In a Thursday appearance on Fox News, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) invoked a familiar Republican trope by saying that the United States would never be in the situation it finds itself in regarding Syria if Ronald Reagan was the current U.S. president. Ironically, as pointed out by Think Progress, the historical record shows that when then-ally Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqi Kurds, Reagan and his advisors turned a blind eye, which is exactly what Ros-Lehtinen claims the former president would never have countenanced.
The Florida Republican was criticizing President Barack Obama for not being more aggressive against the Assad regime when she invoked the spirit of President Reagan.
"It is against the norms of international standards and to let something like this go unanswered, I think will weaken our resolve," she said of Assad's alleged use of sarin gas against rebel strongholds in Damascus. "I know that President Reagan would have never let this happen. He would stand up to this. And President Obama — the only reason he is consulting with Congress, he wants to blame somebody for his lack of resolve. We have to think like President Reagan would do and he would say chemical use is unacceptable."
One of the only known uses of chemical nerve agents in modern warfare was during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Still angry with Iran in the wake of the 1979 hostage crisis, the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein and his majority-Sunni government against Shi'ite majority Iran. On multiple occasions during that ongoing conflict, Saddam used chemical weapons not just against Iranian civilians and troops, but against the rebel Kurds in Iraq's northern territories.
Foreign Policy magazine noted earlier this summer that not only did the U.S. turn a blind eye to the Iraqi regime's deployment of non-conventional weapons, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided satellite imagery of Iranian troop movements to Hussein.
"In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq's war with Iran," wrote Foreign Policy's Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, "the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent."
The Reagan administration also stood by and did nothing during the Al-Anfal campaign, the chemical raids Hussein launched against the Kurdish north in 1989. More than 100,000 men, women and children died in a campaign that Human Rights Watch now calls a "genocide."
[image of skull from mass grave in Kurdish northern Iraq via Flickr Creative Commons]