The Case Weakens, the Plot Thickens

White House officials have said that the space shuttle disaster will not slow down or alter the president’s plans on war with Iraq. That’s defensible, of course – or it would be if the war itself were defensible. While the loss of the space shuttle and the seven people on it commanded great attention (and ludicrously overdone media coverage), it is not directly related to the question of whether the United States should invade Iraq. A case could be made that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put some substantive decisions on hold for a decent interval while Americans process their sadness, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

What’s fascinating about the ongoing rush to war is that the U.S. government does not seem to feel constrained to present evidence that Iraq poses a real or imminent danger either to the United States or to its neighbors. The appalling people who lead us still seem to think that it is enough to solidify the case that Saddam Hussein is a nasty and brutal man who doesn’t cooperate fully with mandates imposed on him by the United Nations. If pressed they will probably admit that the world is full of nasty and brutal dictators whose removal might well benefit the countries they misrule. But the case against Saddam is not that he is more of a real threat to the United States or to world peace (whatever that is) but that he is uniquely nasty and brutal.

It’s a tough case to make as a reason to invade a country, and the United States is not making it very well.


Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who seems to have gone over to the dark side, admits in his op-ed for the war-friendly Wall Street Journal that he has no "smoking gun" even about the existence of weapons of mass destruction to present to the United Nations on Wednesday. He only promises "a straightforward, sober and compelling demonstration that Saddam is concealing the evidence of his weapons of mass destruction, while preserving the weapons themselves."

Although Sec. Powell doesn’t in his article promise solid evidence of an Iraqi-al Qaida link, news stories suggest that evidence will be offered that, as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage put it, "Al Qaida is harbored, to some extent, in Iraq." President Bush has stated flatly that Iraq works with al Qaida, as has Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Perhaps this week we will find out if there is any evidence for such assertions. So far, despite the best efforts of the CIA and Israeli intelligence and a full-court press from Britain’s MI-6, apparently no evidence of such collaboration has been found.

The claim is inherently unlikely but the politicians don’t seem to mind a bit of a stretch. The Ba’athist regime Saddam Hussein runs in Iraq is explicitly secular, the kind of regime Islamic fundamentalist radicals like those in al Qaida find particularly distasteful. While al Qaida directs most of its hostility to the United States and "the West," it has enough left over to dislike secular Arab regimes for their lack of allegiance to its narrow visions of "true Islam." There have been fundamentalist-inspired rebel movements in Morocco, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and every nominally secularist Arab regime spends at least some of its time worrying about (and often rather actively repressing) the fundamentalists in their midsts.

That doesn’t mean there might not have been some contacts between al Qaida or al Qaida-like groups and some people in the Iraqi government. But the major "evidence" trotted out so far has to do with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian wounded in Afghanistan, who may be hiding out or even operating some kind of organization in the northern part of Iraq controlled by the Kurds. The other figure sometimes mentioned is Mullah Krekar, also sheltering in Kurdish Iraq, who has explicitly denied he has ties to al Qaida and who has not been arrested despite some interviews with the FBI.

The key point about both these characters is that they are harbored in Kurdish northern Iraq, which has managed to work out an informal arrangement resembling semi-autonomy with Saddam’s regime in Baghdad. That’s part of the reason that while the Kurds are likely to go along with American invasion plans if and when they come to fruition, they haven’t been notably enthusiastic.

The main point, however, is that Saddam Hussein doesn’t really control the Kurdish regions. The fact that some al-Qaida-linked terrorists might be hiding out there – and apparently there’s also some evidence that al Qaida forces fleeing Afghanistan have crossed through Kurdish territory on their way to other Mideastern countries – is hardly evidence that Saddam himself is "harboring" or helping them. It might even be evidence that it is his political foes in Iraq who are harboring the terrorists. Or it might be evidence that the Kurdish semi-autonomous quasi-government doesn’t have real control over some of the more remote reaches of "its" territory and has made a prudential decision to tolerate encampments of terrorists for now.

Perhaps Secretary Powell will come up with something more compelling on Wednesday. But if all he has is al Qaida folks in Kurdish regions, he doesn’t have anything resembling a real Iraqi-al Qaida connection. And, of course – again, barring a real surprise – all the various intelligence services have not been able to develop anything like a credible link between the Iraqi regime and the 9/11 suicide attackers.

The other main contention of U.S. officials – Armitage again – is that Saddam Hussein has mobile biological weapons labs that can be and are moved regularly. There’s also a contention, which might or might not be based on satellite imaging, that the U.S. has evidence that the Iraqis have been moving things out of the back doors of some of the sites UN weapons inspectors have targeted, just before the inspectors arrived. There’s also concern that the regime still has lots of anthrax.


All of these contentions and numerous others provide evidence that Saddam Hussein runs a particularly nasty regime whose elimination from the face of the earth would cause few paroxysms of weeping among decent people. But do they add up to a legitimate reason for a country that likes to talk about liberal democratic values and respect for the rule of law to attack Iraq?

The kind of strike envisioned by U.S. leaders would not be a pre-emptive strike – which can be justified in some cases by an imminent or clear-and-present-danger threat of a military or other aggressive kind of strike by the country in question. It would, instead, still be the waging of a "preventive" war, justified not by recent or imminent attacks or threats by Iraq, but by the possibility that, if the country really did acquire the weapons we fear it is trying to acquire, it might do something aggressive or dangerous with them.

But despite the attempt to make UN resolutions (which every country in the world, including the United States, has ignored at various times) a legitimate reason to consider a war a response, a U.S. attack on Iraq would clearly make the United States the aggressor. Whether it would be viewed as setting a precedent that other countries could follow if they felt vaguely threatened, or viewed as a prerogative only the United States, as the sole superpower, could avail itself of, it would be a bad precedent.

Although it hasn’t always acted that way, the United States has until very recently wanted to view itself as a guarantor of peace, as a country that acts only defensively and responds to aggression rather than initiating it. The fact that our leaders have so blithely put that apparently naive view of our role in the world behind us to assert that we will attack anywhere, anytime, whenever we feel it is in our interests (and the interests of "peace" and "freedom," of course) to do so suggests a sea-change in America’s view of itself.

Perhaps Americans have fully processed this change in worldview and support it heartily – although even polls that show solid support for war with Iraq suggest qualms and hesitation among an increasing number of Americans. If so, we’re in for a rocky time ahead. This country can probably invade Iraq and defeat it militarily, but then what? Will we have to occupy it for years or decades? How long before the public loses interest? How will we deal with revolts against imperial ukases? Will Iraq be only the first step in a program to remake the Middle East through military action against Syria, Iran and eventually Saudi Arabia, the pervasive wet dream of certain neoconservatives?

The Iraq option has long been a staple of certain defense intellectuals, as they are sometimes called, and 9/11 gave them the opportunity to push it. But in some ways the support, both active and passive, might represent a reversion to what seems known and comfortable in light of a set of confusing and frightening circumstances our leaders really don’t understand – a misdiagnosis in short.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon plunged us into – or announced that we had been in – an essentially revolutionary conflict conducted and coordinated mainly by non-state entities like al Qaida and smaller groups around the world, apparently affiliated only loosely with one another and hardly at all with conventional nation-states. That is a kind of conflict people in the State Department and Defense Department don’t understand or especially want to understand – only in part because it suggests that their skills and knowledge might just be irrelevant or useless in this kind of revolutionary-guerrilla-unconventional-propaganda-driven era of conflict.

So they have fallen back to what they think they understand, what feels comfortable, what they believe to be a known quantity – a conventional military war against a conventional nation-state that can be properly demonized. It doesn’t seem to matter that such a war is unlikely to eliminate terrorism, or that it might well increase terrorist activity or make it more likely that Saddam will use chemical or biological weapons.

To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. A conventional war looks like something they know how to do, whether or not it is the right thing to do given the circumstances.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).