July 29, 2003
Spins the Aftermath
by Alan Bock
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."
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
(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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
520 South Murphy Avenue #202 Sunnyvale, CA 94086
Contribute Via our Secure Server Credit Card Donation Form
contributions are tax-deductible