Newly released documents reveal U.S. talk of regime change in the early 1980s – except then it was language condemning Iran for attempting to overthrow the government in Baghdad.

In an interview Tuesday with the Arab-language television network Al-Jazeera, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld laid out again the case for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Among other crimes, he said, Iraq “used chemical weapons on its neighbor Iran.”

The defense secretary has reason to remember that crime. It was taking place in December 1983, when Rumsfeld met with Hussein as a special envoy of President Ronald Reagan. But his mission then was to improve U.S.-Iraqi relations, assure Hussein that Iran was their common enemy and promote an oil pipeline project.

According to records of the meeting, Rumsfeld made no complaint to the Iraqi dictator about his use of weapons of mass destruction, though he did mention U.S. disapproval to Hussein’s foreign minister.

The National Security Archive, a nonprofit public affairs research group at George Washington University, published this week on its Web site recently declassified documents revealing the delicate diplomatic dance performed by the United States in the 1980s as it tilted toward Iraq and away from Iran.

Twenty years ago, Iran seemed a far bigger threat to the United States. Iranian students chanting “Death to America” had seized the U.S. Embassy in 1980 and taken diplomats hostage. Iran was implicated in major terrorist attacks against American targets, including the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, carried out by Hezbollah militants.

But if Reagan and Rumsfeld were right to be cozying up to Hussein in 1983, when he was gassing Iranians and Kurds, does that mean President Bush and Rumsfeld are wrong today to be preparing a war against Iraq and citing such chemical attacks as one reason? Or was U.S. policy wrong then and right now?

U.S. presidents often present American positions in starkly moral terms, as Bush did in describing Hussein in the State of the Union address: “The dictator who is assembling the world’s most dangerous weapons has already used them on whole villages…. International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape. If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning.”

But all those evils were well-documented in 1983.

At the time of Rumsfeld’s visit, Hussein had invaded Iran, was seeking nuclear weapons and had used lethal mustard gas. He had harbored terrorists (though he had just expelled the infamous Abu Nidal) and had a well-established record of torturing and murdering domestic opponents.

The U.S. response? It dropped Iraq from the list of nations sponsoring terror, renewed diplomatic ties, and provided intelligence and aid to Iraq to prevent its defeat by Iran.

Joyce Battle, the National Security Archive analyst who assembled the previously secret U.S. documents, says they are a reminder that diplomacy is rarely a clear-cut campaign of good against evil.

“We published these documents as a response to the way the Bush administration is trying to describe this situation in black and white terms,” says Battle. “In reality, that’s not the way international relations are carried out.”

Following are excerpts from the documents:

  • On November 1, 1983, State Department official Jonathan T. Howe writes to Secretary of State George P. Shultz expressing concern about both Iraq’s use of chemical weapons and its weak position in the war with Iran:

    We have recently received additional information confirming Iraqi use of chemical weapons [CW]. We also know that Iraq has acquired a CW production capability, primarily from Western firms…. If the [National Security Council] decides measures are to be undertaken to assist Iraq, our best present chance of influencing cessation of CW use may be in the context of informing Iraq of these measures. It is important, however, that we approach Iraq very soon in order to maintain the credibility of U.S. policy on CW, as well as to reduce or halt what now appears to be Iraq’s almost daily use of CW.

  • On December 14, 1983, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, William L. Eagleton Jr., proposed “talking points” for Reagan’s envoy:

    A major objective in the meeting with Saddam is to initiate a dialogue and establish personal rapport. In that meeting [Ambassador] Rumsfeld will want to emphasize his close relationship with President Reagan and the president’s interest in regional issues….

    [Among the talking points]: The [U.S. government] recognizes Iraq’s current disadvantage in a war of attrition since Iran has [easy] access to the Gulf while Iraq does not, and would regard any major reversal of Iraq’s fortunes as a strategic defeat for the West.

  • On December 21, 1983, a U.S. diplomat in London reports on the meeting the day before in Baghdad between Rumsfeld and Hussein, at which the U.S. envoy handed over a conciliatory letter from Reagan:

    In his 90-minute meeting with Rumsfeld, Saddam Hussein showed obvious pleasure with president’s letter and Rumsfeld’s visit and in his remarks removed whatever obstacles remained in the way of resuming diplomatic relations…. [Rumsfeld expressed] interest in seeing Iraq increase oil exports, including through possible new pipeline across Jordan…. Our initial assessment is that meeting marked positive milestone in development of U.S.-Iraqi relations and will prove to be of wider benefit to U.S. posture in the region.

    [Hussein] used a direct quote from Rumsfeld’s statement to the foreign minister the previous evening when he said “having a whole generation of Iraqis and Americans grow up without understanding each other had negative implications and could lead to mix-ups.”

  • On December 26, Eagleton cables the State Department that:

    Ambassador Rumsfeld’s visit has elevated U.S-Iraqi relations to a new level. This is both symbolically important and practically helpful…. We must now maintain some momentum in the dialogue and relationship.

  • On March 5, 1984, the State Department condemns Iraqi use of chemical weapons – but also blasts Iran’s determination to pursue regime change in Iraq:

The United States has concluded that the available evidence indicates that Iraq has used lethal chemical weapons. The United States strongly condemns the prohibited use of chemical weapons wherever it occurs. While condemning Iraq’s resort to chemical weapons, the United States also calls on the Government of Iran to put an end to the bloodshed. The United States finds the present Iranian regime’s intransigent refusal to deviate from its avowed objective of eliminating the legitimate government of neighboring Iraq to be inconsistent with the accepted norms of behavior among nations and the moral and religious basis which it claims.

This piece ran in the Baltimore Sun Magazine on February 27, 2003