Saddam Hussein's exposure, capture, torture, and murder of the U.S.-backed cadre of Kurds in northern Iraq marks the worst American intelligence debacle since the Bay of Pigs. According to the Los Angeles Times, on September 8, 1996, a senior Administration official described the failure of Clinton's covert mission in Iraq as "one of the greatest setbacks U.S. intelligence has ever suffered."
The United States pumped more money and more manpower into the failed Iraq campaign than for any other such effort since the 1979-89 CIA operation supporting Afghan rebels in their fight against Soviet forces. By the Washington Post's accounting, the botched anti-Saddam operation cost the CIA over $100 million. Far worse, however, is the ignominious murder of so many American-backed Iraqi and Kurdish agents and the abject U.S. retreat at the hands of Saddam Hussein.
Adding further indignity to America's Iraq disgrace is the fact that national and international newspapers worldwide are now trumpeting the sickening details of a supposedly covert U.S. intelligence operation. Despite President Clinton's brief, diversionary launchings of cruise missiles at southern Iraq--which produced only further boastings from Saddam Hussein--the obvious fact is that Saddam destroyed the U.S.-supported Kurdish operatives without any significant American response. At a stroke he humiliated the United States and demolished the Desert Storm coalition assembled by President Bush to fight the Gulf War. The fruits of America's victory in the Gulf War are being thrown away, while Saddam has consolidated his internal authority and international prestige.
Just as in the Bay of Pigs, those who joined the U.S. side in Irbil were left to die in futility. The lessons to the rest of the world will be well learned and long remembered.
Anatomy of a Fiasco
In early 1996, President Clinton signed a secret directive authorizing a covert CIA operation to unseat Saddam Hussein. He and his CIA Director, John M. Deutch, pinned their hopes on a cadre of Kurdish and Iraqi agents operating inside Iraq with undercover U.S. support. In America's largest covert operation since the successful CIA campaign against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Deutch personally promised the effort would succeed "within a year."
But the Clinton-Deutch scheme in Iraq began to come apart in June 1996.
First, the CIA attempt to infiltrate the Republican Guard was uncovered. Reminiscent of the "exploding cigar" fiascoes targeting Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, one of the missions that Clinton approved was to plant a small bomb in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. It went off, but not while Saddam Hussein was there. The fact that the bomb at least detonated was the only success of the infiltration. Through late June and early July 1996, Iraqi security forces systematically exposed every one of the U.S.-backed officers and agents in the ranks of the Republican Guard.
The plot to infiltrate the elite military unit that keeps Saddam Hussein in power was the centerpiece of the Clinton-Deutch plan. It resulted in the grisly execution of dozens of the Iraqis who had agreed to trust the American planners.
"It was basically wiped out...a lot of [Iraqi] U.S. agents were killed," the Los Angeles Times quoted an unnamed intelligence source as concluding.
So clumsy was the operation that unnamed Clinton Administration sources admitted to the Times that Saddam Hussein discovered the coup plot virtually from the beginning. Saddam's son, Qusai Hussein, personally conducted the interrogations and executions of the U.S. agents.
Prelude to Defeat
Saddam Hussein's decision to ignore the American-patrolled "no-fly" zone and seize the Kurdish capital of Irbil in northern Iraq is entirely explicable in light of the Clinton Administration's weak and incoherent policy in Iraq. The articulated policy of the Clinton Administration toward Iraq is "containment"; the Administration has also vowed that it will leave Saddam Hussein worse off after any misconduct than he was before. Neither policy has been executed.
According to the Administration, the key to containing Iraq is upholding the current sanctions regime. Yet the Clinton Administration looked the other way as Turkey and Syria assisted Saddam Hussein in spiriting out oil in defiance of those sanctions. While accusing Iran of transshipping Iraqi oil, the Administration has done little to prevent it. And in the so-called "food for oil" agreement, the Clinton Administration accommodated Iraq's demands in a May 20, 1996 deal to implement U.N. Security Council Resolution 986, allowing Iraq to sell up to $1 billion of oil every 90 days. As former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz observed in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on September 19, 1996:
Pretending that Resolution 986 which allows Saddam Hussein to sell oil is not a defeat for the United States, because the sales will be monitored by the U.N., allowed the Administration to ignore that it was not only sending a dangerous signal to Saddam, it was signaling some of the weaker members of the coalition, particularly France and Russia, that there is money to be made if Saddam stays in power.
The Clinton Administration has, moreover, failed to respond to Russia's and Communist China's efforts to assist Saddam Hussein, including the June 1995 deal Russia signed to develop an Iraqi oil project should sanctions be removed and Communist China's pledge in July 1995 to work for the removal of the sanctions--a pledge in which the PRC made the preposterous statement that Iraq had met the conditions for their removal established in U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. So much for "containment."
The Clinton Administration's record on punishing Saddam has been, if anything, worse. The Administration's "retaliation" for Iraqi efforts to assassinate former President Bush in April 1993--a bombing run against a single intelligence building in June 1993--was laughably weak. It undertook no retaliation when Saddam menaced Kuwait with a military buildup in October 1994. And it has taken no strong actions despite a steady stream of reports that Saddam has rapidly rebuilt his military capabilities--including resumption of the Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons programs, and despite repeated Iraqi violations of the international inspection agreement. Against this backdrop, Saddam's stroke in the north was not the unpredictable act of a rogue government, but rather based on an accurate calculation of the likely Administration non-response.
The second major element of the Clinton-Deutch fiasco was a CIA-supported coalition of largely Kurdish and Shiite groups comprising the Iraqi National Congress. The INC, the Clinton Plan proposed, would somehow undermine Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Hundreds of Kurds and Iraqis were reportedly recruited, and CIA agents were reportedly deployed to Salahuddin, near the Kurdish capital of Irbil, to coordinate the effort.
Like the attempted infiltration of the Republican Guard, the INC operation was thoroughly exposed by Saddam's intelligence. Acting with one of the two Kurdish factions the Administration had recruited into the Iraqi National Congress, Saddam's ground forces seized the INC's headquarters and operations and took full control of Irbil. In doing so, Saddam Hussein's central government advanced his power into the heart of Kurdistan for the first time since 1991. Iraqi secret police dragged hundreds of CIA-recruited Iraqis and Kurds from their homes, reportedly torturing and executing many of them. The Clinton-Deutch intelligence scheme suffered a complete rout.
Lying to the American People
When Saddam Hussein attacked Irbil, the American people did not realize he was ruthlessly wiping out the failed Clinton-Deutch covert operation. But even Saddam Hussein, who of course knew precisely what was at stake, could not have predicted Clinton's supine response. The President personally decided to take no action whatever in northern Iraq, where Saddam had deliberately violated the U.S.-protected "no-fly" zone. The Administration abandoned the Kurds who had sided with America, leaving them in the hands of a genocidal dictatorship in complete abnegation of the American promises of support.
Instead, the President deliberately lied to the American people in ways wholly unnecessary to maintaining the secrecy of his now-failed covert operation. He portrayed Saddam Hussein's actions as an unexpected breach of the peace, and his own pinprick cruise-missile strikes against Saddam's air defense system hundreds of miles to the south as a meaningful and winning response. Disingenuously--since he had already decided to take no action--he proclaimed a new "no-fly" zone, which Saddam promptly violated by firing on U.S. aircraft, and which as recently as September 21, 1996, Saddam repeated he does not recognize. And for appearances only, Clinton again sent warships and several thousand troops to Kuwait. This amounted to nothing more than the expenditure of millions of defense dollars on yet another temporary deployment, with no countervailing cost to Iraq.
In the ultimate humiliation of the failed Clinton-Deutch covert operation, the Administration sent its top Middle East policymaker, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau, to Ankara for attempted negotiations with the Kurdish leader who betrayed us, Massoud Barzani. This was on September 19, 1996, just weeks after Barzani invited Saddam into Irbil.
With hundreds of American-supported Kurds and Iraqis dead or imprisoned, Bill Clinton dishonestly declared victory before a credulous American public who did not know (and could not have known) what actually had happened in Iraq. But Saddam Hussein knows that he is the victor in this round. Thanks to the failed Clinton-Deutch plot, he has destroyed his internal opposition in the military and in Kurdistan, and reasserted his authority in the misnamed "safe havens" in northern Iraq. He has humiliated the United States with impunity. He has enhanced his stature throughout the Arab world. And he has effectively dismantled the Desert Storm coalition of allies built by the Bush Administration.
Conclusion: The Wages of Weakness
The American humiliation in Iraq is without precedent in this generation. Yet despite the completeness of Clinton's defeat, the full price of his folly has not yet been paid. The longer-term wages of Clinton's weakness will surely be a resurgent, expansionist Iraqi dictatorship risen from the ashes of defeat in the heart of the Middle East.
Nor is Saddam Hussein the only world leader to take the measure of President Clinton. Our friends and allies in the region and around the world no longer believe the United States will take a strong line against Saddam; as a result they are rushing to reach separate arrangements with Baghdad. Jordan, which dramatically threw its weight against Saddam last year, is now publicly critical of U.S. efforts to isolate him. Turkey encouraged Saddam to reassert himself in the north. Most of our European allies pointedly declined to support Clinton's recent military moves, as did Saudi Arabia. And, most strikingly, the Administration had to endure public rebuffs from Kuwait before that nation agreed to accept U.S. troops. Nations that were willing to support strong measures in 1990 are not willing to join a just-for-looks military policy that is merely annoying enough to anger Saddam without seriously weakening him.
It is a permanent badge of shame that the Clinton Administration has simply washed its hands not just of America's unfortunate Kurdish allies--hundreds of whom paid with their lives for their trust in our country--but of any sustained effort to rein in the murderous dictatorship in Baghdad. Clinton's own hollow claims of a foreign-policy "victory" were rejected by CIA Director Deutch himself, who conceded before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on September 19, 1996 that "in the last six weeks, [Saddam Hussein] has gotten stronger politically in the region." Left unspoken was the stark fact that America had grown correspondingly weaker--and that the fruits of our country's Desert Storm victory are being thrown away.
Update: New Evidence of Clinton's Failure