Digging through my archives of “Tony Karon Weblog” emailings, I came across this gem sent out on December 14, 2002. Re-reading it reminds me of how clear it was, even then, that the Weapons of Mass Destruction case for invading Iraq was bogus, and that the “liberal hawk” case for supporting the invasion as an exercise in exporting democracy was equally mired in delusional fantasy.
The Evidence Gap
As things stand, the Bush administration is looking increasingly unlikely to get UN authorization to go to war with Iraq for the simple reason that Baghdad is complying with the new inspection regime, putting the onus on the U.S. and Britain to come up with evidence of prohibited weapons activity that can be verified by the inspectors. And the U.S. has made clear that it doesn’t have such specific nuggets of evidence, and that its case is based on circumstantial evidence derived from putting together tips from defectors with satellite imagery, procurement records etc. That’s why, for now, they’re focusing on the fact that Iraq has again failed to account for Gulf War mustard gas shells etc. that had been left unaccounted for after the last UN mission. Still, a skeptical Security Council is unlikely to be convinced in the absence of forensic evidence, and London and Washington are already preparing the public for the possibility that none may be revealed.
Saddam is well aware of this, of course, basing his strategy on maximizing divisions among his enemies and isolating Washington from potential allies. (Bush operates from the principle, echoing Stalin during his 1928-33 “left turn,” that “Those who are not with us are against us.” Saddam and bin Laden, separately of course, are basing their own strategies on the principle that “Those who are not against us are with us,” i.e. doing everything they can to neutralize potential opponents and keep them out of the American camp. And frankly, the Bush administration is playing into his hands with the way it’s approaching this thing.)
The al-Qaeda Chestnut
Both sides, though, seem to accept that a war is inevitable. And if the inspections won’t create a pretext, other means will be found. Enter the Washington Post, this week (12/11/02), with a lede that might have been culled from a Saturday Night Live skit:
“The Bush administration has received a credible report that Islamic extremists affiliated with al Qaeda took possession of a chemical weapon in Iraq last month or late in October, according to two officials with firsthand knowledge of the report and its source. If the report proves true, the transaction marks two significant milestones. It would be the first known acquisition of a nonconventional weapon other than cyanide by al Qaeda or a member of its network. It also would be the most concrete evidence to support the charge, aired for months by President Bush and his advisers, that al Qaeda terrorists receive material assistance in Iraq. If advanced publicly by the White House, the report could be used to rebut Iraq’s assertion in a 12,000-page declaration Saturday that it had destroyed its entire stock of chemical weapons.”
“If,” indeed. The report is more than a little bizarro, claiming that the group responsible is a tiny al-Qaeda linked (who isn’t, these days, in the world of militant Islam?) group based in a single Palestinian refugee camp Lebanon, Asbat al-Ansar, who had supposedly established themselves in an enclave in Iraqi Kurdistan. Journalists covering Iraqi Kurdistan say this is simply rubbish. The group in Kurdistan is Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist Iraqi Kurdish faction with some links to al Qaeda and unclear relations with Iraq and Iran.
Even if you read to the bottom of the Post story you’ll see that U.S. defense and intelligence officials pooh-pooh the claims, some speculating that the W Post’s source got the wrong end of the stick after reading a hypothetical scenario described in an internal Pentagon communication. “Knowledgeable officials, speaking without White House permission, said information about the transfer came from a sensitive and credible source whom they declined to discuss.” Now that’s a scoop.
Massaging the Media
Reading this stuff reminds me of recent remarks by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld regarding the Office of Strategic Influence. Remember, that was the Pentagon program designed to secretly intervene in the media to influence public opinion in support of whatever the Pentagon was up to at the time – and the idea was dropped after a firestorm of criticism in February. Except, as Rusmfeld said two weeks ago, they’ve dropped the title but have continued the program: “And then there was the Office of Strategic Influence. You may recall that,” he told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “And ‘oh my goodness gracious isn’t that terrible, Henny Penny the sky is going to fall.’ I went down that next day and said fine, if you want to savage this thing fine I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.”
Not that the media needs much massaging. They’re ready to run just about anything that maintains the momentum of their “Countdown Iraq” type threads. Because hey, that’s what gets people tuning in.
A Feith-Based Initiative
The Bush administration’s “evidence gap” on Iraqi WMD and the efforts to revive the Iraq-al Qaeda link despite that notion being pooh-poohed by the CIA after extensive investigation, is a reminder of the new intelligence order the Likudniks have built in the Pentagon. Disturbed that the CIA was failing to harmonize with the hawks’ war cries, Wolfowitz’s deputy, Douglas Feith (who, like Richard Perle, also served as a political adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996) set up a parallel intelligence structure in the Pentagon, which quizzed their pals in the Iraqi exile community and combined their tips with raw data gleaned from other U.S. intel sources, reporting straight to the President. But these are the people, remember, who after 9/11 immediately put out the word to their operatives (as reported by CBS) to link it all to Iraq, whether or not there was any evidence of any real connections.
Al Qaeda’s Take
The al-Qaeda game plan, of course, is not a short term one or simply tactical (in the sense of doing as much physical damage as possible). As Paul Rogers notes in a perceptive piece (with some great insights on question of its relations with the Palestinians and with Iraq), “al Qaeda is specifically interested in inciting greater U.S. and western military action anywhere in the Islamic world. It is not expecting to defeat the United States in the short term. Quite the contrary–it positively seeks an increased confrontation as a means of greatly increasing support for both its medium- and longer-term aims.” Right now the U.S. strategy is based almost exclusively on pursuing al-Qaeda’s organizational structures and picking off its operatives. But it’s doing very little to address the political climate in its theaters of operation, which has become even friendlier to Al Qaeda in the year since 9/11 because of the way U.S. actions are perceived.
The Liberal Hawk Fallacy
Never mind the presence or absence of weapons of mass destruction, say the self-styled “liberal hawks” – the best reason for invading Saddam Hussein is that he’s a horrible dictator who tortures and butchers his own people. The arguments in this respect are summed up in last Sunday’s Times (12/08/04) magazine by George Packer
He interviews various (current and former) liberals and lefties who’re now backing the war. Most laughable, predictably, is Christopher Hitchens with his Patton swagger and his plans for a Valentine’s Day tipple with Iraqi “comrades” in Baghdad: “So you want to be a martyr? I’m here to help…” Orwell morphs into Flashman and puts to flight the Mohammedan legions…
Packer attributes this swing in the liberal mood to Bosnia, and the idea of military intervention in pursuit of good. Frankly, I think the traumatic impact of 9/11 may have more to do with it, bringing to the surface the inner-Rumsfeld of a lot of (mostly male) liberals – Alan Dershowitz suggesting U.S. judges being empowered to order the fingernails of suspects to be pulled out, that sort of thing…
The idea that the best reason for going to war in Iraq is to overthrow the noxious Saddam and replace him with a democracy is simply wishful thinking. Democracy has never been the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy, and to imagine the Bush administration as a kind of Lincoln Brigade of selfless internationalists going out to fight the good fight is simply delusional. These are the same people who helped empower Saddam Hussein in the 80s – Rumsfeld was Reagan’s point man in cutting deals with him.
Washington is suddenly demanding democracy throughout the Arab world and lambasting its own client regimes for their failures on this account. Everything they say about democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia, Egypt etc. is true. What they’re not saying, of course, is why they have done everything necessary to keep such regimes in place for decades, and when one fell (in Iran) under the weight of its own corruption and violent authoritarianism, the Bush types regard their failure to quickly restore the despotic Shah as one of Jimmy Carter’s greatest crimes. Democracy in the Arab world is a very good idea, but is the U.S. prepared to tolerate democracy when they don’t like the choices made by electorates? Are they prepared to accept the Muslim Brotherhood as the government of Egypt or Jordan? Are they prepared to accept Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves being in the hands of a government hostile to U.S. interests? Obviously not. And that’s the reason democracy has never been a priority in Washington’s dealings with the Arab world. (No matter how democratic they are at home, empires very rarely reproduce that democracy in their satellites abroad, for obvious reasons.)
Jonathan Raban, in the Guardian, offers a perceptive [we might now add "prescient" -- ed.] piece on the history of Western nation-building in Arab lands, and warns that the same mistakes are about to be repeated.
But in the scenario outlined by Packer, the argument is sealed by the introduction of a certain Kanan Makiya, self-styled philosopher king of the Iraqi opposition who berates liberal skeptics that they have a moral obligation to support a war because most Iraqis want it and it’s their only chance of ousting Saddam. But who is this Kanan Makiya and does he speak for ordinary Iraqis? Edward Said paints him as a cynical opportunist with no standing in Iraq or anywhere else in the Arab world, and skewers his basic arguments for war: [Link no longer available -- ed.]
And Sinaan Antoon, an Iraqi doctoral candidate in Arab literature at Harvard, points out that Makiya has become the favorite “native critic” of Washington hawks, making it all the more important that Iraqis hold him accountable for things he says in their name. [ibid.]
Republic of Fear
All of this, of course, may soon become moot. The forces will be in place in February to mount an invasion, and if Karl Rove approves, the UN may be simply discarded. A tough call for Rove, since polls are still finding some 55 percent of Americans preferring UN authorization – then again, a few Qaeda-Iraq link stories could swing that. Indeed, I think the reason we’re even contemplating this scenario right now is to be found in the central thesis of Michael Moore’s new film “Bowling for Columbine” – that fear is the primary organizing principle of contemporary American political culture. The 10 o’clock news is all about things that could kill you – microbes living in sponges, lysteria in your ground beef, out-of-control young black men or terrorists spreading smallpox… This is not just an episode, but a consistent thread that I’ve noticed throughout the decade that I’ve been here. Domestically its all moral panic; internationally it’s the Threat of the Month Club. It’s lampooned in Saturday Night Live and South Park (check out their Christmas episode which has the kids joining Christ and Santa in a Special Forces raid to bring Christmas cheer to Baghdad), but I think it’s deeply rooted. And it allows the likes of Bush not only to scare Americans into wars, but also to distract them from the more immediate and politically-challenging fears induced by the recession.