Remember Tareq Aziz, the senior official in Saddam Hussein’s regime who frequently spoke on its behalf to Western audiences? He will soon stand trial in Baghdad, alongside Saddam and other former henchmen. As a mouthpiece for the most brutal regime anywhere in recent history, he deserves no pity.
But consider this: He frequently spoke the plain truth, and if we had listened to him more carefully, we might have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and tragedy in Iraq.
Aziz has long been my favorite “Bolshevik.” His excellent English and methodical presentation enabled him to explain Baathist thinking, essentially the Arab version of a dictatorial secular “socialist” doctrine, cogently to the uninitiated. Apparently because the Christian and Westernized Aziz appeared to be credible, Saddam — who regularly rotated him between high-level positions — seems to have used him to relay important messages to the world at critical moments.
This first became apparent to me in January 1991. Aziz, then foreign minister, was sent by Saddam to Geneva to meet with American Secretary of State James Baker in a last-minute attempt to forestall the American-led invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. That abortive meeting was followed by a press conference at which The Jerusalem Post’s David Makovsky stood up and asked Aziz if Iraq was planning to attack Israel. “If the U.S. attacks us,” Aziz declared slowly and methodically, “we will respond by attacking Israel.”
At the time, there was considerable controversy within Israeli, American and other intelligence circles over the question of Saddam’s possible intentions toward Israel. “Would he or wouldn’t he attack us” was the topic of every news and talk show in Israel, with the pundits generally split in their views. I recall watching Aziz’s performance in Geneva live on television and saying to myself: “That settles the argument. I believe this guy. He has no reason to lie; he knows that by threatening Israel he won’t deter the Americans from attacking Iraq. He sounds credible.”
Needless to say, Aziz’s prediction of coming events in 1991 was accurate. In the course of the first Gulf war, Iraq fired some 41 missiles at Israel.
I recalled this 1991 performance when, in the countdown to the March 2003 American attack on Iraq, Aziz, now deputy prime minister, repeatedly stated to the Western media that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no missiles. “We destroyed them all in compliance with international demands,” he claimed. Once again, his presentation was measured and methodical. Once again, he turned out to be right, this time in the face of massive claims to the contrary — claims that launched a war many in America are beginning to regret.
Indeed, Aziz’s studied denials of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were practically the only factor that caused me, at the time, to question the veracity of assessments by the Israeli, American, British and even French intelligence services to the effect that Saddam continued to possess chemical and biological weapons and had restarted his nuclear weapons program, and that he could still launch a missile or two against Israel.
In the countdown to a war it is easy to argue that there is no room, and no way, to credit the statements of a spokesman for a duplicitous regime, a wily consigliere for an evil dictator. Aziz’s problem was that the regime he represented had lost all credibility.
Yet given what we know today about the tenuous nature of the evidence concerning Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — aluminum tubing that did not fit, forged papers concerning a yellow-cake deal with Niger, mobile biological laboratories that turned out to be innocuous — wasn’t there room to devote a little more attention to what Saddam’s official spokesman was telling us?
Every intelligence analyst worth his or her salt begins the workday by scanning the media, in the knowledge that 90% of the information collected for assessment comes from overt sources. It turns out that Tareq Aziz was one of the best overt sources we had.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org.