The 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.
Mr. 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.
In 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.
BLURRING THE ISSUE
Technically, 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.
For 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.”
This 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 sources.”
But 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].”
This 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.
I 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.
Ivan 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.”
If 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.
Directly 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.
In 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.
IMPLICATIONS AT THE U.N.
All 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 ago.
President 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 his ground?
Members 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.”
The 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.”
In 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 a constitution.
If 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.
With 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.
The 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.