Wrong Again: Republican Claims Reagan Would Not Ignore Chemical Weapons Attack – But He Did

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Republicans’ delusional mythologizing of Ronald Reagan made its way into the debate over Syria this week when Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen claimed on Fox News that Reagan would have never stood by while chemical weapons were used:

“It is against the norms of international standards and to let something like this go unanswered, I think will weaken our resolve,” [Ros-Lehtinen] said of [Syrian dictator Bashar al-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.”

Like the Republican myths that Reagan reduced government spending (actually, spending is lower under Pres. Obama than under Reagan or either of the Bushes), never raised taxes (he did, at least seven times in eight years) and abhorred deficits (as Dick Cheney once said,” Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter”), Ros-Lehitenen’s claim is just flat wrong.

The journal Foreign Policy reported last month that Reagan had advance knowledge that Saddam Hussein, then a U.S. ally, was deploying chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war:

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, 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 intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed. But they were also the last in a series of chemical strikes stretching back several years that the Reagan administration knew about and didn’t disclose.

U.S. officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks, insisting that Hussein’s government never announced he was going to use the weapons. But retired Air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew,” he told Foreign Policy.

According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials like Francona, the U.S. had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were carried out on its forces, and was building a case to present to the United Nations. But it lacked the evidence implicating Iraq, much of which was contained in top secret reports and memoranda sent to the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S. government. The CIA declined to comment for this story.