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The (still) missing link

As the number of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq surpasses 1,000, the Bush administration still insists on a connection between Iraq and the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11/01.

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


During an election year, you might think an increasingly unpopular and costly war would be a liability to an incumbent administration. You might think, with the number of U.S. soldiers killed surpassing 1,000, kidnappings, daily attacks, and still no weapons of mass destruction found, that the last thing the Bush administration would want to do is mention the war in Iraq.

It turns out that isn’t the case, at least not during the Republican National Convention. Perhaps the most stark example of the current administration’s perspective on the war in Iraq came when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — admired by many Americans all across the political spectrum for his exemplary leadership and courage after the terrorist attacks on New York three years ago — opened his speech at the convention with these words:

“…it was here in 2001, in the same lower Manhattan, that President George W. Bush stood amid the fallen towers of the World Trade Center, and he said to the barbaric terrorists who attacked us, ‘They will hear from us.’ Well, they heard from us. They heard from us in Afghanistan, and we removed the Taliban. They heard from us in Iraq, and we ended Saddam Hussein's reign of terror.”

It was a sentiment that was echoed countless times by many speakers during the Republican National Convention: the persistent equation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with the terrorists who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and the persistent equation with the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan — the legitimate “war on terror”— with the war in Iraq. Despite a huge mountain of evidence to the contrary, from think tanks, policy analysts, experts, and even the government’s own bipartisan commissions, the current administration still insists that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was a blow for victory in the war on terror.

“Senior officials at the highest level continue to claim a connection between 9/11 and Iraq,” says Joseph Cirincione, Director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They continue to portray the war in Iraq as part of the war on the terrorists who attacked us, even though we know with absolute certainty (as Vice-president Cheney is fond of saying) that there were no operational ties between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.”

A world-recognized authority on nuclear weapons and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Cirincione’s resume includes years of government service, with stints in the U.S. House of Representatives, on the Committee on Armed Services, and as staff director of the Military Reform Caucus under Tom Ridge and Charles Bennett. He was one of the authors of a report released last January by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications.

Meticulously documented, WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications debunks one-by-one the Bush administration’s main justifications for invading Iraq. It’s probably the clearest, most concise study available of the “evidence” and assumptions made during the build-up to the war.

The report caused a stir among policy makers and government officials when it was first released, and Cirincione sees its influence in a number of subsequent studies, including the Senate Intelligence Committee study. “We met with the Senate Intelligence Committee staff the month we put this report out,” he says. “It was a tense meeting, and the majority staff was initially hostile to our recommendations, but they ended up making strikingly similar findings of their own, and went along the same methodologies. I know that Senator Pat Robertson, in closed meetings with the Senate Intelligence Committee. said ‘the Carnegie report is full of errors. It’s not a reliable document.’ That’s what he said in January. In June, he comes out with a report that’s nearly identical to the conclusion we found, and we didn’t have any access to classified information.”

But WMD in Iraq has also found a receptive audience outside the world of think tanks and policy makers. It’s been the most popular and most in-demand report in the C.E.I.P.’s hundred-year history, with tens of thousands of people downloading the report from the organization’s web site. If it were in the bookstores, it would be a best-seller.

It’s easy to see why the report has caught on with what Cirincione calls the “interested public.” The language is clear and direct, free of political dogma or invective. But the language doesn’t need to be strong — the findings of the report are damning enough. The report states that there is no evidence that Saddam’s Iraq re-started its nuclear weapons program after the first Gulf War, no evidence that Iraq represented an “immediate” threat to the United States, and no evidence of the stockpiles of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons that Saddam was supposedly hiding around Iraq via a complex transportation system, as Colin Powell outlined to the U.N. in February, 2003.

Perhaps most importantly, there were no operational links established between Iraq and Al Qaeda. “There is little or nothing Saddam Hussein could have done in the foreseeable future that would have been a significant threat to the United States,” Cirincione says. “And we now know that with absolute certainty. There were no weapons to give the terrorists, there were no operational links with Islamic fundamentalists, and there were no plans for Iraq to strike at the United States that anybody has come forward with.”

WMD in Iraq also takes the administration to task for treating nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons as a single WMD threat; “insisting without evidence—yet treating as a given truth—that Saddam Hussein would give whatever WMD he possessed to terrorists;” and dropping any qualifiers or uncertainties from public statements of intelligence assessments. The report states that “administration officials systematically misrepresented the threat from Iraq’s WMD and ballistic missile programs.”

Cirincione is very deliberate about the language of the report, and especially two words which pop up over and over again in the document — “misrepresented” and “mislead.” “We do not say that officials lied,” Cirincione says. “The reason we don’t use the word ‘lied, ‘is that we really don’t know what they thought at the time they were making these statements. Did they know they were untrue, or did they simply believe them to be true, and were mistaken? However, as they continue to make these statements, which by now they must know are not true, this question of constantly and deliberately lying does become more… pressing. But we still don’t use the word.”

Furthermore, the report states that in invading Iraq, the U.S. has expanded a centuries old definition of a pre-emptive strike, and established a very dangerous international precedent. “Every president has the legal and moral obligation to strike preemptively against dangers to their country,” explains Cirincione. “If we saw, for example, North Korea was building a long-range missile and we believed it had a nuclear warhead, we would not wait for the missile to be launched to see if our defense system could shoot it down. We would go destroy it on the launch pad. But there was no plan for Iraq to attack us. This was a war taken to prevent the possibility of Iraq someday attacking us. That’s a standard that you do not want to see other nations emulate. How would we feel if China adopted that standard toward to Taiwan? If India adopted that standard towards Pakistan? Indian officials have already publicly embraced this standard, and argued that it should be used against Pakistan, to prevent terrorist actions in Kashmir.”

What WMD in Iraq doesn’t answer is why the drumbeat leading up to the war with Iraq was so loud. Looking back on news reports and public statements in late 2002/early 2003, the absolute, dire need to go to war with Iraq now seems almost on the verge of hysteria, as if missiles were going to start falling out of the sky at any second. The Carnegie report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report found that the administration dropped a number of caveats and cautions from the public version of a C.I.A. National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq; with the qualifying language out, the N.I.E. document in effect presented Iraq as an imminent threat. And that’s just one of several examples of facts being manipulated to offer the public a different perception of Iraq’s capabilities. Taken all together, the drive to war seems orchestrated. But why is Iraq so important that the administration would have to mislead the public and the international community to invade? Why did they seem so hungry for this war?

The answer to that might lie in a 1996 memo written by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser — now all officials in the Bush administration — and sent to then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Called “A Clean Break,” the paper essentially urges Netanyahu to stop trying to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians, and encourages Israel to launch pre-emptive action against Saddam’s regime. What we’re seeing now in Iraq is the first stage of that plan, conducted not by Israel, but by the U.S. “There was/is a belief of senior members of the administration that the only way to get peace in the Middle East and to secure America’s long-term strategic interest in that region is to radically transform all the regimes in the region, and Iraq is the starting point,” says Cirincione. “They believe the road to peace in Jerusalem is through Baghdad and Damascus. They really want to knock off Syria first, but they think it’s more politically and militarily viable to do Iraq.”

According to this theory, what would happen was that a “democratic tsunami” (in the words of one writer) would sweep through the Middle East, that other countries would see the example of a free, democratic Iraq, and would rise up and overthrow their leaders, perhaps with the aid of US military. This view was developed in neo-conservative circles in the 1990s, and put forth in a 1998 letter to President Clinton. Many people who promoted that view —Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Donald Rumsfeld — are now in senior administration positions.

This may sound like some Michael Moore fantasy or a shady secret agenda, but it’s actually a matter of public record. Type “A Clean Break” and “Netanyahu” into Google and see how many references come up. “This is not a conspiracy theory,” says Cirincione. “It’s spelled out in numerous articles. You hear President Bush articulate this view at the UN back in October 2002, when he said that soon the people of a free Afghanistan would be joined by the people of a free Iraq… and would be the leaders of democratic transformation of the Middle East.”

Many experts have labeled this idea of a “democratic tsunami” sweeping the Middle East as a naïve and “dangerous fantasy.” In fact, there have been suggestions that the reason no clear exit strategy has been given for Iraq is that the U.S. has no intention of leaving the Middle East, and the periodic warnings the Bush administration gives to Syria and Iran aren’t just idle spear-rattling.

“In a very real way, I think the election is a referendum on the next war,” says Cirincione. “The same people who brought us the war in Iraq believe that there is a military solution to the problems posed by Iran and Syria. If the president is re-elected, some in the administration are likely to feel they have a mandate to bring what they call the war on terror to another stage, and that could well include military strikes in Iran.”

Cirincione says the administration would base this on the assumption that they could successfully contain any Iranian reaction, and that any strong U.S. action against Iran would ignite a popular revolt against the Iranian government. “I think exactly the opposite is likely to occur,” he adds. “I think US military strikes on Iran would unify the country in support of the existing regime, and likely ignite widespread attacks against U.S. forces and interests throughout the Middle East.”

The sickest irony about the war in Iraq is that we’ve in fact created what we claimed we were trying to prevent in the first place: a whole new area of operation for terrorism. Iraq has become the terrorist center that it was not before the war. Iraq not only provides a opportunity for terrorists to engage us firsthand, but the war has become a rallying point for Al Qaeda’s ideology. “We have not extinguished the Islamic fundamentalist threat, we have expanded it,” Cirincione says. “Osama Bin Laden is seen as a source of inspiration and emulation to a much greater extent now than he was before the war in Iraq. It’s not 9/11 that raised the profile of Osama Bin Laden, it’s not the war in Afghanistan that made him a hero, it’s the war in Iraq. This is exactly what he predicted the Americans would do. US policy has played into the hands of Al Qaeda perfectly.”

Osama Bin who? Osama Bin Laden is the leader of Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization that executed the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001. Nearly three years after American forces entered Afghanistan to flush him out, he’s still at large, still influential, and hungry to hit America again. He is a known threat to American citizens and our allies all over the world.

And President Bush, in his address at the Republican National Convention, didn’t mention him once.

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