If you want to follow defense issues closely, the Pentagon website is required reading, particularly the transcripts of speeches, press conferences, and interviews. If you read them regularly you get a clear picture of what the key policymakers are thinking, certainly much clearer than you will by reading summaries in the newspaper, or hearing snippets on network news. In fact, sometimes you see things in the transcripts that are much more interesting than the excerpts the reporters have chosen, and other times you realize that the argument being presented is much more nuanced than the excerpt does it justice. Sure, print journalism is limited by physical constraints of the page, and television news is limited primarily by the fact that it is an entertainment medium, so I understand why this happens. But since the full transcripts are readily available, there is no excuse for serious people to have to have their reality filtered at the discretion of newspaper editors and television producers.
I am raising this because I suspect that the Defenselink page is getting even more hits than NRO from people seeking the transcript of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s May 9-10 interviews with Vanity Fair
’s Sam Tanenhaus. (Here it is
.) From all the attention it is getting, you would think the entire interview deals with the question of Saddam’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and why it hasn’t been uncovered yet. Yet the 10,000-word dialogue is a wide-ranging exploration of Secretary Wolfowitz’s personal background, his strategic perspective, his reactions to the 9/11 attacks, and a variety of other topics much more interesting than the issue — if it can be called that — of why the WMD rationale for invading Iraq was treated the way it was. The fact that Vanity Fair
mischaracterized Secretary Wolfowitz’s views contributed to the flap — and the transcript contains something of a smoking gun to explain how this happened:
Tanenhaus: I have a headset and I type as we speak, which is one reason I’ll want to see the transcript just so I don’t make errors. I’m reliable, but I’m not a letter-perfect typist and I won’t always be able to keep up with you.
Probably should have done that follow-up with the transcript. William Kristol’s Weekly Standard article has all of the details, so I don’t need to repeat them. However, I would like to get into the matter of why the Coalition went to war with Iraq and the role of WMDs as a casus belli.
There is something of a straw man being erected in the debate, namely the suggestion that Saddam’s WMD arsenal was the only reason for the war. Certainly, it was the most highly debated issue. But was it the reason? No, and no one in the administration ever said that it was. The rationale for regime change in Iraq was larger than that issue. Secretary Wolfowitz listed three fundamental concerns with respect to Iraq, namely WMDs, links to terrorism, and crimes against the Iraqi people. I will cite an additional issue: the fact that Saddam Hussein was an international aggressor. Of these four rationales, the last two were not controversial because they were beyond dispute. In fact, their indisputability was what led the antiwar groups to downplay both of them, usually by saying that of course Saddam was a butcher, but it was up to the Iraqi people to do something about it since it was their country and we had no right getting involved in their internal affairs. That this same group of people seemed to want to intervene almost anywhere else in the world where there were serious human-rights violations, like inadequate health-care plans or climates of non-inclusiveness, was temporarily forgotten. In the weeks since Iraq was liberated numerous mass graves have been unearthed confirming the fundamental inhumanity of Saddam’s regime. Whether or not anyone believed that this was reason enough to invade, I think all can agree that having less mass murder in the world is qualitatively better than having more. As for Saddam’s record of conventional international aggression (against Iran, Kuwait, and Israel), it is worth noting that “waging aggressive war” was the principle charge at Nuremberg. Saddam was an avid practitioner, and there is no reason to think he had ever mended his ways.
That leaves the other two rationales for invasion. The WMD motive was and is valid — Saddam after all had used chemical weapons in the past, and had pursued a nuclear program. This activity was the basis for the U.N. resolutions that called for Iraqi disarmament, for the inspections regime, and all the events that transpired afterwards. It was the issue that had been most institutionalized by the international community. Thus when Secretary Wolfowitz states, “for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on,” he was simply noting a political reality. Putting together a coalition for war is always an exercise in diplomacy, both domestically and abroad. Of the four rationales noted above, not everyone would sign on to all of them, but enough would sign on to at least one of them to make the effort sustainable. The WMD issue had the most extensive international legal framework, which is to say it was the issue best suited to garner the support of the State Department, and was the easiest to bring to the U.N.
The failure to find WMDs in abundance in the last few weeks has called into question the evidence presented by Secretary Powell before the U.N. last February (discussed here) and Congress is now calling for a clarification of the evidence. As the president once said, there is a “sniff of politics” about the issue, and we are certain to witness some posturing over the next few days. Tony Blair, also under fire, has promised solid evidence will be forthcoming. We will see what develops. Meanwhile, a poll released last month revealed that less than a third of Americans even believed that the WMD rationale was true in the first place. Yet, in the same poll, 41 percent said they were “‘absolutely certain’ the United States did the right thing in sending ‘troops into Iraq to force it to disarm its weapons of mass destruction.’ Another 25 percent were ‘pretty certain.’” Seems as though the American people can balance political expediency with doing the right thing.
What of links to terrorism? Secretary Wolfowitz noted that this would not have been a strong issue on which to base the political argument for intervention because “links to terrorism is the one about which there’s the most disagreement within the bureaucracy.” Disagreement may exist but it is hard to see why. The fact that Saddam Hussein gave money to the families of Palestinian suicide terrorists and had a close working relationship with the PLO was well known, and something he admitted. He also harbored Abu Nidal and other members of his international terror organization in Baghdad, that is until Abu Nidal committed suicide with multiple gunshots to the head last fall. Abd-al-Rahman Isa, Abu Nidal’s second in command based in Amman, Jordan, was kidnapped September 11, 2002, and has not been heard from since. Someone was covering their tracks, so it seems. However, we did pick up Khala Khadr al-Salahat in Baghdad, the man who reputedly made the bomb that brought down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland. There were also payments from Iraq to members of the Philippine al Qaeda franchise Abu Sayyaf group that the latter admitted to, as well as evidence of terrorist support from the Iraqi embassy in Manila. (see my NRO discussion here) There was the case of Abu-Zubayr, an officer in Saddam’s secret police who was also the ringleader of the al Qaeda cell in Morocco seeking to attack U.S. ships as they passed through the straits of Gibraltar. There were the al Qaeda refugees from Afghanistan who thought they had found safe haven in northern Iraq, and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an al Qaeda terrorist active in Europe whom Secretary Wolfowitz mentioned in the interview. He also noted the Salman Pak training base near Baghdad where terrorists were instructed in methods to take over commercial aircraft using weapons no more sophisticated than knives. Imagine the implications.
I have always worked from the premise that it was perfectly natural for Saddam to be involved with anti-American Islamist terror groups, the more violent the better. They may have had ideological differences, but they also had a common foe. Saddam was not what you would call a forgiving man, and certainly, he wanted the United States to suffer for the humiliations that the U.S. had visited on him. He could not strike at our country by conventional means — he could not even shoot down one aircraft patrolling the skies of his country for ten years. Therefore, he looked for other means of reaching us. This does not mean he agreed with the terrorists on other issues, or that he even trusted them. Given that, my tip to the investigators looking into the Iraqi document trove would be to get the counterintelligence files. Any terrorists in Iraq would have been under heavy internal surveillance, and the responsibility for tracking them would have fallen to the counterintelligence section, just like it did in Stalin’s regime which Saddam so admired.
Saddam Hussein had means, motive, and opportunity to be involved with global terrorism. As Secretary Wolfowitz noted, “Saddam Hussein was the only international figure other than Osama bin Laden who praised the attacks of September 11th.” Furthermore, one should remember that in the early phases of the debate over invading Iraq WMDs were not the central issue. The antiwar clique’s initial response was that attacking Iraq would only be legitimate if Saddam Hussein could be linked in some way to the 9/11 attacks. If a cooperative relationship can be demonstrated between these two men who had an abiding hatred for the United States, and a propensity for violence, will anyone be surprised? And if evidence of the rumored meetings between Saddam and high-ranking members of al Qaeda is produced, will anyone care how many chemical warheads are uncovered? Those who criticized the administration for failing to connect the dots before 9/11 are doing a very poor job of it right now.