When we first began doing interviews for this book at Clark’s California ranch, he one day showed me a pistol he received from Saddam Hussein as a gift. Clark and his family were ranchers, sheriffs, and lawmen. They know guns. Saddam knew that and gave him one. But my immediate question to Clark was, “Gee, how and when and where did you meet Saddam Hussein?” Clark never ceased to surprise me with all he did, but this one came out of nowhere.
He proceeded to tell me about a two-hour meeting, one-on-one, that he had with Saddam in January 1986. This was a full year after Clark had left the Reagan administration for good. Still, he continued to be Ronald Reagan’s troubleshooter and reliable right-hand man. When Reagan had a sensitive assignment that required an aide of utter, complete trust, he called on Bill Clark, as he had done since his governorship in the 1960s.
So, Clark told me about this unpublicized, unannounced trip to Baghdad, where he met with Tariq Aziz, Nizar Hamdoon, and every top official in the Iraqi government. He then met with Saddam. I asked him if Saddam requested American arms to help in Iraq’s war with Iran, which by then was into its sixth terrible year. When I asked this, Clark was more baffled than annoyed. He didn’t understand my point. “He didn’t ask for arms,” he told me flatly. “Why would he?”
I explained that there was a kind of left-wing cottage industry dedicated to exposing the alleged Reagan conspiracy to arm Saddam in the 1980s, including to arm him with WMDs [Weapons of Mass Destruction]. This really confused him. He didn’t want to respond to something so baseless, and couldn’t believe anyone would level such a reckless charge. I told him I would demonstrate when we got to his office in town later that afternoon. When we got there, I did a Google search on “Reagan armed Saddam.” Clark was shocked at all the hits.
For the record, Clark says: “We never armed Saddam. And to my knowledge, we certainly did not give him anything like WMD technology, or assist him in developing WMD.”
By the way, as I gained access to Clark’s private papers, I came across the minutes and memos from this meeting. Indeed, there was no mention whatsoever of weapons.
V&V: So, can you say definitively that we never aided Saddam in the 1980s?
Kengor: I want to be careful with this. I’ve learned many times that history is much more complicated than we realize. So many things happen with this massive federal government, and all the people associated with it, that it’s foolish to say “never” to anything. The more you know, the more you learn you don’t know. Neither Clark nor I claim to know everything. That said, to Clark’s knowledge—and keep in mind that Clark is extremely credible, and was closer to Reagan than anyone, especially on foreign policy and national security—we did not arm Saddam, and certainly not with WMD technology.
If you want to know who armed Saddam throughout the 1980s, it was the Soviets, the French, and the Chinese. That has been thoroughly documented. When we went to war against Iraq in Kuwait in 1991, we were fighting Soviet tanks, not our own. To the best of my personal knowledge, any possible American military support of Saddam was at best extremely small, especially compared to the aforementioned countries, and not at all substantial. It would hardly rise to the level of what the fringe left means by “arming Saddam.”
Very importantly, Clark did clarify the nature of our support, which was limited, but which did involve some assistance in the war between Iraq and Iran.
V&V: What was that support, and what was the Reagan administration’s objective with Saddam?
Kengor: We provided some quite helpful satellite imagery to Saddam. This was highly detailed photos of Iranian troop movements and tank columns and that kind of thing. Saddam was impressed and deeply grateful for this assistance.
V&V: So, in other words, we were trying to help Saddam—or, at least, to help him defeat Iran?
Kengor: What we were trying to do was to prevent a single power from emerging from the conflict as a dominant hegemon in the region, which has always been the traditional U.S. strategic objective in the Middle East, especially since the fall of the Shah. Here again, I will quote Clark: “We wanted a stalemate [in the war], a stand-off. A ceasefire between Iraq and Iran was our clear objective, and that did occur.”
We sincerely wanted both sides to stop fighting and for neither to emerge as the dominant power in the region. The worst prospect would have been to have one giant Iraq or one giant Iran in the place of both of them. It was an ugly situation regardless. And many of the critics of the Reagan administration on this issue don’t realize the total lack of attractive options when dealing with nations like these. It is very difficult. People need to try to be understanding of the tremendous challenge of trying to bring good out of evil.
V&V: Also, we should recall that Iran was our main enemy at the time—the leading supporter of terrorism. This is the first decade of the Ayatollah’s theocracy.
Kengor: Yes, that’s correct. Context is crucial, and our memories are short. But keep in mind that Saddam Hussein, throughout the 1980s, was also doing terrorism—not just terrorizing his own population in his Republic of Fear, but was also exporting terror. He would increase that behavior in the 1990s, to the point that the final Clinton State Department report on terrorism devoted more words to Iraq than any other country, including Iran. The Clinton State Department rightly listed Iraq and Iran as the two leading state sponsors of terrorism throughout the 1990s.
And here’s where Clark’s meeting continues to be very relevant today. Clark asked Saddam, on behalf of President Reagan, to “dry up” any support he was providing to Palestinian terror camps inside Iraq, where these killers were training to murder innocent Israelis. Saddam promised Clark he would do so. Clark believes that at the time Saddam might have been sincere, and even left the meeting with the impression that Saddam “wanted to be our friend.” All of this collapsed, however, when Saddam invaded Kuwait and then directed his troops to the border of Saudi Arabia in August 1990. He destroyed the relationship by his aggressive actions. Everything descended down hill quickly after that.
V&V: What are some of the other revelations in The Judge that are of contemporary policy relevance?
Kengor: Clark spoke for the first time about the French plot to assassinate Moammar Kaddafi in 1981—French intelligence came to Reagan to ask if he would join them—about Reagan warning the Soviets that he would shoot down their MiGs over Nicaragua in the spring of 1982, about the secret mission to Suriname in April 1983, about Clark as Reagan’s liaison to Pope John Paul II’s Vatican in 1982 and 1983, about Clark’s role in urging Iran-Contra pardons in 1987, and how Nancy Reagan stopped the pardons. There is also a great untold story about how we averted disaster by not joining the Chinese in joint construction of the Three Gorges Dam project—that was Clark’s recommendation to Reagan, and Reagan thankfully agreed with Clark. Those are just a few examples.
V&V: That brings us closer to the core of the book, which is the Cold War story. Let’s go into that next. … Join us tomorrow for Part II of this interview …
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."
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