An interview with Paul William Roberts, author of A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq and A Demonic Comedy: Some Detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein
KIRSTIN BROTHERS: You've chronicled the last decade of Saddam Hussein's regime. Was he a monster?
PAUL WILLIAM ROBERTS: Saddam changed around the time of the Iran-Iraq war, maybe Kuwait. The security apparatus tightened up and it was a severely repressive society with many, many levels of secret police, some of them watching each other. But initially, he was a good ruler, and he happened to come to power at a time when the oil boom kicked in. The country was rolling in money, and he pumped it back into the country. They had a highway system as good as ours and the best education system in the Arab world. He rebuilt Baghdad; much of it was a great, swaggering monument to himself, but there were many beautiful buildings and parks. Iraqis were very proud of the city. It was very clean. It was beautiful. Iraq was the showcase for the Arab world -- the most secular, Westernized, advanced and egalitarian of the Arab countries. The only Arabs people were aware of in Europe were princes from Saudi Arabia, who quickly got reputations as the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, and middle class Iraqi businessmen, whom everybody liked, as they were exceptionally polite, friendly and intelligent. So the kinds of Arab you'd encounter in Western Europe were diametric opposites: medieval princes and modern businessmen. In presenting a modern face of Arabia, Iraq was a great success story.
BROTHERS: Is it true that President Bush encouraged Saddam to invade Kuwait?
ROBERTS: The last meeting he ever had officially with an American high official was with the US ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, in the May before the Gulf War, in which he said he was having problems with Kuwait. There were unpaid debts from the Iran-Iraq war, there was a legitimate border dispute, and, to add insult to injury, Saddam found that the Kuwaitis were now drilling into his oil. He tried to negotiate. There'd been several meetings. Saddam meets with April Glaspie and asks: What would be the position of Washington if I have to resort to military force? She is obviously prepared for the question because she says: Secretary of State James Baker has asked me to tell you that our position remains the same as always, we have no opinion about your Arab-Arab squabbles. Saddam rephrases it, making it quite clear that he's going to invade Kuwait. Saddam thinks he's been told: Go into Kuwait, do what you want. Glaspie was sort of set up as a scapegoat for the war and accused of not understanding what Saddam was saying. In fact, she understood perfectly well.
BROTHERS: How would an invasion advance American interests in the area?
ROBERTS: Islam at heart is very socialistic, very egalitarian, almost like socialism with a god attached to it. For the Americans to encourage it -- which they did in Egypt and elsewhere -- shows how incredibly ignorant they are, because here is a force, like communism, but more dangerous to western interests than communism because it's like communism with God. At that time, however, the demon was Soviet Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the repercussions for its satellites and client states were tremendous. Saddam's closest ties were to Moscow - it was really the only foreign country he ever visited - yet, like Nasser, he was not about to hand over his country to the Politburo. He played the Soviets against the Americans in reality. Remember, two years earlier he'd been visited by a US delegation that included Donald Rumsfeld, who were there to reassure him of the regard in which he was held in Washington. I think he was deliberately lured into going into Kuwait. In order to seize those oilfields, the US needed a good excuse. It wasn't enough that Saddam was a brutal tyrant. They install and support plenty of those.
BROTHERS: Once the US had invaded, why didn't they just finish him off?
ROBERTS: As the army's about to move in and finish him off, the Saudi monarchy panics and tells their good friend George H.W. Bush to let Saddam go: There's going to be chaos there without him. And Bush the elder feels he must do the Saudis' bidding because the Saudis own a big part of him, a big part of America too. So where they could have finished them off, they only massacred the ordinary army by bulldozing the sand in their trenches, burying them alive, and the Republican Guard went unscathed back to Baghdad with Saddam. Bush urged the Shia to rise up and revolt ("we'll be right behind you -. go for it") but Saddam just sent his forces down South and massacred them. American planes were flying over the desert observing it and doing nothing. By the time the dust had cleared the total death toll from the war was very high. When I went through Iraq during the Gulf War I said "there are probably 100,000 civilians dead." Everyone said "nonsense." They assured us it was a clean war, the bombs were very smart. The death toll ends up being around 300,000 but by the time those figures are released everyone had forgotten all about it. Saddam had murdered so many Shia in the South, he could be blamed for all of it.
BROTHERS: As he was later blamed for the poverty caused by the embargo?
ROBERTS: The embargo was forced by America, who knew that Iraq had been bankrupt since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The turning point in that war, for Saddam, was when he found out they were arming both sides. One of the things I asked when I met him was "How did you feel when you realized they were arming both sides?" He said "I saw one of the consuls, a minor figure from the embassy, and I said off the record, 'May I ask which side your government would like to win this war?' And he said to me, 'Off the record, Mr. President, we'd be happy if both sides lost'," which is what happened. They stopped fighting because there were a million dead and no clear result at all. Saddam saw himself as defending America's allies, the Kuwaitis and Saudis, against the Iranians but by the time he found out they were arming both sides and realized "they're after me" it was too late.
BROTHERS: How did the sanctions affect Iraq?
ROBERTS: I think it is one of the most unforgivable actions in history, which one day will have repercussions. Iraq is a country that doesn't have anything but oil. If they can't sell oil they can't import anything, and the country imports everything. The amount of food you can grow along the fertile crescent is negligible. Malnutrition kicks in very quickly; it's not visible like starvation but the most susceptible are infants - 600,000 die before age five as a direct result of the embargo - and the average life expectancy falls by twenty years. Everyone has to sell everything to survive, and people are becoming unhinged with desperation. They are fully aware that they are being punished, like punishing the children because you can't catch the father. They had looked to America as a potential savior but realized: They don't care about us at all. A country that had been nearly totally secular had nothing but Islam left and the clergy moved in. Saddam's patently not innocent in this, but the architect of it is an Anglo-American policy that has consistently lied, betrayed, and cheated the Arabs. I'm surprised they believe anything any more because they have no reason to trust, and yet they are bigger people than that, as anyone who's spent time among them realizes. You can still see a people who once had a great empire and kept civilization alive through the dark ages. That is important when you've got nothing, living in the middle of the desert, looking backward. The sacking of the museum, the destruction of the cultural heritage, you can't help but consider that deliberate too.
BROTHERS: Was the first Gulf War a departure from earlier US foreign policy?
ROBERTS: They always needed a demon, and until Khomeini came along in Iran it was the evil Soviets. The cold war could have been over in the early '70s because the CIA reports said "Russia's bankrupt, they can't compete, we should help them out. That would be more effective," and yet they continued it into the Reagan era.
To put it into a more historical context, in the mid-'50s President Eisenhower was at an intelligence meeting where he was informed there was growing hostility among ordinary Arabs towards America. America backed harshly oppressive regimes in the area, ignoring the will of ordinary people. Their sole interest was oil. The CIA told Eisenhower that it was difficult to counter this view largely because it was accurate, but rather than suggesting a change of policy they said: We are doing the right thing, backing the status quo, for they can best look after our interests. Iran's democratically elected president Mossadeq declares he will nationalize oil. The CIA take him out in a coup and install this bogus Shah, bring in 100,000 Americans to keep the security, and proceed to undermine the clergy. That results twenty years later in Khomeini's revolution and the theocratic state.
BROTHERS: Are you saying that American foreign policy doesn't support human rights and democratic values?
ROBERTS: There is a lot of very bad advice that concerns purely the interests of America, which have to do with oil. Remove the oil and that part of the world would be like another African country. The most backward, barbaric regime in the world is their ally. Saudi Arabia has more human rights abuses per day than anywhere else in the world and executions for virtually everything, but there's not a peep in America about it. Women have no rights; they're not even allowed to drive, but feminists don't get involved. Certain issues are not raised, especially during elections, because they're contentious, so you can't even call the US a democracy. They think that the world has a lot of our stuff. The oil just happens to be there, but it's really ours. Anyone who tries to tell us we can't have it we will depose violently. What was important in 9/11 was who it happened to. When it happens to us, it's terrible. When we do it, it's not worth mentioning.
BROTHERS: So do you believe that the latest war in Iraq was all about oil?
ROBERTS: It broadened out a bit because the American economy came into it. Saddam was persuading OPEC to trade oil in euros as well as in dollars. The American dollar is an extremely dangerous international currency with big advantages and disadvantages. One big disadvantage is that half the dollars that exist are held outside the country by investors with no sentimental attachment to them who shift them into another currency the second they see a weakness. Since the US came off the gold standard 35 years ago the unofficial measure of what a dollar is worth has been oil. One dollar will buy you 1/70 of a barrel of oil today. Foreign governments hold dollars to buy oil as a hedge against devaluation in their own currencies, since oil is priced in dollars. This has also made the US dollar the principal international currency. As long as oil is bought and sold in US dollars, it will be held in certain quantities and maintain a certain value on the international market. If oil trades in euros there will be a big selloff of US dollars on the international market, which would be an economic disaster for the United States. Also, not all grades of oil are equal. High grade oil, which is found in large quantities only in Saudi Arabia and Iraq at this point, costs a lot less to extract and refine than the kind of oil found in most other places.
BROTHERS: You write in A War Against Truth that there's no such thing as a just war and that wholesale killing is not justified by any political outcome. The only thing that war prevents is peace. Do you still believe that?
ROBERTS: Yes. If you want an effective military you have to have a centralized command and control structure, but then you're giving the individuals who control the war technology the force to decide where the democracy goes. If the army decides it isn't behind the leader, then it's over. If the military machine is too efficient, you don't have a democracy to defend, so a war for democracy is oxymoronic. The centralized command and control needed to run a military machine could not exist in a true democracy -- and a look at true democracies reveals they don't possess a war machine of any substance. But the military, until recently and particularly in America, were usually against war themselves, because they were the ones who were going to have to fight it. You very rarely meet the general who wants to start a war. That's why the Pentagon and Rumsfeld had been squabbling until they managed to get rid of everyone who didn't like him. He's not a soldier. A general wants to look after his men and the people in suits don't know what it's like.
BROTHERS: Are you saying that personal profit was also a motive in the invasion of Iraq?
ROBERTS: Vested interests and politics should not mix, yet vested interests are in the war business, as with Halliburton, on every single level, from making army meals, to providing combat troops, logistics... everything. Over the last 10 years war has become privatized. It's a booming business. There are 20,000 private "contractors" in Iraq. The worrying part is that they're not answerable to the senate, so they can be told to do anything without having to answer for the consequences. If they're caught, on the other hand, they hope they'll have the rights of soldiers. Who trained these people? The government. The taxpayer. When they go into business privately most of them get about a $1,000 a day but they fight alongside troops getting paid next to nothing. That breeds resentment. The Vice President was the CEO of Halliburton; everyone pretends he no longer has any interests, but that's ridiculous. He lied about stocks. He said he'd gotten rid of them all and hadn't. There are no repercussions anymore. In those circles, anyone who disagrees tends to get fired or sent somewhere awful. The same is true of journalists. They're constantly told their jobs are on the line. They know who they're writing for. It's not enough to be Robert Fisk; you have to have the paper that wants a Robert Fisk.
BROTHERS: Why is the mainstream media so strongly influenced by government agenda?
ROBERTS: The media need to examine their consciences about what their role actually is during a war situation. Key is the issue of ownership of media. Unless the media combines are dismantled, media will lose relevance. As it is, people seriously interested in news do not get their information from newspapers or TV, especially information of a sensitive nature. We know beyond all doubt that Fox, for example, tells its journalists what the news is today. With issues like the war and the election, what is presented is carefully controlled. This is propaganda, not news. People ought to make it clear to the media that we won't tolerate this.
The US government wants you to think you'll always know if you're being propagandized. It doesn't matter to them what people read in Harper's. What matters is that they can control the networks. You could see it in Iraq. They usually didn't care what I was doing. But most of the time if the networks said "we would like to go out there" they would say "no, you have to get permission." They were under restrictions before there were restrictions. It's a measure of the collusion that nobody said, "That's bullshit. Where was that written?" It wasn't written anywhere. Nobody knew what was going on, there was no government there, there was no law. You could drive as fast as you wanted, go through red lights, park wherever you wanted, because there simply wasn't a police force, there wasn't a court system, there was nothing. Yet the American network crews would say, "Oh, we can't go there, I wonder where can we go?"
BROTHERS: You quote Jordanian and Israeli intelligence claims that most of the fighting occurred in the extensive underground complexes beneath the city and that the US brokered a deal with Republican Guard General Ahmad Hussain to send the troops underground, sealed the entrances and detonated a high-tech bomb, killing roughly 40,000 people. Has any other information become available on that topic?
ROBERTS: I was fully expecting something to emerge but nothing has. No one has been into the underground complexes and no journalist seems to have mentioned them, which is odd because they were a subject of intense interest before the war. Ahmad Hussain, as I mentioned, surrendered to the coalition after brokering a deal in which he would be questioned but not arrested. He's still in Syria, as far as I know. The fact that he was allowed to leave is evidence in itself that a deal was done. Apart from Saddam, Ahmad was the most senior military official in the country, in charge of the Republican Guard, thus complicit in many of the crimes of which Saddam is charged. He would not have been released unless a deal of some sort had been done. It was rumoured in Iraq immediately after the war that Saddam had been betrayed by his generals. Until Ahmad Hussain is questioned and the underground complexes explored, or until we can account for the elite forces of the Republican Guard, my thesis must stand as a possible explanation.
BROTHERS: Should US troops leave?
ROBERTS: Yes and immediately, but not before the UN has found a peacekeeping force to ensure Iraqis don't turn on each other and that Iran doesn't begin interfering.
BROTHERS: How many Iraqis want the US troops there at this point?
ROBERTS: If we ignore the many who are getting rich by supplying the army with things, and if we accept the provision that they do want a peacekeeping force there, I think one can safely say that no Iraqis want a continued US presence.
BROTHERS: Is civil war a possibility?
ROBERTS: This is what the US wants because it would send the whole Middle East up in flames and permit the Israelis to extend their influence. Iraqis don't want this and I still think it is unlikely because tribal societies do not divide along religious lines. All tribes contain Sunnis who are married to Shia, so a civil war along Sunni vs Shia lines is impossible. But there are other ways it could proceed.
BROTHERS: What do you make of recent reports of Sunni mass graves?
ROBERTS: I never know what to believe. I found a mass grave of Kuwaitis. The country is full of graveyards. Someone is trying to foment an inter-Islam conflict, which would divide the faithful worldwide and weaken the fundamentalists. The US has always favored Sunni over Shia, so this bias toward Shia may mark a departure in policy or it may just indicate business as usual. Mass Sunni graves would certainly provoke a brutal retaliation.
BROTHERS: What approach should Canada take to the problems in the region?
ROBERTS: This country should have intervened back during the embargo when we first heard of the suffering it was causing. We should have drawn the world's attention to US actions there. Now our role should be similar but not as strident. America is at a dangerous point, so any criticism is poorly received. We need to be more an intermediary, for our own sake too. Canada would be invaded by the US at the slightest provocation -- it will probably happen over resources -- so our job is to be more of a wiser older brother now. If antagonized, they will react.
We need to make it very clear to our leaders that we will never tolerate our armed forces joining in any of these US imperialist adventures. Our politicians should be privately telling the US the real score: that we will expose to the world any deception we become aware of, any lie we hear, any deed we regard as immoral. We must be careful not to side with the US on any issues not immediately involving us. We need also to play a stronger role in the international community and help create a viable alternative to US hegemony.
The role of this country can be crucial over the coming years if we elect the right leaders. Our friendship should become something America values because it is honest. As it stands, they despise us because we have kowtowed for so long. If they seriously wanted something we wouldn't give them, I have no doubt they would simply come in and take it. Their ignorance about Canada is a measure of their scorn. We have to turn that around or end up like Mexico.
Kirstin Brothers is a Toronto writer.