June 7, 2015

Tariq 'Aziz - dead at 79

Tariq 'Aziz in his Ba'th Party uniform

Tariq 'Aziz - dead at 79.

To many Westerners, Tariq 'Aziz was the face of the brutal regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Husayn. His polished demeanor, ability to effectively communicate in English, and the fact that he was a Christian convinced many of his contacts around the world that he might have the ability to provide wise advice and counsel to the Iraqi strongman, and hopefully ameliorate some of Saddam's self-destructive behavior. Foreign politicians believed he could be the voice of reason in an unreasonable regime.

They were wrong. Tariq 'Aziz was a true believer, committed to the cause of Arab Socialist nationalism, a Ba'th Party devotee. He was about as close to Saddam Husayn as anyone outside Saddam's immediate family, and was Saddam's key foreign policy and national security advisor. It was Tariq 'Aziz who deftly attempted to explain some of Saddam Husayn's most egregious actions, including the attack on Iran in 1980 that launched an eight-year long bloodbath, and the 1990 invasion of Kuwait that galvanized the world into action that culminated in the first Gulf War.

Tariq 'Aziz was born Mikhail Yuhanna in 1936 into a Chaldean Christian family in northern Iraq. In the 1950's, after studying English at Baghdad University, he worked as a journalist and became an Arab nationalist. He was an early member of the Iraqi wing of the Ba'th Party, and an early compatriot of Saddam Husayn. After the Ba'th Party came to power in 1968, he rose through the ranks of the party, gaining even more power and influence when Saddam came to power in 1979. At that point, he became the deputy prime minister as well as holding key party positions.

Although every Middle East specialist was keenly aware of Tariq 'Aziz and his role in the Iraqi regime, it was not until 1988 that I first met the deputy prime minister. In late 1987, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) prepared an assessment that postulated that if the Iranians launched an expected annual spring offensive, this time starting from Iraqi territory captured in 1986 south of the key city of al-Basrah, there was a high probability that the Iraqi defenses would collapse and the Iranians would gain the advantage, likely winning the then seven-year long bloody conflict that had devastated both countries.

An Iranian victory was inimical to American national interests in the region. The Department of Defense was instructed by President Ronald Reagan to take whatever actions were necessary to ensure that the Iranians were not victorious in the conflict. An Iraqi victory or defeat was not at issue - the only consideration was to ensure that Iran did not win the war and emerge as the key power broker in the Persian Gulf region.

To that end, DIA was directed to offer to provide intelligence information to the Iraqi armed forces, via the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Such an operation would require the concurrence of Iraqi President Saddam Husayn. Advising Saddam to accept or reject the American offer would have been the ultimate purview of Tariq 'Aziz. 'Aziz was astute enough to realize that if the United States was willing to provide sensitive intelligence to the internationally-despised Iraqi regime, the situation was certainly precarious for Iraq and that Saddam should accept the offer.

It was in this context that I met Tariq 'Aziz. It was a chance meeting, to be sure - he was not disposed to meet with U.S. Air Force captains charged with conducting the program at the operational level. He recognized me in the group of senior Iraqi military intelligence officers as obviously not an Iraqi, and since he had no doubt advised Saddam on the effort, knew why I was in Baghdad. We spoke for a few minutes, with him humoring me by carrying on the conversation in Arabic. I then began to understand why many Western diplomats and politicians were charmed by his easy and warm demeanor.

Flash forward to 2003. Following the fall of Baghdad after the American-led invasion, Tariq 'Aziz - who was the "eight of spades" in the deck of wanted Iraqi officials - surrendered to U.S. forces April 2003. When he surrendered, U.S. Army military police and intelligence specialists searched his home. Part of that search was cataloging all of the books and documents in 'Aziz's office and library.

I was surprised when I received a call from a friend working in the Pentagon's public affairs office - at the time I was working as a military analyst for NBC News (appearing on NBC Nightly News, Today Show, CNBC and MSNBC). The officer told me that in the search of Tariq 'Aziz's home, they made an interesting find - a book entitled Ally to Adversary: An Eyewitness Account of Iraq's Fall from Grace by Rick Francona.

I asked her if it was an autographed or personalized copy - it was a joke. I think I would have remembered signing a copy for Tariq 'Aziz.