DATE September 18, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Christopher Dickey discusses possible US war with Iraq
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Christopher Dickey, wrote the cover story in the current edition of
Newsweek. It's called How We Helped Create Saddam and Can We Fix Iraq After
He's Gone? Dickey is Newsweek's Middle East editor and Paris bureau chief.
We invited him to talk about that article, as well as the politics behind the
new UN resolution to send weapons inspectors back into Iraq. Dickey thinks
that President Bush's address to the UN last week was a significant turning
point which led to the resolution and created a new diplomatic context where
the US is no longer acting unilaterally.
My interview with Dickey was recorded yesterday afternoon. By the end of the
day, it was clear that there was a growing rift at the UN. The Bush
administration is pushing to pass a new Security Council resolution that would
impose strict conditions on Iraq's compliance with weapons inspectors and
threaten military action if Iraq did not comply. Russia, China, France and
the Arab nations are opposed. We called Dickey this morning to see if he
wanted to update the analysis we recorded yesterday, and he said his analysis
remains the same, the United States made a huge move when it took its case to
the UN, but it is still playing hardball with Saddam Hussein, and wants that
message to be clear.
Does the US still want to get rid of Saddam? Absolutely. But it continues to
signal its willingness to work within the confines of the United Nations, but
it will draw the line and continue to threaten to break away from the UN, and
likely will break away, if it thinks the debate within the UN is becoming a
time-wasting diplomatic exercise that protects the dictator instead of
guaranteeing his compliance with all UN resolutions. Here's my interview with
Christopher Dickey of Newsweek.
How do you think the Iraqi agreement to allow UN weapons inspectors back into
Iraq changes the equation for the possibility of war?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Newsweek): I think it marginally reduces the chances
of war, but I don't think it ends the chances of war. I think that the US
administration feels that Saddam Hussein really is a clear and present danger
to the security of the United States and to the stability of the world, and it
wants to take him out. He has bought, perhaps, a little time by agreeing to
have the inspectors back in, but I think the inspectors are going to pursue a
very aggressive agenda in terms of going after every place that they think any
kind of weapon is being developed, or might have been developed in the past
or might be developed in the future, and probably picking a few places just to
show that they can go into those locales. For instance, it wouldn't surprise
me at all if the inspectors, very early on, go knock on the door of a few of
Saddam's palaces which were previously off limits to UN inspectors.
GROSS: So what are some of the possible scenarios you see coming out of the
Mr. DICKEY: Well, I think that the Iraqis feel, or believe, that they can
probably start to play the kinds of games that they played all through the
1990s, and that ended with a showdown in 1998 where UN inspectors were pulled
out, the United States and Britain bombed Iraq for about four days, and sort
of nothing came out of it. I think that the Iraqis see this exclusively as a
bid for time. But I don't think the administration is going to permit that,
so I think the Iraqis are going to start saying they don't agree with the
composition of the group of inspectors. They're going to say that Americans
involved are spies, or other people are spies. They're going to try and start
limiting the number of locations and the timing of the inspections. They're
going to try and pull every string and sort of work every angle that they
possibly can. I mean, this is just the way they do things.
The question is, how is the US and how is the United Nations going to respond
when that process begins? Is the United States administration going to press
for a situation where really the slightest infraction, even if it's open to
interpretation, becomes a cause for war? If not, are we going to see a lot of
give and take over a period of months, and perhaps the window of opportunity
for a major military operation start to close? If the United States wants to
go to war and doesn't start to commit its troops into combat by sort of March,
or at the latest April, then basically the window for fighting that war closes
very fast because of...
GROSS: Why does it close?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, because of the weather mainly. It gets so hot. Remember
that if the United States goes to war, if the United Nations goes to war, if
anybody goes to war against Iraq at this point, you have to expect that there
will be chemical and biological weapons involved, which means that the
soldiers are going to have to protect themselves from those weapons by wearing
what are essentially airtight suits, which are uncomfortable under any
circumstances, but if you're fighting in 110 degree heat, become virtually
GROSS: Now does Saddam Hussein's willingness, he says, to let in UN weapons
inspectors change the way other countries will line up in alliance or in
opposition to the United States, if the United States thinks that the weapons
inspection is a sham and isn't satisfied with it and the United States,
therefore, wants to go forward with an attack against Saddam Hussein?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, let's step back for a second. Does the UN involvement
change the way the American move is perceived? I mean, what happened last
week is extremely important. The big fear in the world community, I think
it's fair to say--in Europe, in Asia, certainly in the Arab world; among
America's close allies--was that the United States was just going to barge
ahead on this. I think President Bush was widely perceived, in the Arab world
certainly, and in much of Europe, as a gunslinger who was on a rampage, who
was out to get Saddam, that there was this weird kind of eyeball-to-eyeball
confrontation going on, even with a personal note, because Saddam had tried to
kill his father, that in the geopolitical sense, the Bush administration was
going to reopen an era of colonialism by taking over the second largest
reserves of oil in the Middle East, and that in terms of the Middle East peace
process, the ideologues in this administration were seen as essentially
representing the interest not even of Israel, but of the Likud Party in
All of those were very strong perceptions in Europe and in much of the rest of
the world, which I don't think American audiences were really aware of. But
certainly the Bush administration came to be aware of the fact that it would
be very isolated moving against Saddam unilaterally, that people were not
necessarily going to follow automatically, and that the five countries that
border Iraq, all of which hate Saddam, were in the weird position of defending
him against this image of a gun-slinging American president.
President Bush turned all that around last week. It was really a remarkable
feat. It was a fantastic speech. The timing was right, the phrasing was
right and the message was right. The message was, `We want to work with the
United Nations if the United Nations will work the way it's supposed to work
and live up to its own obligations.' And that changed the frame of reference
completely. So now that brings us to the point where the Iraqis, listening to
the Saudis and others, say, `OK, we'll accept something that we haven't
accepted for the last four years, which is UN inspectors with unfettered
access'--in fact, unfettered access almost never existed during the
inspection regime--`and we'll go that extra mile as Iraqis to satisfy the
United Nations.' And that's great, but they have to live up to that
commitment, and the Bush administration is going to say that they have to live
up to the commitments demanded of them in 16 other resolutions before the one
that's currently under discussion.
It's an interesting move. It's a fascinating and extremely dangerous moment,
because you've got Saddam in a position where he sees a narrow ray of hope
that he can survive, and that's what is motivating him to act. It's also
what's protecting, I would say, the world, and certainly the United States,
from a sort of doomsday scenario in which he might use terrorists or other
means to deliver chemical and biological weapons against American targets,
either in the United States or abroad. He's got this moment where he thinks
he can survive by taking these measures. The United States, meanwhile, has
won international support for the pressure it wants to put on Saddam and
possible war against him.
So balancing all those elements is something that's going to be very critical,
and we're going to see it play for the next several weeks, maybe even months,
as each side maneuvers for advantage. But I think in the end, the US will go
to war against Saddam.
GROSS: Let me see if I understand what you've just implied there, which is
that if Saddam Hussein was confident that we were ready to go into Iraq and
overthrow him, that he would supply biological or chemical weapons to
terrorists who would attack America or other American interests.
Mr. DICKEY: Sure.
GROSS: Is that what you just said?
Mr. DICKEY: Absolutely. Saddam is a very vengeful character. I mean, one of
the reasons that a regime like Saddam's is so dangerous, as compared, for
instance, to the regime that's currently in Iran, is that he answers to no
one. He has no constituency outside his own head. And he personally is
someone we know very well, based on long experience. We know that he is
violent and vengeful, and if he thinks he can get away with it and survive, he
will exact a price of pain on his enemies just in order to do that. That's
why in 1993, he had no conceivable political goal to achieve by trying to
murder the president's father when the first President Bush was visiting
Kuwait after his retirement. That was pure vengeance.
GROSS: Well, this is one of the confusing things about the predicament that
we're in now. Are we just leaving ourselves exposed by kind of sending this
invitation, you know, to Saddam Hussein saying, `We expect to invade you
sometime soon. In the meantime, we'll do the weapons inspection thing, etc.'?
Are we inviting him to prepare his chemical and biological weapons to be used
against us, either directly from Iraq or through terrorist friends that he
might send them to?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, we are, and especially if we had continued to pursue the
unilateral notion of regime change. You telegraph this blow--you say,
`Saddam, we're coming to get you. We're not going to stop until you're dead
and out of office and your regime and everything you care about and believe in
and everything that you've built up for yourself and your family these last
many years is gone and obliterated. You're going to be history Saddam
Hussein.' That's an invitation to this particular guy to strike out, to do
something desperate if he feels that that moment finally has come.
It didn't strike anybody in Europe or the Arab world as a very smart policy.
It seemed to be begging, not only for a confrontation, but a potentially
disastrous confrontation with Saddam. And also at a time when we didn't
really have the means of gathering good intelligence about where his weapons
program stood. You know, Vice President Cheney and others in the
administration have occasionally dismissed the work of the weapons
inspectors, but almost everything you heard in President Bush's speech last
week was based on the work that was achieved by the weapons inspectors in the
first five years of the last decade. They found out a lot. They destroyed a
lot. They eliminated Saddam's nuclear infrastructure. The reason that people
talk about his ability to build bombs is because he still has scientists, but
we don't believe that he has any substantial infrastructure to produce nuclear
weapons at this point, and certainly not to produce fissile materials--to
produce the stuff that's vital to the weapons, the plutonium or enriched
GROSS: But your confident...
Mr. DICKEY: That was a tremendous accomplishment.
GROSS: But you're confident that he does have biological weapons and chemical
Mr. DICKEY: Well, this is the problem. Biological and chemical weapons are
much, much easier to produce once you have the expertise. You don't need the
kind of elaborate infrastructure that's required for nuclear weapons. And the
infrastructure that you do need is much, much easier to hide. I was covering
this question back in '95 when the first revelations of a pretty massive
biological weapons program came to light, and I talked to Ralph Akeas(ph) at
the time, who was then the head of the UN inspections program, and it was
clear in conversation with him that they didn't really know how they could
ever inspect to their satisfaction under the regime that insisted then--that
is the inspection regime that existed then--to prove the negative--to prove
that there were no biological weapons in storage or in production in Iraq.
So biological weapons, to the greatest extent, and after that chemical
weapons, pose a huge problem. They can be manufactured fairly quickly. The
precursors for some of them are relatively easy to get. And if you're talking
about a fairly low level of technology, chlorine or mustard gas, for instance,
both of which are chemical weapons that Saddam used during the Iran-Iraq war,
then you all of a sudden have something that becomes very hard to trace as
well. If there were a cloud of mustard gas that settled on New York City some
time soon, we could guess that Saddam Hussein was responsible for it, but
proving it would be very hard to do.
Once the inspectors are in place, if they are doing their job, and doing their
job aggressively, then you start to compile again a very detailed picture of
everything that can be discovered about Saddam's biological and chemical
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Middle East editor and
Paris bureau chief. He co-wrote this week's cover story How We Helped Create
Saddam. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Christopher Dickey.
He's Newsweek's Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor, and he co-wrote
this week's cover story.
Recently in Newsweek, you presented this scenario: The US attacks Iraq. The
war is short. Saddam Hussein falls more quickly than expected. The aftermath
is far worse. Iraq splinters along ethnic and religious lines. Saudi Arabia
follows, as Mecca and Medina break away from the reign of Riyadh. The fall of
the House of Saud is disastrous, ending decades of quiet partnership between
Riyadh and Washington that had assured the flow of affordable oil. Whose
scenario is this?
Mr. DICKEY: It's a very common scenario in the region. It's a scenario
based on not only the fractures that exist within these two countries, Iraq
and Saudi Arabia, but it's also--there are broader elements of that scenario,
including the fall of almost every regime that's friendly to the United
States. And that's just based on historical precedent. The Arab world is a
collection of societies that have felt, over a long period of time,
humiliated, sometimes by their own leaders, often by foreign leaders and
colonial powers, and often extremely disappointed by the military machines
that cost them huge amounts of money and by the politicians who are constantly
calling for war and then failing to deliver victory.
If you have a situation where the United States unilaterally, in defiance of
the expressed wishes of its own allies in the Arab world, were to go to war in
Iraq, take out Saddam and then occupy Iraq, which would probably be a
necessary effort in order to stabilize the situation there, then you'd have a
combination of humiliation for the cultures, complete failure for the
leaderships and destabilization of the region that would be felt for a very,
very long time.
A precedent was set, for instance--a precedent that you could look at is what
happened after the 1967 war between the Arabs and Israel, the Six Day War, in
which Israel defeated all the Arab armies deployed against it in less than a
week. That was a very fast victory, and very effective, but we're still
living with the aftermath of that victory, not only in terms of what's going
on in Gaza and the West Bank, but with the fact that one regime after another
toppled in the wake of that humiliating defeat. And many of the great
villains of Middle Eastern politics since then--Gadhafi, Saddam, Hafez
al-Assad--came to power in the immediate aftermath of the '67 war and remain
there as troubling factors on the international scene ever afterward.
This time around, I think you'd see Islamic--or Islamist regimes coming to
power, preaching the same line that, in some quarters, they've been preaching
since 1967, `This failure, this humiliation has come to you because you're too
far from God. You have to listen to Allah. You have to listen to us as the
voice of Allah. And, thereby, we can restore our dignity and eventually
conquer this infidel civilization.'
GROSS: OK. But say the surrounding Arab countries decide to join with the
United States through the United Nations to create an alliance that forces out
Saddam Hussein. If that happens, it's no longer a humiliating defeat for
those Arab countries, because they're actually part of the victors--they were
part of the alliance that toppled Saddam Hussein. So does the scenario change
if they're allies through the UN?
Mr. DICKEY: Dramatically. Yes, dramatically. Absolutely. It changes 180
degrees, if we go in representing a coalition that's well supported. It
doesn't mean that the people in all these countries, that the masses of people
in all these countries, will necessarily support the war, but they won't feel
the same kind of humiliation.
It's very interesting if you go back and look at what General Schwarzkopf said
after the Gulf War in '91. Many, many people, of course, asked why he and the
coalition didn't drive on to take Baghdad and eliminate Saddam then. And he
cites a number of reasons, all of which had a great deal of validity then, and
many of which have a great deal of validity now. One of the first of his
reasons was that the coalition that existed in 1991 was one of the broadest
coalitions for military action ever organized. That was, for him, extremely
important because it stood, for instance, in stark contrast to Vietnam,
another war where the United States decided to go it alone.
And Schwarzkoph said, `Here we had this great coalition in the Gulf. If we
had moved on Baghdad, we would have lost most of our Arab support, and we
probably would have lost the French as well. We would have had the British
and the Americans going into Baghdad, occupying the country, probably in
contravention of the Geneva Conventions, and then having to pay for an
extended, open-ended, in fact, occupation of a hostile country and hostile
territory.' And that was not something they wanted to do in '91. And you
have to ask yourself why the Bush administration--this Bush
administration--would want to do that now, especially if it was in a position
where it didn't even have the coalition to begin with.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Middle East editor and Paris bureau
chief. He co-wrote the cover story How We Helped Create Saddam. Dickey will
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Christopher Dickey,
Newsweek's Middle East editor. We'll talk about the possible international
repercussions of war with Iraq. Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg on why we need
the word `ain't.'
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Christopher Dickey,
Newsweek's Middle East editor and Paris bureau chief. He co-wrote this week's
cover story, How We Helped Create Saddam and Can We Help Fix Iraq After He's
Gone. We're talking about that cover story and about the US plans for
military action against Iraq.
During the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia let the United States use Saudi Arabia as a
military base, and our command and control was headquartered there. This time
around, the Saudis said that we could not use their country as a military
base, although very recently they seem to have changed their mind about that;
although my impression is they'd let us use it on a much more limited
capacity. What's behind this flip-flop in the Saudis' willingness to let the
United States use it for a base?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, again, the Bush administration has handled the Saudi
question very badly. When you have people leaking from the Pentagon briefings
by outside experts that declare Saudi Arabia is America's great enemy in the
Arab world, the Saudis take umbrage at that, because they see themselves as
being the United States' most valuable friend in the Middle East, bar none.
And they feel--I've been talking a lot to Saudis in very senior positions
recently. They feel very badly used by the US government and by certain parts
of this administration, particularly the people in the Pentagon. So I think
they wanted to send the message to the Pentagon that it was gonna have to
think long and hard about how it was going to conduct this war without Saudi
bases. Because those bases were indeed extremely important in the first war
with Iraq in 1991. They have continued to be very important in the war in
Afghanistan as a command and control center.
And the Saudis also put pressure on other neighbors of Iraq to do likewise, to
limit the possibilities for the American military to use their territory. Now
to some extent there's a two-faced game--to some extent. They're doing this
publicly and still allowing other things to go on. But the message is
basically, `You can't do this without our cooperation, so you'd better listen
to what we have to say about the political environment in which this takes
place and the diplomatic environment in which this takes place.' And I think
that there are definite signs that the United States is listening now. I
think that the Saudis--I know the Saudis were very pleased with the speech at
the United Nations last week, and one way of showing that they are pleased is
to reopen the issue of the American bases in Saudi Arabia and to say, `Yeah,
you can probably use them if it's part of the framework that was established
in President Bush's speech last week.'
GROSS: You know, the reason why some people in the Pentagon were leaking
negative things about Saudi Arabia, I think, has to do with the fact that so
many of the terrorists behind 9/11 were Saudis, they came from Saudi Arabia,
and I think the US government has felt that the Saudis' cooperation in the war
against terrorism hasn't been as firm as it might be.
Mr. DICKEY: Well, actually the FBI has consistently said that the Saudi
cooperation was quite good. And the CIA as well. It is true that 15 of the
19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, and it is true that a lot of people in
the Saudi public and even some of the royals in Saudi have tried to deny that
that meant anything at all. But you also have a lot of rethinking going on in
Saudi Arabia where people are saying, `No, that does mean something. That
means that if we could produce 15 of 19 people who would be involved in a
project as horrible as the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
then we ought to look at what's wrong in our own society.' This is the kind
of thing, by the way, that's appearing in the now in the Saudi press. So
there's a rethink going on there that's probably very positive.
But that isn't the reason that all this pressure is being put on Saudi Arabia.
The reason the pressure is being put is because Saudi Arabia does represent a
line of thinking in the Middle East that's diametrically opposed to the line
of thinking that's also represented in the administration that's very
pro-Sharon, pro-Likud--and I wouldn't say pro-Israel because I don't think
that's the case. I think it's very pro-Likud, and there's a sort of a
showdown that you see played out all the time between essentially the Saudi
or--I wouldn't say pro-Saudi, but sort of the Saudi line and the Likud line in
the administration, because after all, oil and Israel are the two dominant
elements in American policy-making.
GROSS: Are Arab neighbors of Iraq fearful of Saddam Hussein for the same
reasons we are, or do they have different reasons?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, they are fearful of Saddam Hussein for similar reasons. I
mean, certainly the Saudis would have to worry that he would eventually want
to take revenge on them for their support of the United States during the Gulf
War. There has been a blood feud between the Ba'athist Party of Saddam
Hussein in Iraq and the Ba'athist Party of the Assads in Syria for decades.
The Turks are not on good terms with Iraq. They're occupying parts of Iraq at
various times in order to fight the Kurdish rebels of their own country who
have taken refuge there. The Iranians fought an eight-year war that was one
of the bloodiest of the century. So all of them hate Saddam. All of them
fear Saddam. All would be happy to see Saddam out of the way.
But the one thing that they fear more than any of that is the chaos of Iraq
breaking into pieces. And since it was in many ways an artificial construct
of colonialism after World War I, just like almost everything else on the map
of the Middle East, there is a particular fear that it just doesn't have the
legitimacy and coherence to hold together if you don't have an extremely
strong and even brutal leader doing that job. So that's the concern. And it
may be that the concern about chaos certainly--it certainly is the case that
the concern about chaos by the people in the region or by the Arab countries
and other countries bordering Iraq is probably much higher than the fear of
chaos that exists inside the Beltway.
GROSS: And again, it's the fear that if there's chaos in Iraq and fighting in
Iraq, that that will spread and create chaos in neighboring countries, and
those regimes might fall as a result?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, it's a very--yes. It's a complicated picture because
you've got--precisely because of the way borders were drawn after World War I
when the Ottoman Empire broke up, you've got, for instance, large Kurdish
populations in Iraq, in Iran and in Turkey and a few in Syria. And the great
fear of Turkey and Iran is that there will be some kind of really independent
Kurdish state in northern Iraq that would have irredentist aims on both
Iranian and Turkish Kurdish territory. That sounds incredibly academic, but
it is the stuff of which very brutal wars are made in the Middle East.
And in southern Iraq, the population is largely Shiite. It's Arab, but it's
Shiite, as Persia is Shiite, and also as most of the eastern provinces of
Saudi Arabia--or province of Saudi Arabia is Shiite, which is where most of
Saudi oil comes from. So there's this concern that if you had a breakaway
Shiite state in the south, it would either be influenced by Iran or, in fact,
impact Iran, and it would certainly be a concern that it would impact the
eastern province of Saudi Arabia and cause the breakup of the Saudi regime.
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Middle East editor and
Paris bureau chief. He co-wrote this week's cover story, How We Helped Create
Saddam. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey. He's Newsweek's Paris bureau chief
and Middle East editor, and he co-wrote the cover story in the current edition
When we were talking off-air, you described an essential paradox about Saddam
Hussein and what to do about him. Could you describe that for us now?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, the basic paradox, when you write or talk about Saddam
Hussein and if you follow him over the years, is that it's very easy to say
how dangerous this man is, even how evil he is, and you can cite chapter and
verse endlessly. The president barely scratched the surface in his speech.
There have been many reports, and I've been to Iraq many times. You feel it.
It's one of the most sinister environments you can imagine. And then at the
same time, when you look at--and you would think that the logic of a
description of that kind of evil and that kind of danger is automatically,
well, we've got to get rid of this guy.
But then when you start to look at the consequences of getting rid of him or
at least getting rid of him and proposing regime change and carrying it out
the way the US administration had been talking about doing for most of the
last year, all of a sudden you see a whole new set of dangers. The danger of
chaos, the danger of regional destabilization that's a recipe for holding
back, for doing nothing. And that's essentially been the stalemate of the
last decade. Everybody knew Saddam was horrible, but nobody wanted to take
the risks involved in getting rid of him. And as a result we've wound up
doing nothing, and for the last four years allowing him to defy the United
Nations and defy the United States.
And I think one has to give credit on balance to President Bush for trying to
shake the world out of that immobilization, that sort of torpor in the face of
what is really an evil and dangerous regime. But that doesn't mean that we
should immediately endorse the idea of storming into Baghdad at enormous risk,
not only to the civilian lives of countless Iraqis, but to the lives of
thousands of American soldiers and raising the possibility of a prolonged
occupation that could change the character of international politics and
ultimately even the character of life in the United States if it required
eventually, say, a reinstitution of the draft in order to keep the manpower
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your cover story, which you co-wrote
with Evan Thomas in this week's Newsweek. The cover story is titled How
Saddam Happened, America helped make a monster. Your story opens with a 1983
handshake between Donald Rumsfeld, who's now secretary of Defense, and Saddam
Hussein. What was that handshake about in 1983?
Mr. DICKEY: In 1983 Saddam had been fighting for about three years against
Iran. The United States, at that point, saw two great overriding dangers in
the Persian Gulf. One was the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime in Iran, and the
other was the possibility of Soviet expansion toward the Persian Gulf. The
hope was that by establishing friendly relationships, helpful relationships
with Saddam Hussein, the United States could help bolster his regime in its
war with Iran and prevent him sliding too far into the lap of the Soviet
Union. Because the Soviets, and to a lesser extent the French, were supplying
almost all of his arms for his war with Iran. And that meant that essentially
we had taken the path of what we thought of as the lesser evil.
And Saddam was able to exploit that throughout his career and, in fact, to
this day in international fora and even at home, he's been able to say, `I am
the lesser evil. After me, the deluge. After me, chaos.' Or, `If I fall,
Khomeini takes over Iraq and rules the Persian Gulf. If I have to, I'll get
in bed with the Soviets' in the old days, maybe the Russians today, and the
balance of power will change in the region. He's played all that very
shrewdly, and the United States again and again played into his hands in the
1980s and--to some extent, by not moving more aggressively to oust him in the
1990s, continued to support his survival.
GROSS: OK. So in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was backing
Saddam Hussein because it thought Iraq wasn't nearly as bad as Iran's threat,
what did we give Saddam Hussein in terms of weapons, intelligence?
Mr. DICKEY: We didn't give him weapons directly, but we shared a lot of
satellite intelligence with him that allowed him to see very clearly where
Iranian positions were, where Iranian troops were massing, and in some cases
almost certainly to use poison gas against those Iranian troops. What had
happened was in 1980, at a moment when Saddam thought Iran was weak, when the
Khomeini regime was fairly new, really only months old, he decided to invade
Iran, to try and take over the south of the country. And he thought that the
world would thank him for doing this. After all, at that point the Iranians
were holding American diplomats hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran.
And he overplayed his hand, as he very often has in his career. The world
didn't back him at that point. The Iranians rallied against him and, with a
series of human wave attacks, drove him out of the country and then Khomeini
said, `I'm gonna take you out, Saddam. You are a dangerous guy. You are a
threat to Iran that is intolerable.' Actually, if you look at it, Khomeini's
position is not so different than George Bush's. `You are a risk we can't
afford anymore, so I'm not gonna stop fighting,' Khomeini said, `until you are
And at that point, Iran was driving on Baghdad and on Basra, the two biggest
cities in Iraq, and the US decided to intervene to help Saddam stop the drive
and to put him in a position to at least balance his power against Iran and to
prolong the war actually over the course of eight long and incredibly bloody
GROSS: Now you said we didn't directly sell arms to Saddam Hussein during the
Iran-Iraq war, but we did permit Iraq to import dual-use equipment and
materiels from American suppliers. What was that decision about and what's
the importance of that decision?
Mr. DICKEY: First of all, on the question of arms, what we did in terms of
tanks and heavy weapons was to facilitate shipments from other countries. We
would, for instance, sell or give weapons to Egypt and then they would give
their old weapons or other weapons to Saddam and support him that way. So
there was this sort of fungible weaponry trade toward Iraq. But the tilt
became more and more pronounced. In 1987, in a really amazing incident, an
Iraqi fighter plane launched a missile against an American destroyer in the
Persian Gulf, the USS Stark, and killed 37 American sailors. Killed them with
one shot. The United States, you would have thought, would have said, `We
don't want to have anything more to do with Saddam.'
Quite the contrary. United States said, `Gee, we think that was probably an
accident, but because the Persian Gulf is so dangerous, we're going to greatly
increase our presence there and we're going to use the force deployed there
against Iran,' Saddam's enemy. And that's what we did. From 1987 until the
end of the war in 1988, the United States was regularly using its military
forces in the gulf to attack Iranian oil installations, Iranian patrol boats,
Iranian mine layers, all of which were then trying to attack the United States
as well. Essentially it engaged on behalf of Iraq in that war until finally
Khomeini gave up his efforts to get rid of Saddam, and Saddam declared himself
a victor because he'd survived with a lot of help from the USA.
GROSS: Now in your Newsweek cover story, you report that the United States
made it possible for Iraq to get shipments of bacteria, fungi, protozoa that
could have been used for chemical weapons.
Mr. DICKEY: And probably were, in many cases.
GROSS: Oh, I mean biological weapons. I'm sorry. Yeah.
Mr. DICKEY: Yes, and probably were used for biological weapons in many cases.
The kinds of cultures that were being sent out were for some pretty esoteric
and horrifying diseases, and they were being sent to the Iraq Atomic Energy
Commission. Why does the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission need biological
cultures or different kinds of bacteria that are often used in biological
weaponry unless it is indeed developing weaponry? And yet the US Commerce
Department consistently signed off on these shipments, from 1985 through 1989,
even after the war with Iran was over.
GROSS: Were these shipments from private businesses in the United States, or
was the government involved with this?
Mr. DICKEY: They were from private businesses, but the government had to
approve the shipments, and it did. The Commerce Department looked at the
shipments and said OK. They were not big. See, coming back to the theme of
biological weapons, we're not talking about extremely expensive commodities
here. We're talking about things that cost, you know, a few hundred dollars
in some cases, but that can be used to develop fairly quickly biological
weapons if you have the experts in-house who know what they're doing.
GROSS: You also report that the State Department approved the shipment of one
and a half million atropine injectors for use against the effects of chemical
weapons, but the Pentagon blocked the sale. What are the implications of
Mr. DICKEY: Well, when you start to order atropine injectors in that
quantity, it suggests that you're going to be in an environment where there
are a lot of chemical weapons floating around. And what we knew by then is
that it was Saddam himself who was most likely to create that environment, who
was using chemical weapons. He had used them against the Iranian human wave
attacks in southern Iraq, and in 1988 he used chemical weapons against Kurdish
civilians in villages in northern Iraq. The most egregious case being around
the town of Halabja. I'm sure you've seen and many listeners have seen those
horrific photographs, and we ran one in Newsweek as well, of little children
murdered by Saddam using chemical weapons in 1988.
And the American reaction at that time, the reaction of the US administration,
the Reagan administration, was probably it was Iran that did it, and it was
only under considerable pressure and a lot of information to the contrary that
the US administration finally conceded, no, it was Iraq killing its own
GROSS: Christopher Dickey, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. DICKEY: Thank you.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Middle East editor and Paris bureau
chief. He co-wrote the current cover story, How We Helped Create Saddam.
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on why we need the word `ain't.' This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Use of the word `ain't' in everyday language
TERRY GROSS, host:
Ain't--it's a perfectly innocent contraction, yet there's no word that carries
a bigger social stigma. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been listening to how
educated people use the word and has these thoughts about why it's unlikely
that `ain't' will ever be rehabilitated.
GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:
It was exactly 40 years ago that The New Yorker ran a cartoon by Alan Dunn
that showed a reception at the Merriam-Webster company saying to a visitor,
`Sorry, Dr. Gove ain't in.' I don't know how many people would get that
reference today, but at the time, most New Yorker readers would have known
that the Dr. Gove in question was Philip Gove, the editor of Merriam-Webster's
massive Third New International Dictionary, which had been published a few
months earlier. By any standard, Webster's Third was a monumental work of
scholarship, but it stirred up a storm of controversy over what people
considered its permissive approach to usage.
More than anything else, what outraged the critics was that the dictionary
declined to label the word `ain't' as colloquial or substandard, noting that
even cultivated people often use the word in speech as a contraction of `am
not' or `is not.' That was all it took to open the flood gates. The New York
Times described the dictionary as a Bolshevik document, and the Chicago Daily
News took it as the symptom of a general decay in values. And a columnist for
the Toronto Telegram called the dictionary's acceptance of `ain't' a shameful
business. `It's one of the ugliest words in the English language,' he said,
`and I want no part of it.'
Those fulminations sound a little over the top to us today, but then this was
30 years before the phrase `lighten up' entered the English language.
Nowadays there's probably nothing a new dictionary could include that would
cause a major national scandal, certainly not to the point of inspiring a
cartoon in The New Yorker. Yet `ain't' is no closer to being standard English
than it was then. In the "Upstairs, Downstairs" world of language, `ain't' is
still required to use the servants' entrance.
There's always been something a little odd about the stigma attached to
`ain't.' The word's been around since the 17th century, and for a long time
nobody though it was worse than any other contraction. Writers from Swift to
Tennyson used it in their letters and speech in a completely unself-conscious
way. It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that critics started to
condemn the word and made the avoidance of ain't the emblem of middle-class
linguistic fastidiousness. The English upper class hung onto it for a while
longer. Winston Churchill regularly used it in conversation, and Dorothy
Sayers was always putting it into the mouth of her aristocratic sleuth, Lord
But by the time Webster's Third appeared, not even the swells were using the
word in honest. Actually, though, it's hard to see what makes `ain't' more
objectionable than any other contraction, particularly when it's short for `am
not.' In fact, the aversion to `ain't I' is so strong, that people have
invented the absurdly ungrammatical `aren't I' as an alternative. As in,
`Aren't I? I sure are.' That's a pretty desperate expedient just to avoid
using `ain't.' And grammarians from H.W. Fowler to William Safire have urged
that it's time for `ain't I' to be accepted as standard English.
But even with dictionaries and grammarians pleading for its rehabilitation, it
isn't likely that `ain't' will be allowed into the drawing room of the
language any time soon. It isn't just that educated people disapprove of
`ain't' in other people's speech, but that they find it so useful in their
own. Of course, educated speakers have always used `ain't' when they feel
like a little linguistic slumming. But in recent years I'm hearing them use
it more and more in a different way, when they want to suggest that a fact is
just obvious on the face of things.
Awhile ago a friend sent me an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education
that quoted a dean at an Eastern university: "Any junior scholar who pays
attention to teaching at the expense of research ain't gonna get tenure."
That `ain't' was a nice touch, I thought. It made it clear that the dean's
conclusion wasn't based on expert knowledge or some recent committee report.
It was something that should be clear to anybody with an ounce of sense.
That's the message that `ain't' conveys in all those common expressions like,
`It ain't over till the fat lady sings' or `if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'
`Ain't' tells you that this is a nitty-gritty verity that you don't need a
college education to understand. The language is full of sayings that use
`ain't' like that, and they'd all lose their populist pizzazz if you tried to
put them in standard English. `It is not necessarily so.' `You haven't seen
anything yet.' `Hit them where they aren't.' `That isn't hay.'
But educated people couldn't keep using `ain't' that way if the word wasn't
considered a mark of uneducated speech, and it turns out that educated people
use the word an awful lot. There are more than four million Web pages
containing `ain't,' almost all of them put there by authors who know full well
that the word isn't supposed to be standard English. It gives you a sense of
why we all have an interest in keeping `ain't' from becoming a respectable
linguistic citizen. What would we use to do our dirty work for us? It ain't
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center. He's the
author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Love makes me treat you the way I do. Gee,
baby, ain't I good to you. There's nothing too good for girls so true. Mama,
ain't I good to you. Yes...
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