September 23, 2003
Bush Destroy the Administration Case for War?
by Alan Bock
most plausible reason I could come up with for the curious dance
of denial by top administration officials regarding a direct connection
between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks is that it
was a short-term political effort to defuse Vice President Cheney's
rather extravagant and over-the-top assertions Sunday before last
on "Meet the Press." Here's how it seems to have played out.
Cheney went a little far in pressing the case that Saddam was a
major sponsor of terrorism or a crony of al-Qaida, and the pols
feared another uranium-yellowcake controversy at a time when Bush's
ranking in the polls was already declining. So administration spokespeople
including Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, National Security
Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the president himself made sure that
the message got out that the administration didn't claim there was
a direct link between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks, and never did.
the process, however, they may have found themselves debunking the
last remotely plausible justification they used to sell the American
people on the idea of the invasion of Iraq.
it is true enough, or at least fairly close to the truth, that the
administration, presumably because it had a pretty good idea of
what was really the case, has not directly claimed that Saddam was
involved in the 9/11 attacks. But blurring the situation, implying
that there was a link, or there might be a link, or there might
be a link in the near future if we didn't take Saddam out post-haste,
was a key part of the propaganda onslaught leading up to the war.
example, as Washington journalist James Bovard points out in his
invaluable new book, Terrorism
and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World
of Evil, (the best one-stop source I've seen for what various
officials actually said at various times, suffused with intelligent
analysis) on September 25, 2002, President Bush said, "Al Qaida
hides, Saddam doesn't, but the danger is that they work in concert.
The danger is that al Qaida becomes an extension of Saddam's madness
and his hatred and his capacity to extend weapons of mass destruction
around the world ... You can't distinguish between al Qaida and
Saddam when you talk about the war on terror."
spin was immediately respun by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer,
who said the next day that the president was talking about what
he feared might happen rather than what he thought had already happened.
But it was followed by more blurring from various officials. As
syndicated columnist Tom Teepen put it, "administration officials
spent months suggesting that Saddam was implicated, regularly speaking
of him while denouncing the terrorism and raising fears of more,
clearly implying a link. And when braced directly on the issue,
some – following Vice President Dick Cheney's lead – would pull
a sly face and suggest that to say more would compromise intelligence
Dick Cheney went a bit off the reservation last Sunday, so the administration
apparently decided it was time for a little damage control. So on
Tuesday, in response to a question about whether Saddam was personally
involved in the attack, Secretary Rumsfeld said, "I've not seen
any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that."
On Tuesday night National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice talked
about a threat in "a region from which the 9-11 threat emerged,"
but insisted that "we have never claimed that Saddam Hussein had
either direction or control of 9-11." On Wednesday President Bush
said, "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with
the Sept. 11th [attacks]."
is fascinating. The administration spent months strongly hinting
without quite directly claiming that Saddam had links to the September
11 attacks and that was a big part of the reason for going to war.
It seems to have worked – although they were building on more than
a decade of systematic demonization of Saddam since some polls have
showed 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was involved
in or responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
talked to Jim Bovard to confirm that the administration had never
quite made the clear and explicit link between Saddam and the 9/11
attacks. He pointed me to several instances, chronicled in his book,
where they had strongly implied or walked right up to the edge,
but acknowledged that they had avoided making the alleged link explicit.
Eland, director of the Center
on Peace and Liberty at Oakland's Independent
Institute, told me he thought that last week's flurry of comments
was an attempt at damage control in response to Vice President Dick
Cheney's appearance on "Meet the Press." "Dick Cheney went well
beyond what reputable intelligence people believe in trying to justify
the idea of a close link between Saddam and al-Qaida," Mr. Eland
said. "I think Cheney put the administration in a box and they decided
to nip a possible controversy in the bud."
so, it's a short-term political calculation that could have long-term
damaging implications, especially with President Bush going hat-in-hand
– or at least as close to it s his hubris will allow – to
the United Nations for help in fixing what has turned out to be
a much messier situation in "post-war" Iraq than anybody except
early critics of the war seems to have anticipated.
denying that Saddam had any link to the 9-11 terrorists knocks out
the last justification for the war in Iraq. The United States has
not found chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and even if some
evidence of "programs" turns up, there was no imminent threat to
the United States or Saddam's neighbors. Saddam was no doubt a vicious
ruler, and for some people, that has become justification enough,
but it's an ex post facto justification. The allegedly humanitarian
and friend-of-good-government argument played almost no role during
the propaganda buildup for the war.
short, the impression is again confirmed that the United States
conducted an aggressive war of choice, not necessity, marking a
sharp turn in traditional U.S. policy. We need to remember this
if (when?) warhawks start touting the need to invade another country.
AT THE U.N.
this background will make President Bush's job, already a difficult
one, of convincing the United Nations that it and its member nations
should now rush to pull the American chestnuts out of the fire,
that much more difficult. Those who opposed the war have to feel
even more justified in their stance than they were just a few weeks
Bush will be walking a diplomatic/perceptual tightrope during his
speech before the United Nations General Assembly today. He is seeking
support for a U.N. resolution that would encourage other countries
to provide both money and personnel to help out with the postwar
mess in Iraq. Even as he is insisting that no more U.S. troops are
needed – oh, my goodness, no – he is also insisting that we need
plenty of foreign troops, the more and the quicker the better. But
can he do so without admitting to mistakes or appearing to reverse
of the U.N., especially those that participated actively in preventing
a U.N. resolution of approval just before the beginning of the U.S.
invasion, will want to hear a conciliatory tone, perhaps even a
note of apology or pleading, from the president. But this president
has seldom been inclined to apologize, and it is possible that he
could lose support or prestige with some domestic constituencies
if he appears to be too conciliatory to people who opposed his policies
"when the chips were down."
United States wants help from other countries and approval from
the U.N. during the occupation (and, they still claim, transition
to something reasonably democratic in character), while maintaining
virtually complete control over military and political occupation
policies. France, Germany and other countries who believe they were
dissed when the U.S. went to war without explicit U.N. approval,
want more U.N. control and may be in a position to tell the United
States, in essence, "you broke it, you bought it."
interviews leading up to the speech President Bush was almost condescending,
suggesting, "it would be helpful to get the United Nations in to
help write a constitution. I mean, they're good at that." Like almost
everything else Bush has asserted, this notion is probably inadvertently
wrongheaded as well. The U.N. can do certain things, but it's pretty
much the last institution I or anyone sane would enlist to write
he goes to the U.N. with a "we were right, and we're giving you
a second chance to support us" attitude, he will almost surely fail
to get a satisfactory U.N. resolution. If he sounds a bit conciliatory,
and has a proposal to link handing over some authority to the U.N.
after an effective Iraqi police and judiciary system is established
and violence reduced, he might be able to make a deal.
the unambiguous admission that the justification for war was faulty,
however, he has made his mission even more difficult. The French
and Germans might not snicker in glee openly, this knowledge will
be part of the background of their deliberations.
problem would disappear, of course, if the U.S. announced a speedy
timetable to hand Iraq back to the Iraqis, and let them decide whether
to ask for U.N. help. That, however, may be the least likely prospect.
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