Mohammed bin Salman Is the Next Saddam Hussein
In the 1980s, the United States embraced a brutal Middle Eastern tyrant simply because he opposed Iran. Washington should not repeat the same mistake today.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is reportedly shocked over the backlash to his government’s killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In a recent phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, according to the Wall Street Journal, his confusion over official Washington’s furor “turned into rage,” as he spoke of feeling “betrayed by the West” and threatened to “look elsewhere” for foreign partners.
Saudi Arabia’s indignation at the United States would not be the first time an autocratic U.S. ally in the Middle East has assumed it could act with virtual impunity due to its alignment with Washington in countering Iran. Indeed, the Saudi prince’s meteoric rise to power bears striking similarities to that of a past U.S. ally-turned-nemesis whose brutality was initially overlooked by his Washington patrons: former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Years before Saddam became Washington’s chief foe, he enjoyed significant support from the United States and other Western countries. This ended after he decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. However, the lead-up to that conflict and Washington’s earlier patronage of Saddam provide instructive lessons for U.S. regional policy today and the major risks of not responding forcefully to the assassination of Khashoggi.
Mohammed bin Salman’s gradual and brutal consolidation of power, marked by the detention and torture of his domestic rivals, evokes the “nation-changing assault on dissent within Iraq’s ruling party in 1979 by a young President Saddam Hussein,” Toby Dodge, a consulting senior fellow for the Middle East at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Bloomberg last year. “The concentration of power in one youthful, ambitious and unpredictable pair of hands is worrying now as it was then.” Washington’s steadfast support of Saddam during the 1980s not only enabled his rampage against his own people and neighboring countries, but also eventually threatened U.S. security interests.
The U.S. relationship with Saddam Hussein began in 1963, when, according to the former National Security Council official Roger Morris, the CIA under President John F. Kennedy “carried out in collaboration with Saddam Hussein” a coup to overthrow the government of Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem, who had five years earlier toppled Iraq’s pro-American monarchy.
However, U.S. ties with Saddam truly began to solidify in February 1982, when the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the State Department’s terrorism list, paving the way for providing military assistance to Iraq. This occurred roughly 17 months after Saddam’s invasion of Iran, while Iraqi forces were occupying the oil-rich southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that Iraq sought to annex. In December 1983, President Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld as a presidential envoy to meet Saddam and set the stage for normalizing U.S.-Iraqi relations. U.S. support for Saddam during the war would grow to include, according to the Washington Post, “large-scale intelligence sharing, supply of cluster bombs through a Chilean front company, and facilitating Iraq’s acquisition of chemical and biological precursors.”
Saddam’s devastating use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, both against Iranian military and civilian targets and on his own people, did not deter U.S. support. Rumsfeld’s meeting with Saddam took place despite Washington possessing firm evidence of Iraqi chemical weapons use beginning in 1983. Prior to Rumsfeld’s trip, on Nov. 1, 1983, senior State Department official Jonathan Howe had told Secretary of State George Shultz of intelligence reports showing that Iraq was resorting to “almost daily use of CW [chemical weapons]” against the Iranians.
While Iran received some weaponry from the United States through the Iran-Contra affair, Washington tipped the scales much further in favor of Saddam. When intelligence showed Iran mounting a major offensive in early 1988 that threatened to break through Iraqi lines, Reagan wrote to his secretary of defense: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Toward the end of the war, “U.S. intelligence was flowing freely to Hussein’s military,” according to a 2013 article in Foreign Policy, despite U.S. officials being “fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons.”
According to declassified CIA documents, two-thirds of all Iraqi chemical weapons deployed during the war were used in the last 18 months of the conflict, when U.S.-Iraqi cooperation peaked. This included the March 1988 genocidal chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, which led to the deaths of as many as 5,000 civilians. Ironically, this attack would later be used by the George W. Bush administration in 2003 as part of its pretext for invading Iraq to eliminate the country’s by then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
A few months after the Halabja attack, in September 1988, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy wrote in a memo on the chemical weapons question that “the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is … important to our long-term political and economic objectives.” Today, the Trump administration is echoing this language when discussing the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi and its devastating assault on Yemen, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently proclaiming that Saudi Arabia is “an important strategic alliance of the United States” and that “the Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us.”
It was no surprise, then, that on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Saddam felt he had unconditional backing from the United States. This impression was reinforced by Saddam’s meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie on July 25, 1990, a week before his invasion of Kuwait. During their fateful encounter, according to a diplomatic cable summarizing the meeting, Glaspie stressed “President [George H.W.] Bush’s desire for friendship” and that “the president had instructed her to broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq.” When Saddam raised the issue of Kuwait, which he had been relentlessly threatening, Glaspie stated that the United States took “no position on these Arab affairs.”
To this day, academic experts such as the Harvard University professor and FP columnist Stephen M. Walt contend that “the United States did unwittingly give a green light to Saddam” to invade Kuwait—much as he invaded Iran—without a strong response from the United States. Walt adds that, contrary to some perceptions, Glaspie was “following the instructions she had been given” and that “she was doing what the Bush administration wanted at this crucial meeting.” U.S. diplomatic cables from Glaspie’s era also reveal, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, that “Glaspie and her predecessor painted the regime in an extremely favorable light from the very outset, overlooked Saddam’s widely-known crimes, and were so influenced by mutual enmity for Iran as to be negligently uncritical.”
The United States was wrong to back Saddam simply because he opposed Iran, a mistake that has haunted it for decades. Not only were more than 500,000 U.S. troops required to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait, resulting in 382 U.S. military casualties, but it also placed the U.S. government on a warpath that resulted in the 2003 toppling of Saddam, an event that beyond its humanitarian and financial costs for the Iraqi and American people led to the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and inextricably altered the regional balance of power in favor of Iran—whose largely Shiite allies have assumed power in Baghdad by way of democratic elections.
Today, the Trump administration’s reflexive support of Mohammed bin Salman is heading in the same direction as Washington’s ill-fated support of Saddam Hussein. Washington’s backing of Riyadh today even has the same justification: countering Iran. Trump has endorsed the crown prince’s purge of his domestic rivals and has given him carte blanche in his botched endeavors to rout Houthi rebels in Yemen while massacring civilians, turn Qatar into a vassal state, unseat the Lebanese prime minister, and punish Canada over a human rights complaint. The apparent order to assassinate Khashoggi is only the latest of Mohammed bin Salman’s reckless and impulsive decisions to which the United States has failed to react forcefully.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, Trump administration officials have shamelessly warned that punishing the kingdom could jeopardize the escalating pressure campaign against Iran. A desire to bleed Iran shouldn’t once again overshadow a growing threat to the region: an unchecked, ambitious Saudi crown prince who has already presided over the decimation of Yemen and the butchering of a prominent journalist in his quest to consolidate absolute power.
Mohammed bin Salman, if allowed to ascend to the throne without facing any consequences from Washington for his outrageous behavior, will likely terrorize the region for decades, just as Saddam did. If Khashoggi’s brazen slaughter, carried out in utter disregard for international norms or the political cost for its allies, is a sign of a new Saudi playbook, the world may be facing an even greater threat than Saddam posed. Not only has the crown prince made clear his willingness to use force against neighboring countries, but his country also still enjoys vast oil wealth—giving him the ability to disrupt the global economy (although not to the extent of the 1973 Arab oil embargo) and threaten the profits of Western defense firms, given that the kingdom is the world’s third-largest military spender after the United States and China.
The Trump administration must act now to make it clear to the Saudi royal family that there will be severe consequences for such transgressions and end the unqualified support provided to Saudi Arabia. At a minimum, this should include an end to U.S. participation in the Yemen war, a halt to arms sales, and Magnitsky Act sanctions against all Saudi officials connected to Khashoggi’s killing.
Ryan Costello is the policy director for the National Iranian American Council. @RN_Costello