Yet another book on the arming of Saddam Husayn? What else is there to learn about "Iraqgate" that hasn't already come out? The short answer is, very little-at least, not here. Phythian's main thesis in Arming Iraq is very familiar: the United States and the United Kingdom built Saddam's war machine and then conspired to cover-up the tracks when it became too embarrassing. There is voluminous evidence on the public record, much of which Phythian has reviewed, to document the U.S. and British roles in building up Saddam's war machine. But in his effort to prove his central thesis, Phythian misses the larger picture, for German companies were by far the greatest supporter of Saddam Husayn's unconventional weapons programs. To write an account of the arming of Iraq that only parenthetically mentions the German contribution is at best partial.
Phythian focuses on the Scott Commission report, a 5-volume official report issued in February 1996 that investigates British exports to Iraq. The report lays out in new and astonishing detail the ambiguous and often contradictory role of Britain's Special Intelligence Services in monitoring Iraq's arms and technology procurement networks. By far the most interesting revelations of this book involve the strange persecution of the directors of a British munitions firm, Astra Holdings Plc. The company's directors were fired and then arrested for having launched an internal investigation into potentially illegal arms sales to Iran and Iraq by corporate subsidiaries.
Perhaps because he is an academic and not a journalist, Phythian has been unable to discern what is "news" in the Scott Report and what is rehash; and his account includes some pretty silly conclusions. For example, he assumes that the Boskop munitions plant in South Africa was packing shells "apparently for use with the British-built FH-70 howitzer" that ended up in Iraq via Saudi Arabia. There was nothing "apparent" about the operation - that plant was explicitly churning out munitions for Iraq.1 Nor does Phythian review how the mistakes of arming Iraq might have been applied in recent years to Iran, Syria, or China. Despite the hue and cry about learning "the lessons of Iraq," the Western willingness to build up weapons capabilities in these three countries bears all the hallmarks of the Iraqi experience.
1 In early 1985, I visited the Boskop plant, which is in a suburb of Soweto, and saw pallets of munitions en route to Baghdad. I also interviewed the head of Armscor, Piet Marais, who acknowledged the Iraqi G-5 deal. The visit is recounted in my book The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991, pp. 170-172). Phythian repeatedly refers to my book in his footnotes but he either missed this section or wilfully disregarded it in an effort to buttress his central argument that the U.S. and the British governments were primarily responsible for arming Iraq.