We Are No Safer

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Saturday, December 13 was a great day for justice. The murderous dictator and mass murderer, Saddam Hussein, was caught by U.S. forces and will be tried for his myriad crimes. But contrary to the enormous media hype the administration has enjoyed, those who say we are no safer for Hussein's capture are correct.

America was never threatened by Iraq. Every single one of the scare tactics employed by the administration in their game of bait and switch, designed to exploit the trauma of 9/11 to deploy the neocons’ longtime plan to invade Iraq, has proven an exaggeration, a chimera or a lie. There were no WMDs, no nukes, and no connections to Al Qaeda. Indeed, Saddam was being effectively contained at the moment George Bush chose to plunge the region into war and the inspectors were hard at work, despite the president’s clueless claims to the contrary. (“Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is: ‘Absolutely.’ And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in.”)

Of course these simple but rather significant complications appear to have eluded much of the media, to the delight of Karl Rove and the administration spin-meisters. Dan Rather offered up the storyline of the day on Sunday when he opined,” "This is a tremendous boost for the reelection prospects of President Bush." And indeed, immediate polling demonstrated an up tick for the president. John Harwood and Jacob M. Schlesinger observed in a Wall Street Journal news story that Democrats were “instantly losing ground in their quest to discredit Mr. Bush's Iraq policy."

But just how does Hussein’s capture justify Bush’s Iraq policy? That policy is still a failure, based on the administration’s unwillingness to plan for anything but divine intervention on behalf of the neoconservative critique. A day after Hussein’s capture, two car bombs went off and killed six Iraqi policemen, while wounding twenty more, as an American soldier was killed on Sunday by a roadside bomb near Baghdad. On the day of the capture, a car bomb exploded in Khaldiya, killing 17 police officers. (Didn’t anyone tell these guys we won the war?) The attacks increased in intensity in the following days. Ibrahim Mutlak, director of police patrols for Salahadin Province (where Tikrit is located), told the Times’ James Risen to expect the guerrilla war to worsen as a result of the capture. “Lots of people did not want to join the resistance because they did not want to be called Saddam supporters,” he explained. “But now all the people who oppose the Americans will join."

Meanwhile, this was supposed to be a war against “terrorism,” remember? Hussein was a horrible guy, but try as it might, the administration has never demonstrated any connection between the Iraqi and any significant anti-U.S. terrorist organization, much less Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, our ostensible enemies in this fight.

It is easy to forget that the entire effort in Iraq was always couched in terms of a response to 9/11. Just recently, Condoleezza Rice made the original argument that we needed to go to war because Hussein posed a threat in "a region from which the 9-11 threat emerged." And Paul Wolfowitz was proved no less ingenuous. "We know [Iraq] had a great deal to do with terrorism in general and with Al Qaeda in particular, and we know a great many of [Osama] bin Laden's key lieutenants are now trying to organize in cooperation with old loyalists from the Saddam regime," he told ABC on the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

President Bush also tried, consistently, to create the impression of a link between the forces of Hussein and Al Qaeda. In March 2003, he claimed, "If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, refusing to use force, even as a last resort, free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risks. The attacks of September the 11th, 2001, showed what the enemies of America did with four airplanes. We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction." Later on, he announced, "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11, 2001 – and still goes on. That terrible morning, 19 evil men – the shock troops of a hateful ideology – gave America and the civilized world a glimpse of their ambitions." Bush also added, "The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We've removed an ally of Al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more. In these 19 months that changed the world, our actions have been focused and deliberate and proportionate to the offense. We have not forgotten the victims of September the 11th – the last phone calls, the cold murder of children, the searches in the rubble. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got." In fact, “they" (in the persons of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants) not only got away, but they continue to taunt Bush from their hideaways – most recently on September 11, 2003, in a videotape broadcast by Al Jazeera.

According to a secret 2002 report by US intelligence agencies, quoted by NY Times reporter James Risen, Al Qaeda’s leadership “viewed the Iraqis, particularly the military and security services, as corrupt, irreligious and hypocritical in that they succumb to Western vices while concurrently remaining at war with the United States.” The report – which was based on the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, one of the highest-ranking Qaeda leaders in American custody – goes on to say, "the Iraqis were not viewed as true jihadists, and there was doubt amongst the senior Al Qaeda leadership on the depth of Saddam’s commitment to destroy Israel and further the cause of cleansing the Holy Land of infidel influences or presence.”

At work here is one of the president’s favorite rhetorical tactics, which Joshua Micah Marshall terms “the confidently expressed, but currently undisprovable assertion.” Bush took the country to war with Iraq on the basis of grounds that turned out to be patently false — and understood by most experts at the time to be so – but could not be disproved without an invasion.

Much the same goes for Bush’s program for budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthiest few. Almost no one with even a college degree in economics really expects them to offer a cure for the myriad problems that ail the economy. In many respects, they are the problem itself. But all of this is impossible to say for certain without knowing the future. Bush, meanwhile, speaks as if the future will fall into line with his beliefs once it recognizes his personal resolve. It is much the same across the board. Abstinence education will end teenage pregnancy. Oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness will end our energy problems. Unilateral action across the world will lead other nations eventually to follow in our path. Anyone with any remotely objective expertise in these areas knows such beliefs to be akin to believing in Peter Pan. “The President and his advisors,” concluded a New York Times editorial, “obviously believe that the constant repetition of several simplistic points will hypnotize the American people into forgetting the original question.”

In the meantime, the true perpetrators of 9/11 remain alive and well. We have more than 10 times as many troops in Iraq as in border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan where bin Laden is believed to be operating. And here at home, we are hardly better prepared than we were last time. Our nuclear and chemical plants remain all but unprotected; so too our ports and infrastructure. Our first responders are untrained and our cities starved for resources to defend themselves.

Sounds like a story to me…

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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