Donald Trump has praised repeatedly the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for being a ruthless killer of terrorists—and Saddam was indeed a ruthless killer, perhaps even an architect of genocide. But he was much more a patron of terror than a counter-terrorist.
Under Saddam, Iraq was for decades one of the principal state sponsors of terrorism. In the 1970s and 1980s, Iraq was a major backer of the most extreme and violent Palestinian terror groups, including those affiliate with Wadi Haddad and the infamous Abu Nidal.
Haddad was the man responsible for the hijacking of an Air France jet that ended on July 4, 1976, when Israeli commandoes rescued the hostages in Entebbe, Uganda.
The next year his group hijacked a Lufthansa jet that German commandoes stormed in Mogadishu, Somalia. Both plots were orchestrated from Haddad’s base in Baghdad. The Israeli intelligence service Mossad finally poisoned Haddad in Baghdad by sending him toxic Belgian chocolates.
In June 1982 when Saddam’s disastrous invasion of Iran had turned sour and Iran was about to invade Iraq, Saddam sponsored an Abu Nidal attack in London against the Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov.
The plan was to blame the attack on Yasir Arafat, thus provoking an Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Saddam hoped Iran would spare Iraq from invasion to join in resisting the Israelis instead.
Amb. Argov was badly wounded outside the Dorchester Hotel in London. The lead assassin was an Iraqi intelligence officer Col. Nawaf al Rosan, and the would-be killers fled to the Iraqi embassy. Abu Nidal’s Iraq-based gang went on to carry out airport massacres in Rome and Vienna before he died in Baghdad in 2002 under mysterious circumstances.
Saddam’s 1982 plot did provoke the disastrous Israeli invasion of Lebanon that ended in the seige of Beirut and the Sabra and Shatilla massacre but it did not deflect Ayatollah Khomeini from invading Iraq. Saddam’s war with Iran ended up killing a half million people but very few of them were terrorists. At the end of the war Saddam gassed his Kurdish population. He called them terrorists.
When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, his army freed Hezbollah prisoners wanted for attempting to assassinate the Emir of Kuwait and bombing the U.S. embassy there in the previous decade. As the United States prepared to liberate Kuwait in 1991 Saddam plotted a wave of terrorist attacks on American and allied targets to coincide with the start of Operation Desert Storm. A well-planned counter terrorism operation led by the CIA foiled Saddam’s plots and shut down Iraqi embassies full of weapons and bombs.
In 1993 Saddam ordered the Iraqi intelligence service to assassinate former President George H. W. Bush when he visited Kuwait. The car bomb they built was identical to one found in the counter terrorism sweep two years earlier in an Iraqi embassy. President Bill Clinton sent cruise missiles to destroy the Iraqi intelligence service headquarters in Baghdad.
It is true that Saddam had nothing to do with the 911 plot or al Qaeda. It is also true that he praised the 911 attack as just revenge for America’s liberation of Kuwait and containment of Iraq.
It’s also true that the Iraq war in 2003 was a major mistake, perhaps the worst foreign policy decision in American history, and Hillary Clinton was on the wrong side of that decision.
But the notion Saddam was fighting the terrorists who targeted America in 2001 is fanciful. Osama bin Laden hated Saddam and his Baathist regime but Saddam never took any action against bin Laden.
Bin Laden and his henchman Abu Musaib al Zarqawi laid a trap for George W. Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq, which they ran into with enthusiasm. The al Qaeda leaders planned for the day after Saddam with deadly precision. They attacked the sectarian fault line of Iraqi politics, the Sunni-Shia divide, and the civil war they created is still burning the Middle East.
Saddam is no terrorist-killer; instead he is the delusional monster whose disastrous track record of stupid decisions helped create the firestorm we are going through today.
This piece was originally published by The Daily Beast.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.
[On the U.S. negotiating team at the COP 24 climate negotiations in Katowice, Poland] They work seriously, effectively and knowledgeably. There is only this technical negotiating team, not a political one.