While I generally concur with Middle East Quarterly editor Michael Rubin’s contention that journalist Roxani Saberi was “a target of convenience, arrested to make a diplomatic statement” by the Iranian regime against the United States, Rubin’s presentation of the history of the U.S.-Iran-Iraq relationship commits a serious sin of omission.
Rubin asserts that “throughout the 1980s, foreign-policy ‘realists’ in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, as well as a bipartisan array of congressmen and senators, sought to engage Saddam Hussein, calling the Iraqi president a moderate and a bulwark against Islamism.” Rubin means to warn against what he sees as similarly misconceived attempts to engage Iran, whose regime Rubin believes to be irretrievably hostile to the United States.
In reality, though it was not just “realists” who sought to engage with Saddam against Iran, but neoconservatives as well, including, notably, Michael Rubin’s employer Daniel Pipes, the founder and president of Middle East Forum and publisher of the Middle East Quarterly.
Writing in the New Republic in 1987 (“Back Iraq” pdf), Pipes and co-author Laurie Mylroie called for greater U.S. support for Iraq in almost precisely the terms that Rubin imputes to “realists” — as a bulwark against Iran. Though Pipes recognized that Saddam had “a history of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, support for terrorism and friendliness toward the Soviet Union,” Pipes claimed that “the Iranian revolution and seven years of bloody and inconclusive warfare have changed Iraq’s view of its Arab neighbors, the United States, and even Israel…Iraq is now the de facto protector of the regional status quo.”
It’s important to understand here that Pipes was arguing within the “authoritarian vs. revolutionary” framework established by neoconservative elder — and Iraq war skeptic — Jeanne Kirkpatrick in her seminal essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”
Like many others, Daniel Pipes turned out to be wrong about the stabilizing role that a mass-murdering dictator like Saddam Hussein could play in the Middle East. Pipes is somewhat unique, however, in that he was also eventually wrong about the salutary effects of removing Saddam. But Rubin has to ignore all of this in order to set up the “realists” as the villains of his story.