July 29, 2003

Wolfowitz Spins the Aftermath
by Alan Bock

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, back from a whirlwind tour of Iraq, spent Sunday morning spinning the increasingly troubling aftermath of the war and occupation of Iraq. Seeking to defuse such news as that 13 Americans died during the seven days ending Saturday, he said, according to the AP, that Americans understand (or should come to understand) that "Iraq is now the central battle in the war on terrorism." Acknowledging that "Any American death is a terrible thing," Wolfowitz went on to say on Fox News Sunday that "I think the American public understands that when you're fighting a war against terrorists, when you're fighting for the security of this country, that sacrifice is something that you'd have to expect."

Well, maybe the American public or at least a preponderance of the American public (whoever is included in that overbroad term) is ready for more "sacrifice" from the sons and daughters of people they don't know personally. And if Iraq really is anything even remotely resembling the "central battle in the war on terrorism," many Americans will be patient with a continuing flow of body bags and news of attacks that wound rather than kill Americans. The question is whether any of this is really so.

QUESTIONING THE PREMISES

Leave aside the really difficult questions, such as whether "declaring war" (without troubling oneself to go through the constitutionally prescribed procedures for declaring war or defining what would constitute victory, but simply declaring that a war of indeterminate character and duration is under way) on something called "terrorism" is really the best way to reduce the vulnerability of Americans here and abroad to terrorist attacks. More immediate questions are susceptible to more concrete answers, few if any of which support Mr. Wolfowitz's assertions that the ongoing occupation is seriously reducing the vulnerability of ordinary Americans.

Is Iraq in any way central to that ongoing anti-terrorist or counter-terrorist conflict? Was Iraq involved in sponsoring or facilitating terrorism before the invasion? Did the ongoing existence of Saddam Hussein's regime in fact contribute to the danger Americans faced from terrorist acts? Are Americans perhaps more vulnerable to terrorist threats now that our government has ousted Saddam's regime and is running things in Iraq? Will continuing occupation and continuing sacrifices from Americans in and out of uniform really "make our children and grandchildren safer," as Mr. Wolfowitz asserted?

I think the evidence suggests that almost all the premises Mr. Wolfowitz used to justify ongoing sacrifices and tolerance for sacrifices are false, or at least highly dubious.

WHAT TERRORIST CONNECTION?

The American media and Congress have focused rather narrowly on confident-sounding assertions from the president and other administration spokesmen on the near-certainty that Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction" at his beck and call, and particularly on the 16 words about Saddam trying to get "yellowcake" uranium from Africa that made their way into Dubya's State of the Union address this year. That is perhaps understandable. Sometimes it is easier to focus on a narrow topic that is (one may hope) representative of the larger problem, get some understanding about that topic, and use that understanding to question the larger problems that attended the build-up to the war.

In other words, the exaggeration or forgetfulness about the dubious quality of the intelligence (let's be kind) about the yellowcake uranium was far from the most egregious exaggeration administration spokespersons committed. But the questionable character of the information has been fairly authoritatively established, not by wild-eyed critics of the war but by respected American intelligence experts. So if it is established that the administration overdid it or lied about this one issue that is not that tough to understand, perhaps the public will come to question other aspects of the prewar propaganda campaign.

One danger, of course, is that a simple taking of responsibility (without resigning, of course; those days of relative honor seem the stuff of nostalgic and perhaps embellished memory) by a National Security Council underling will defuse the issue sufficiently that the public will simply lose interest in the entire somewhat convoluted subject. It's too early to say whether that will happen in this case, but the administration has been working overtime to make this relatively small part of the big picture go away in the public consciousness.

Another danger of focusing on a relatively small, although fairly easily-understood aspect of the case made for the war is that other, perhaps more important, aspects will fall by the wayside. In this case, the links between Saddam Hussein and active anti-American terrorism, so confidently asserted by administration flacks during the build-up, deserve, if anything, more attention. The best evidence is that the links were vaporous at best.

Not surprisingly, there seems to have been some contact between Saddam's regime and people who were, or claimed to be, key figures in bin Laden's and other non-state terrorist networks. But the links, at least those dredged up to date, don't seem to have gone much beyond the exploratory level. The notion that Saddam's regime was actively supporting bin Laden or other terrorists, with intelligence-sharing, giving away or selling weapons, or even active advice and cooperation, appears to be the stuff of fantasy.

NO PROOF YET

A succinct case for the importance of continuing to question the elusive purported Saddam-al Qaida link was made last week in a New York Times op-ed by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. Benjamin is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Simon is an analyst at the Rand Corp, and the two are coauthors of The Age of Sacred Terror. Neither of those institutions is known for harboring pacifists, and the two have some claim to expertise about terrorism, of at least a more detailed and concrete character than Mr. Wolfowitz (or I) can claim.

The two wrote that "In the 14 weeks since the fall of Baghdad, coalition forces have not brought to light any significant evidence demonstrating the bond between Iraq and al-Qaida. Uncovering such a link should be much easier than finding weapons of mass destruction. Instead of having to inspect hundreds of suspected weapons sites, military and intelligence officials need only comb through the files of Iraq's intelligence agency and a handful of other government ministries.

"Our intelligence experts have been doing exactly that since April, and so far there has been no report of any proof (and we can assume that any supporting information would have quickly been publicized). Of the more than 3,000 Qaida operatives arrested around the world, only a handful of prisoners in Guantanamo all with an incentive to please their captors have claimed there was cooperation between Osama bin Laden's organization and Saddam's regime, and their remarks have yet to be confirmed by any of the high-ranking Iraqi officials now in American hands."

CONFIRMING THE CRITICS

So it is turning out, as seems to be the case in an increasing number of cases, that those who questioned the war during the build-up and propaganda phase, were closer to correct about the likelihood of a Saddam-al-Qaida connection than were the warhawks.

Critics (and I was far from the only one), you may remember, noted that Saddam's regime was a putatively secularist regime, while al Qaida's leaders, at least for purposes of recruitment and possibly quite sincerely, traded on being adherents of an especially strict (and probably incorrect, but leave that aside for now) interpretation of Islam and motivated by religious belief. So while it was more than possible that there had been some exploration of some areas of working together on some projects in a kind of marriage of convenience, the likelihood of ongoing close cooperation was rather slight. The warhawks seldom even pretended to produce concrete evidence, usually contenting themselves with rhetorical flourishes like "How will you feel if the 'smoking gun' is a nuclear attack on New York City?"

It is now becoming increasingly apparent that the skeptics and critics had the best of it. In fact, Benjamin and Simon wrote last week, "most new reports concerning al-Qaida and Iraq have been of another nature. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, the two highest-ranking Qaida operatives in custody, have told investigators that bin Laden shunned cooperation with Saddam. A U.N. team investigating global ties of the bin Laden group reported last month that they found no evidence of a Qaida-Iraq connection.

"In addition, one Central Intelligence official told the Washington Post that a review panel of retired intelligence operatives put together by the agency found that although there were ties among individuals in the two camps, 'it was not at all clear there was any coordination or joint activities.' And Rand Beers, the senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council who resigned earlier this year, has said that on the basis of the intelligence he saw, he did not believe there was a significant relationship between Saddam and al-Qaida."

Indeed, Benjamin and Simon go a little farther. Analysts have noted repeatedly that al-Qaida, as it seemed to exist prior to 9/11 (and one must confess that knowledge is partial and imperfect) resembled not so much the classic instrument of state-sponsored terrorism as something like a private global multinational corporation or operation. It was financed in part by bin Laden's personal fortune and in part by revenue-raising activities like smuggling drugs and weapons, and perhaps by more conventional business enterprises, and hardly at all by subsidies from states or their leaders.

This may well have been in part because bin Laden did not want to be too beholden to any single state (and seemed to view most state leaders as impure scoundrels). But it might also have been because states were getting out of that business.

Benjamin and Simon write that "For years now the world's leading state sponsors of terrorism have had no confidence that they could carry out attacks against the United States undetected. That is why this brand of terrorism has been on the wane.

"After it became clear to Libya that the United States could prove its responsibility for the 1988 attacks on Pan Am 103 and U.N. sanctions were imposed it got out of the business of supporting attacks on Americans. After American and Kuwaiti intelligence traced a plot to kill former President George Bush in 1993 to Baghdad, the Iraqi regime also stopped trying to carry out terrorist attacks against America. And when the Clinton administration made clear that it knew Iran was behind the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, Tehran ceased plotting terrorist strikes against American interests."

Benjamin and Simon go so far as to write that "Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and some 20 other countries with chemical and biological weapons have never, so far as we know, given one to terrorists." This statement is susceptible to disproof by even one case, of course, but even if a single case emerges it is a striking situation. In the 1980s various regimes were fairly actively working with or sponsoring terrorist organizations. Now, except for sponsoring or subsidizing various Palestinian groups, they aren't, at least not actively, against American interests.

This isn't because they have turned into nice guys who don't wish the United States harm, of course. It's because the United States and the United Nations have been able to track down evidence of state-sponsored terrorism and make the sponsors pay dearly, and because circumstances have changed. Perhaps there is even an advantage in operating as a quasi-private network independent of any state sponsors.

MAKING MATTERS WORSE?

The evidence unearthed to date, then, suggests very strongly that in attacking Iraq the United States was not even close to neutralizing anything like an imminent threat that Saddam's regime would foment more terrorist attacks. Instead it was waging a preventive (not pre-emptive) war against a potential threat that was not in fact very potential.

It is possible, however, that waging the war has made the threat of terrorist activity against the United States more likely. For starters, the war has informed all and sundry that the United States doesn't care whether there's ironclad proof of a state-terror connection before acting. It is more than willing to attack a country even when its own best intelligence suggests that there is no connection.

If that's the case, what advantage accrues to a country that wishes the U.S. ill but refrains from terrorism? Some may conclude that since a U.S. attack is independent of sponsorship of terrorism, they might as well go back to sponsoring a little meantime working to acquire nuclear weapons, the possession of which seems to be a more predictive factor in whether the United States will attack or negotiate.

It is also possible that the U.S. occupation of Iraq will motivate an increasing number of attacks. There has already been some evidence that some of the guerrilla fighters who have been harassing U.S. troops in Iraq have infiltrated from other countries, and some of those foreign fighters may in fact be connected to terrorist networks. The longer the occupation continues, the more likely it is that it will fuel resentment in Iraq as well as other Arab and/or Muslim countries resentment that can be exploited by terrorist leaders seeking to recruit new members or motivate existing members to carry out extremely violent or dangerous missions.

The counter-scenario, of course, is that over time the occupation will do so well at building a responsive democracy and a sense of well-being in Iraq that other Muslim countries will be inspired to follow suit and terrorist organizations will dry up in the face of universal contentment with and admiration for American leadership. This is a possible scenario, but one that seems increasingly unlikely. I suggest that a better way to defuse the danger of terrorism against the United States would be to announce a new policy of withdrawing U.S. troops from overseas, refocusing on continental defense, and dealing with the rest of the world through trade rather than troop movements.

When that option is seriously on the table, we'll be on the way to constructing an efficacious anti-terrorism policy. Until it is, I would suggest that we're treading water at best.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

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