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January 15, 2005


by Juan Cole

Sometimes you have to go to the regional newspapers for the punchy editorials. The Pentagon's announcement that the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction officially ended quietly in late December provokes the Virginia Pilot to observe, "And America is left with a seemingly endless war in Iraq, but without a rationale for it."

Well, not the main rationale. But Bush is still spinning the old fool's gold with his privileged lips:

Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post quotes this exchange from the 20/20 to be aired Friday night:

"Barbara Walters: This was our main reason for going in. So now when we read, 'Okay, the search is over,' what do you feel?

"President Bush: Well, like you, I felt like we'd find weapons of mass destruction. Or like many, many here in the United States, many around the world, the United Nations thought he had weapons of mass destruction, and so therefore, one, we need to find out what went wrong in the intelligence gathering. Saddam was dangerous. And . . . the world was safer without him in power.

"Walters: But was it worth it if there were no weapons of mass destruction? Now that we know that that was wrong? Was it worth it?

"Bush: Oh, absolutely."

Bush's response contains three elements.

1) The US was not alone in being wrong about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. All the other nations did, too.

2) Saddam was dangerous.

3) Absolutely.

When is someone going to call him on this inanity? The Belgians didn't have intelligence assets inside Iraq that could have given them an independent view of the question. Whatever the world believed, it mostly believed because the United States disseminated the information.

Moreover, it is not true that there were no dissenters. The State Department's own Intelligence and Research Division dissented. French military intelligence dissented. What Bush is saying is either untrue or meaningless.

As I have pointed out before, Saddam without weapons of mass destruction could not have been "dangerous" to the United States. Just parroting "dangerous" doesn't create real danger. Danger has to come from an intent and ability to strike the US. Saddam had neither. He wasn't dangerous to the US. It is absurd that this poor, weak, ramshackle Third World state should have been seen as "dangerous" to a superpower. That is just propaganda.

Calling Saddam "dangerous" as an existential element without regard to the evidence falls under the propaganda techniques of name-calling and stirring irrational fear.

As for "Absolutely," it is a weasel word. It is not an argument. It is a species of hand waving. It is cheap.

Bush has figured out, apparently, that some in the American public respond, rather like the apes to which they deny they are related, to posture, grunting and body language rather than to reason and evidence. When I see him smirking and gesturing, I can't help thinking of the ape General Thade (Tim Roth) in Tim Burton's remake of the Planet of the Apes, which used scientific findings about primate behavior and hierarchy to inform the acting.

"Absolutely" used in this way is a vocalization that actually functions as an intimidating agonistic display meant to close off further dialogue by the silverback.

What would happen if we turned away from the world of political theater to the real world? We would find a study by the National Intelligence Council which is quite alarming about Iraq and the future.

The National Intelligence Council, the think tank of the CIA, has concluded that Iraq has now succeeded Afghanistan as the training ground for professionalized terrorists.

Much of the terrorism in the Middle East in the 1990s and early zeroes has been carried out by fighters who had assembled to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, got training and became ideologically committed, and then returned to their home countries. The "Afghans" on the streets of Algiers actually wore Afghan clothing (sort of like an American coming back from Scotland and insisting on wearing a kilt), and they joined the vigorous stream of Islamic politics in Algeria. When the generals cancelled the election results of the 1991 parliamentary polls, which the Islamic Salvation Front had won, many Muslim fundamentalists turned radical and got training from the "Afghans." The more radical of them formed the Armed Islamic Group, which joined al-Qaeda in the late 1990s and to which belonged Ahmad Rassam, who tried to blow up Los Angeles International Airport for the Millennium Plot. Similar stories could be told about the Afghanistan returnees in Yemen, Indonesia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so forth.

So, the likelihood is that Bush's Iraq misadventure will be responsible for terrorism that is blowing up our grandchildren down the line.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.


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