War Powers, War Lies: Part 12: Not GWOT

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War Powers, War Lies: A Series

Part 12: Not GWOT

Published in the Maryland Daily Record February 24, 2006 

            As we saw last time, George W. Bush brought to office with him a group of advisors dedicated to deposing Saddam Hussein militarily.  The rationale for their policy was somewhat obscure, but was closely tied to a strategic vision of the United States as a superpower willing to use proactive force to promote American interests and spread American values.  Iraq was to be the template for deployments of this type.  A blunt admission that this was the whole explanation for the invasion of a sovereign nation that had not attacked the United States, however, would have provoked politically undesirable, or even unwithstandable, outrage at home and abroad.  And thus the project of selling war on Iraq was born.

            The sales pitch included the assertion that attacking Iraq was part of what they called the “Global War On Terror,” often abbreviated to the infelicitous syllable GWOT.  (The BBC reported in July 2005 that White House was trying to replace “GWOT” with “a global struggle against the enemies of freedom.”  But the buzzword proved durable and has so far defied replacement.)

            Probably the first explanation — and it was not much of an explanation – for the intended invasion of Iraq was the 2002 State of the Union Message.  There Bush memorably linked three countries (Iran, North Korea, and Iraq) as forming an “Axis of Evil.”  Of itself, the metaphor was stunningly inapt.  The original Axis powers, our World War II adversaries, were actual allies.  Iran and Iraq by contrast, had fought an 8-year war with each other in recent memory.  North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated regimes, had no evident connection with the other two.  The case for Iraq being generally evil lay in its development of weapons of mass destruction, its use of them against its own people, and in its resistance to international inspections.  As far as international terrorism went, however, Bush stated only this: “Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror.”  He cited no evidence that Iraq was supporting terrorism against the West, slipping instead into a weird form of future subjunctive: “They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States.”

            There never was much more meat on these bones, as Eric Alterman and Mark Green demonstrate in their 2004 book, The Book on Bush.

            The Administration was able to find proof that in the early 1990s the Jordanian Sunni terrorist now widely known under the pseudonym Abu Musab Zarqawi was staying in Baghdad.  The Administration at various times spoke of this period as giving rise to “high-level ties” between Iraq and Al Qaeda.  But there is absolutely no credible proof of any contact at all. Even if there had been contact, it would have occurred before Zarqawi[1] had affiliated with Al Qaeda.[2]  (Then as now, Zarqawi’s primary war was with Shiites; the West was only second in line.)  Later, as the Administration pointed out, Zarqawi ran training camps in Iraq.  The Administration ignored that the camps were in Kurdish-controlled areas where Saddam’s writ did not run.

            There was also a story that Mohamed Atta, the leader of the September 11 plot, had met in Prague in April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence official.[3]  Although the matter is not beyond all dispute (see a very objective September 3, 2002 posting in Slate by Kate Taylor summarizing the evidence pro and con), it appears likely that this story was either a hoax or a mistake. Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, told the White House personally that the contact was impossible.

            And, as Alterman and Green point out, when a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002, he told his interrogators that Osama bin Laden had expressly rejected the notion of cooperation with Hussein, whom bin Laden viewed as an infidel.  This was corroborated by a number of captured Al Quaeda agents later that year.

            We now know that the Administration chose instead to believe the one captured informant who contradicted them.  Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, described by the Washington Post as “once in bin Laden’s inner circle and a senior operative who ran the Khaldan paramilitary camp in Afghanistan,” was captured in Pakistan in November 2001.  The U.S. turned him over to Eqyptian intelligence, which tortured him.  Under torture, al-Libi claimed Iraq had trained Al Quaeda in the use of explosives and chemical weapons.  Upon being sent on to U.S. custody in Guantanamo, al-Libi recanted.  Not until December 9, 2005 did American officials admit that the statements made under torture were false.

  But by that time, the Administration had repeatedly apparently relied upon al-Libi as a source to prove its otherwise untenable point.  For instance, in an October 2002 speech in Cincinnati, Bush stated: “We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and gases.”  When Secretary of State Powell addressed the U.N. on the eve of the invasion, he too cited Libi’s intelligence. 

            And, as Porky Pig says: That’s all, folks.  That’s all the public has ever been told about reasons for linking Iraq with Al Qaeda.  Even going into the war, this scintilla of data never convinced our allies the British.  As the now-famous Downing Street Memo (minutes of a July 23, 2002 meeting of Prime Minister Blair and his defense ministers) summed it up: “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” 

            In the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs,[4] Paul Pilar, who was National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, in other words, the intelligence community’s chief analyst for those areas, from 2000 to 2005, issued a scathing indictment of the “inverted” use of intelligence on several issues in selling Iraq, but especially on this point.  The intelligence community always agreed that there was no Iraq-Al Qaeda connection worthy the name.  The Bush Administration kept sending intelligence officials back again and again to try to establish what they knew they could not.  Pilar observed:

          The issue of possible ties between Saddam and al Qaeda was especially prone to the selective use of raw intelligence to make a public case for war. In the shadowy world of international terrorism, almost anyone can be “linked” to almost anyone else if enough effort is made to find evidence of casual contacts, the mentioning of names in the same breath, or indications of common travels or experiences. Even the most minimal and circumstantial data can be adduced as evidence of a “relationship,” ignoring the important question of whether a given regime actually supports a given terrorist group and the fact that relationships can be competitive or distrustful rather than cooperative.

          Undeterred by the lack of substantial evidence to support its chimerical Saddam-Osama tie, the White House and Pentagon pushed harder:

On any given subject, the intelligence community faces what is in effect a field of rocks, and it lacks the resources to turn over every one to see what threats to national security may lurk underneath. In an unpoliticized environment, intelligence officers decide which rocks to turn over based on past patterns and their own judgments. But when policymakers repeatedly urge the intelligence community to turn over only certain rocks, the process becomes biased. The community responds by concentrating its resources on those rocks, eventually producing a body of reporting and analysis that, thanks to quantity and emphasis, leaves the impression that what lies under those same rocks is a bigger part of the problem than it really is.
That is what happened when the Bush administration repeatedly called on the intelligence community to uncover more material that would contribute to the case for war. The Bush team approached the community again and again and pushed it to look harder at the supposed Saddam-al Qaeda relationship — calling on analysts not only to turn over additional Iraqi rocks, but also to turn over ones already examined and to scratch the dirt to see if there might be something there after all. The result was an intelligence output that — because the question being investigated was never put in context — obscured rather than enhanced understanding of al Qaeda’s actual sources of strength and support.

            It may have been lousy intelligence.  It was effective public relations, however.  In February 2003, 72 percent of Americans polled answered yes to the question: “Was Saddam Hussein personally involved in the September 11 attacks?”  And this result was in line with poll after poll.[5]

            This was not a trivial misunderstanding; it bore great legal significance.  Whatever color of authorization the Bush invasion of Iraq may have taken from United Nations resolutions (and that color was indistinct at best), the principal legal justification for our involvement, from the standpoint of U.S. law, was that the attack on Iraq was part of our “war against terror.”  The critical three paragraphs of the Congressional authorization, H.J. Res. 114, 107th Cong. (2002), specifically invoke that supposed war as the enterprise of which the projected war on Iraq was to be a part.  I quote a part:

… the United States is determined to prosecute the war on terrorism and Iraq’s ongoing support for international terrorist groups … make[s] clear that it is in the national security interests of the United States and in furtherance of the war on terrorism that all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions be enforced, including through the use of force if necessary …

            Nothing else carried the justifying power of the “war on terror.”  Iraq’s supposed WMD program and its flouting of the inspection regime (to be discussed soon) did not in themselves justify attacking Iraq under international law, even under the aggressive Bush Administration interpretations, though they might have meant a little more if Saddam could have been shown to intend momentarily to use his hypothetical WMDs. But preemptive war remains fundamentally illegal in the eyes of most of the world.  On the other hand, once a nation has been attacked, it has a universally recognized right to defend itself.  And while the Bush Administration’s views of a “global war” theater in which all the world’s a stage and the curtain never falls could in theory justify any actions taken against anyone under any conditions, a response to a very specific attack on the U.S. was legitimate as nothing else in the Administration’s legal and political case for war could be.  And so the attack on Saddam was both sold and legally justified as part of a “global war on terror.”

            This was a double lie.  There was no proof that any sane and reasonable intelligence analyst could take seriously that Saddam had had anything to do with the September 11 attacks of Al Qaeda. But even if he had, this would not have rendered the attack on Saddam part of the War on Terror.  And that is because there never was, and could not in the nature of things be a “war on terror” of which the war on Iraq could be a part.

            In the nature of things it could not be a war because war almost always means a struggle between sovereign nations using military forces. Terrorism is a weapon or tactic used mostly by those who are not sovereign nations and who lack armies.  To speak of a war on terror is like speaking of a war on land mines or a war on siegecraft. 

            Nor is terrorism a tactic we categorically oppose.  People that we have supported recently – some very recently (Salvadorian death squads, Muslim fundamentalists when we paid them to lay waste to the Russians in Afghanistan, Egyptian torturers, CIA torturers for that matter) use terroristic tactics, and we are not attacking them.  People that we do not necessarily support also use terroristic tactics (Russians in Chechnya, Sudanese genocidalists, Hutus in Rwanda) and we’re not about stopping them either. Terror may not be a legitimate tactic of war but it certainly is a widespread one, and we are not really trying to stop it as such.  As Noam Chomsky pointed out long ago, to go by the definition of “act of terrorism” found repeatedly in the U.S. Code (e.g. 18 U.S.C. § 2331), we ourselves are a terrorist nation.

            But to call the claim that we are waging war on terror a lie articulates a disagreement that is far deeper than a mere matter of semantics.  Even as a figurative term, meaning a semi-defensive struggle against terrorists who would attack the West, even as a euphemism for a struggle against armed Islamic fundamentalism, the phrase “war on terror” was a fraud.  Before September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration’s attention to the task of defending us against Islamic terrorists was disjointed, insincere, underfunded and basically laughable.  After September 11, the rhetoric changed far more than the reality.  As we shall see next time, we have hardly been fighting terror at all.  But even if we had been, our attack on Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with it.  That much is certain. 

            GWOT it was not.

[1]   For background on Zarqawi see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Musab_al-Zarqawi.

[2]   Alterman and Green at 277.

[3]   Alterman and Green at 279.

[4]  Now partly hidden behind a pay wall.  You can start the viewing here.

[5]   See Alterman and Green at 282.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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