Authors: Donald Rumsfeld
“The wind in the tower presages the coming of the storm.”
âChinese proverb, as quoted in
DECEMBER 20, 1983
mbassador Rumsfeld, may I present to you his Excellency, Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq.”
As his aide announced him, the infamous Iraqi leader approached me confidently. Like other strongmen who pose as popular revolutionaries, Saddam wore military fatigues with a pistol on his hip. Saddam's “revolution,” of course, was in reality a coup in which he arrested or murdered his political opponents.
He was above average height and build, and his hair and mustache were so black that I wondered whether he dyed his hair. It was December 20, 1983, the only time I met the man who would become known as the “Butcher of Baghdad.”
Saddam stopped a few feet in front of me and smiled. I extended my hand, which he clasped. The cameras rolled.
In later years, this inelegant video still became one of the most widely viewed political images on the internet.
My trip to Baghdad that winter as President Reagan's envoyâmy official title was Personal Representative of the President of the United States in the Middle Eastâwas the highest-level contact by any U.S. official with Iraq's leadership in twenty-five years. None of us in the Reagan administration harbored illusions about Saddam. Like most despots, his career was forged in conflict and hardened by bloodshed. He had used chemical toxins in the war he initiated with Iran three years earlier. But given the reality of the Middle East, then as now, America often had to deal with rulers who were deemed “less bad” than the others. The sands constantly shifted during evaluations of our country's potential friends and possible foes. And in 1983, at least, some leaders in the region seemed even less appetizing to deal with than Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's Baathist regime was at the time the bitter adversary of two nations that threatened the interests of the United StatesâSyria and Iran. Syria, under President Hafez al-Assad, was a leading supporter of international terrorism and occupied portions of Lebanon, a country that when left to its own devices favored the West. Iran had been a close friend of the United States until the 1979 coup by militant Islamists led by a radical cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini. The subsequent abduction of sixty-six Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran by pro-Khomeini revolutionaries poisoned U.S.-Iranian relations and further damaged the troubled presidency of Jimmy Carter, whose response appeared hapless.
Iraq sat between these two menacesâSyria and Iran. It must have taken a good deal of effort, or more likely some mistakes, for America to be on the bad side of all three countries. By 1983, there was a clear logic in trying to cultivate warmer relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The tide of the Iran-Iraq war had turned against Iraq. Iran was launching human mass wave attacksâchildren as young as twelve were sent marching toward Iraqi lines, clearing a way through minefields with their bodies. Whatever misgivings we had about reaching out to Saddam Hussein, the alternative of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East was decidedly worse. The Reagan administration had recognized this reality and had begun to make lower-level diplomatic contacts with the Iraqis some months earlier.
My unusual visit had begun a day earlier, under equally unusual circumstances. In the late evening of December 19, 1983, I traveled to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry building in Baghdad with a small staff for a preliminary meeting with Saddam's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. Our groupâwhich included Bill Eagleton, the experienced chief of the United States Interests Section in Baghdad, and Robert Pelletreau, a senior State Department officialâhad helped to prepare me for the visit.
But as we exited an elevator and started down a hall on an upper floor of the Foreign Ministry headquarters, two armed, unsmiling Iraqi guards broke me off from the group. While my startled staff was led straight down the hall, I was turned down a dark corridor to the right. I couldn't help but wonder for the briefest of moments how many Iraqi citizens had been taken alone down dark hallways by men with guns, wondering what might be next.
I was led into a bright but windowless room. The walls were padded in what looked to be white leather. Standing alone was a medium-sized, gray-haired man in thick horn-rimmed glasses, wearing military fatigues and a pistol on his hip.
“Welcome, Ambassador Rumsfeld,” he said in flawless English. “I am Tariq Aziz.” He motioned for the guards to leave us and we stood across from each other.
Tariq Aziz later became a familiar figure in Saddam's regime, the man who often appeared on television to defend his government. But Aziz was certainly not the typical Middle Eastern official. His manner was erudite and polished. He had been educated at Baghdad University's College of the Fine Arts and seemed to live quite comfortably as an Assyrian Christian in a Muslim country. He was one of Saddam's most trusted senior officialsâwhich, considering Saddam's rampant paranoia, was no small achievementâand one of the few to survive long in his orbit. As a sign of his stature, he was serving in the dual roles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister.
It was never explained to me why the Iraqis decided to part with the arrangements we had agreed on and pull me away from my staff. My sense was that Aziz thought we could be more direct without others present. That indeed turned out to be the case.
For the next two-plus hours we had an intense, candid, rapid-fire discussion about my mission to Baghdad and the relationship between our two countries. Aziz seemed well versed on the Reagan administration and my role as the President's envoy. I found myself favorably impressed by his knowledge and interest in the world beyond Iraq.
Our long conversation covered a host of issues. Most important was our mutual interest in keeping both Syria and Iran contained. Iran was of particular interest to Aziz, for understandable reasons: He had survived an assassination attempt a few years earlier that had been attributed to Iranian agents, an attack that Saddam used as one of the pretexts for launching the Iran-Iraq war. Aziz asked for our help in dissuading America's friends and allies from supplying arms to Iran. I told him, as Reagan administration officials had previously, that any efforts to assist Iraq were hampered by the regime's use of chemical weapons and human rights abuses.
I had questions as to exactly how Iraq might be helpful to us. Nonetheless, it was still clear that Iran's leadership, due to their bitter hostility toward the United States and their history of holding Americans hostage, remained unapproachable.
I made the point that the United States and Iraq had some shared interests. “It seems unnatural,” I said, “to have a whole generation of Iraqis growing up knowing little about America and a whole generation of Americans growing up knowing little about Iraq.” Aziz nodded in agreement.
y meeting with Saddam, which took place the next morning, has been the subject of gossip, rumors, and crackpot conspiracy theories for more than a quarter of a century, particularly after I was involved in the administration that removed him from power in 2003. Supposedly I had been sent to see Saddam by President Reagan either to negotiate a secret oil deal, to help arm Iraq, or to make Iraq an American client state. The truth is that our encounter was more straightforward and less dramatic.
As I met with the Iraqi leader, we sat at opposite ends of a gold and burgundyâupholstered couch amid plush surroundings. The large room had intricately carved wooden doors and walls inlaid with marble. In a country where the people didn't receive reliable electricity or water, it was discordantly ostentatious.
Our meeting was considerably more formal than my long session with Aziz. This time I wasn't pulled off alone. Two members of our mission were includedâBill Eagleton and Robert Pelletreauâalong with Aziz and an Iraqi interpreter.
The war with Iran was naturally uppermost in Saddam's mind. Iraq's capital, Baghdad, was a mere one hundred miles from the Iranian border and suffering frequent shelling and rocket attacks. Even the presidential complex where we were meeting was protected by sandbags and barriers. Though Saddam was in a difficult situation, he made no direct request for American military assistance. Like Aziz, Saddam said he was concerned about other nations providing military and financial assistance to Iran and clearly hoped that the United States might have some influence with them.
In addition, at the State Department's request, I discussed a proposal to funnel Iraqi oil through a pipeline that ended in Aqaba, Jordan.
Saddam said he would consider the idea but indicated it would require American assurance that Israel would not attack it.
Though officially most Arab nations didn't even acknowledge Israel as a nation, they tended to view its formidable military with respect.
Saddam indicated a surprising amount of openness to cooperation with the West. “France in particular,” he said, “understood the Iraqi view.”
Over the years that followed, that particular remark came to my mind on more than one occasion, and I never had cause to doubt it.
At one point, Saddam motioned me over to a window and pointed toward a tall building on the city's skyline.
“See that building?” he asked, as we looked out at Baghdad's sprawling vista. I nodded.
“When an elevator in that building breaks, where do we look to have it repaired?” he asked. I waited for his conclusion.
“I look for help in the West,” he continued. His point was clear: Iraq needed the West to make his country part of the modern world. Looking back, I wonder how much of our recent history would have changed if his perspective at the time had outweighed his other goals and appetites.
As Saddam and I began to discuss the prospects for U.S.-Iraqi relations, he said something quite interesting.
“It seems unnatural,” he said, “to have a whole generation of Iraqis growing up knowing little about America and a whole generation of Americans growing up knowing little about Iraq.”
I concealed a smile. Those, of course, were my exact words late the night before. Certainly Saddam's repeating them was no coincidence. I didn't know how Saddam had heard my statementâif Aziz had told him personally or if, as was not at all unlikely, the room Aziz and I met in was bugged. In any event, I was pleased and encouraged that he repeated it so pointedly. I began to think that through increased contacts we might be able to persuade the Iraqis to lean toward the United States and eventually modify their behavior.
After Saddam repeated my words back to me, I nodded. “I agree completely,” I replied, as if it were the first time I had heard those thoughts.
Over my decades of public service I received a number of unusual gifts from foreign leaders and heads of state, but none was stranger than the one Saddam presented to me. It was a videotape that may well have been put together specifically for my visit, though the production values weren't going to win it any Oscars. The tape contained two to three minutes of amateurish footage of Syria's dictator, Hafez al-Assad, reviewing Syrian troops and applauding. Then it showed people purported to be Syrians strangling puppies. This was followed by a line of young women biting the heads off of snakes. The video appeared edited in a way that indicated Assad was present and applauding these gruesome acts. I suspect Saddam wanted me to see the Syrians, and Assad in particular, as savages. Considering the Assad regime's history, that wasn't a difficult sell.
After about ninety minutes, Saddam thanked me for coming, and I expressed my appreciation. As odd as it might sound, he came across as rather reasonable. For his part, Saddam seemed gratified to have had a visit by a senior American official representing President Reagan. He knew it would increase his stature both at home and in the region.
did not expect that Saddam's regime would play such a prominent role in our country's futureâand in my lifeâin the years ahead. After a hiatus of seventeen years, U.S.-Iraq diplomatic relations were reestablished in 1984 shortly after my meeting. We had convergent interests: America could assist Iraq by discouraging other countries from selling arms to Iran, and Iraq could assist America by holding the line against an ascendant radical Islamist and terrorist-supporting regime in Iran. Ultimately, of course, the United States was unable to reorient our relations with Iraq, and my visit to Baghdad was something of a side event. America's primary concern in the region at the time was not Iraq but the small, troubled nation of Lebanon, which was being ripped apart by terrorism and civil war. No experience better prepared me for the challenges I would face many years later, as secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, than the crisis in Lebanon. Many times, in fact, I looked back on the hopes and disappointments of that period, the consequences of which still reverberate.