving our dialogue," the message said.

Coming in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war, the initiative was considered highly sensitive.

"Do not, repeat not, discuss letter outside embassy or with non-American personnel," the cable states.

State Department Cable, Dec. 8, 1983

The presidential message also proposed formalizing relations between the U.S. and Iraq.

I have no illusions that the many differences between Iraq and the United States can be easily or quickly resolved. However, I am gratified that the dialogue between us, laboriously and patiently nurtured, has improved our understanding of each other," the message stated. "The United States stands ready to exchange ambassadors to make formal recognition of this fact whenever you decide that such a step will support the interests of your country."

The Iraqis arranged accommodations for the trip.

State Department Cable, Dec. 10, 1983

In contrast to the friendly tone of the presidential message, a secret cable to Rumsfeld from Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger spelled out U.S. concerns about the ongoing Iran-Iraq war.

"Successful Iraqi disruption of Iranian oil exports could prompt Iran to take reprisals against third countries or shipping in the Strait of Hormuz," the cable stated, strongly urging Iraq to exercise restraint but pointedly and repeatedly refusing to suggest any negative consequence if Saddam failed to do so.

Rumsfeld's visit was presented as an unambiguous sign of support for the Iraqi dictator.

"We are willing to take more symbolic steps in bilateral areas, if Iraq believes these can give any morale boost to war effort or impetus to its diplomatic efforts. Ambassador Rumsfeld's visit could be seen in this (context) and of course, we remain ready to exchange ambassadors with Iraq without preconditions," Eagleburger wrote.

However, such offers were left to Rumsfeld's discretion.

"You should mention symbolic bilateral moves in the context of the war only if you sense that the atmosphere is correct," the cable said.

The cable makes clear that U.S. support for Iraq came without preconditions for good behavior from the Hussein regime.

"We are not making increased U.S. support for Iraq contingent upon Iraqi behavior in the Gulf," Eagleburger wrote.

If that wasn't clear enough, Eagleburger added, "A defeat for Iraq would be a strategic defeat for the U.S. ... We have an interest in Iraq's survival as a strong and independent state that can promote the stable development of its region."

Eagleburger also indicated it would intervene with the Reagan administration's allies in the oil industry to build Iraq's oil exports.

"We are talking with oil industry representatives about their plans for
construction of new alternative facilities for Iraq's oil exports," the cable stated.

State Department Cable (1), Dec. 14, 1983

State Department Cable (2), Dec. 14, 1983

A meeting with Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz was held prior to the meeting with Hussein, on December 19, 1983.

State Department Cable, Dec. 20, 1983

The unredacted State Department cable describing the meeting, as released to INTELWIRE, notably omits mention of Rumsfeld discussing Iraqi use of chemical weapons and violations of human rights, points which were described in an earlier FOIA release to George Washington University.

External link: George Washington University National Security Archive

The earlier document, written by Rumsfeld, was not included in the FOIA release to INTELWIRE although it falls within the scope of INTELWIRE's FOIA request.

The meeting with Saddam Hussein took place the following day.

"In his 90-minute meeting with Rumsfeld, Saddam Hussein Showed obvious
pleasure with president's letter and Rumsfeld's visit," a summary of the meeting stated.

"Our initial assessment is that meeting marked positive milestone in development of US-Iraqi relations and will prove to be of wider benefit to US posture in the region," the cable stated.

"Iraqi TV photographed Saddam's initial greeting of Rumsfeld and presentation of President Reagan's letter," the cable said.

"Rumsfeld told Saddam US and Iraq had shared interests in preventing Iranian and Syrian expansion," the cable stated. Rumsfeld also expressed interest in "seeing Iraq increase oil exports."

Saddam offered an ironic analysis of the Middle East conflict between Syria and Lebanon.

"(The) US had originally acted with indifference both toward Syrian invasion of Lebanon and toward the (Iran-Iraq) war, for which it decided to 'let this group of lunatics bash each other,'" the cable quoted Saddam as saying. "What ... would have happened to the states of the Gulf and Arabian peninsula if Iraq had not stood fast? No one would have been able to put out the fire. Zionism was in fact encouraging it to burn."

Rumsfeled responded with a lengthy statement largely endorsing Saddam's stated world view.

"Nations, Rumsfeld said, were better off taking long-sighted view and US had to try to take a comprehensive view. Our understanding of the importance of balance in the world and the region was similar to Iraq's."

If Rumsfeld made a direct response to Saddam's statements about "Zionism," it was not recorded. However, he did discuss Israel.

"To the extent there was excessive focus on Lebanon, Rumsfeld continued, it could distract attention from need to address more fundamental problems, such as security of the Gulf and circumstances of the Palestinian people." Rumsfeld added that the U.S. wanted to "promote a fair peace between the Arabs and Israel, one that recognized the circumstances of the Palestinian people."

Rumsfeld also suggested that the U.S. would consider guaranteeing the security of a possible Iraqi oil pipeline through Jordan against attack from Israel.

In another statement filled with retrospective irony, Rumsfeld said "Nations which export terrorism and extremism ought to be recognized as such. People should know that terrorism has a home -- in Iran, Syria and Libya."

State Department Cable, Dec. 20, 1983

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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