Thursday, May 4, 2023

Review Spider’s Web, The secret history of how the White House illegally armed Iraq

Friedman, Alan, Spider’s Web, The secret history of how the White House illegally armed Iraq, New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland: Bantam Books, 1993


Spider’s Web, The secret history of how the White House illegally armed Iraq by Financial Times journalist Alan Friedman is about a story that is largely forgotten today. During the Iran-Iraq War the U.S. decided to support Baghdad to stop the Iranian Revolutionary from spreading. That included helping foreign companies ship weapons to Iraq and offering credit to Baghdad some of which was diverted to buying technology for Saddam’s WMD, nuclear and missile programs. When Iraq invaded Kuwait the Bush administration attempted to cover up the entire affair which is the topic of Friedman’s book why and how did the two presidents back Iraq and then try to deny the whole affair.


Friedman starts his story by explaining why the Reagan and Bush administrations were intent upon creating friendly relations with Iraq. That started in 1981 with Vice President Bush, Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and chief of staff James Baker all arguing that Iraq could help contain the Iranian revolution. This was well received in Baghdad which had been courting Washington for help in the Iran-Iraq War. Later, in 1989 the Bush administration signed a National Security Directive ordering the government to improve relations with Iraq to moderate its behavior and make it a U.S. ally. Baghdad broke relations with America in 1967 during the Arab-Israeli War. Afterward Iraq became known as a radical Arab government that was one of the harshest opponents of Israel and supported terrorism. After 1979 Iraq was seen as the lesser of two evils compared to Ayatollah Khomeini who took power in Iran. The author showed how two administrations did everything they could to forget about Baghdad’s history and paint Saddam as an Arab leader they could work with.


Because of Iraq’s past the United States could not legally sell it weapons so the White House looked to other means to arm it. First, U.S. companies were recruited by the CIA to facilitate arms sales to Iraq using third countries such as Chile. For instance, a Chilean company was allowed to buy the specifications for U.S. cluster bombs along with industrial equipment and became a major supplier to Baghdad. Other American enterprises helped Brazilian firms sell weapons to Iraq as well. Jordan was often used as the end point to disguise where the equipment was actually going to. After they were unloaded there they were trucked to Iraq. Friedman believed that Reagan’s CIA Director William Casey was the main official in charge of these covert attempts to ship military material to Saddam.


What most of Spider’s Web is about is a credit program the U.S. offered Iraq that was used to buy technology for Saddam’s weapons programs and later covered up by the Bush White House. In 1985 the Atlanta branch of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL) gave Iraq a $100 million credit line backed by the U.S. Agriculture Department despite it not being okayed by its headquarters in Rome. The Atlanta branch began hiding its transactions with Iraq as a result. Not only that but American farm products were sometimes sold by Iraq and the cash used to buy equipment for its missile, WMD and nuclear programs. Prices for U.S. agriculture was often overpriced so that Iraqi officials could skim money and get payoffs. This continued under the Bush administration that offered Baghdad $1 billion in loan guarantees. That was opposed by various government agencies that were concerned that Iraq was diverting money towards buying weapons but the White House overruled them. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 Washington immediately denied anything was ever wrong with this program and claimed it never helped arm Iraq. Congressional and criminal investigations revealed the extent of America’s backing for Iraq and how the Bush White House tried to hide what it did. The book shows how two U.S. governments manipulated the rules, ignored abuses and then launched a systematic effort to cover up what it did. William Barr who was the Attorney General at the end of the Bush administration and also for President Trump was at the center of the disinformation campaign.


The one main problem with Spider’s Web was that Friedman often provided too much information and didn’t know how to edit himself. For example, while discussing an American company that provided technology to build cluster bombs for Iraq the author goes on a long tangent about how the firm also illegally worked with South Africa facilitated by the CIA. The story takes up half a chapter and was completely unnecessary since it had nothing to do with Iraq. When Friedman gets into all the criminal investigations into companies doing deals with Iraq he falls into similar problems. 


The fact that the United States supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War is well known. Most histories write about how the Reagan administration for instance, provided intelligence to Baghdad to fight the Iranians. Friedman fills in more of that story by covering how the U.S. helped other countries sell weapons to Iraq and then provided millions of dollars in credit some of which was used for Baghdad’s WMD, nuclear and missile programs. Then when Iraq became a foe in 1990 Washington tried to deny everything especially the fact that it armed Saddam. The first half of the book is more interesting as it goes into all the different ways the Reagan and Bush administrations tried to aid Iraq. The second half is about the cover up and various investigations and sometimes gets lost in the details as Friedman couldn’t seem to hold back on everything that he discovered during his research. Still, Spider’s Web is a good read because it’s about part of the U.S.-Iraq relationship which is rarely talked about.


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