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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Saddam and al Qaeda: Overarguing denial 

The United States government is releasing a huge cache of documents captured in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of which are indeed tantalizing in their hints at contacts between the Iraqi Ba'athists and al Qaeda or its allies. However, my gut tells me that the 911 Commission's basic conclusion will stand even after all the evidence is in: that the relationship between the two was tentative, and did not lead to any actual operations. Peter Bergen pushed me further in that direction this morning, with his assertion that "not one of the thousands of documents found in Afghanistan substantiate such an alliance, even though Al Qaeda was1 [sic] a highly bureaucratic organization that required potential recruits to fill out application forms." Since Bergen is a credible guy with deep knowledge of his subject matter (he is the author of the recently published The Osama bin Laden I Know : An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader, which I have purchased with great enthusiasm but not yet read), I trust that this claim is true as far as he knows. Smoking gun enthusiasts will argue that we may find as yet untranslated gems in that trove, but let's assume that the odds of that are diminishing every day.

However, in their zeal to resist the idea that Saddam and al Qaeda might have cooperated, the critics of the administration -- including Bergen -- do a lot of damage to their own credibility. First, they try to discredit the argument for a connection by responding to two different arguments as if they were one and the same: that Saddam and al Qaeda were working together on substantive matters (probably not true) and that Saddam and al Qaeda were likely enough to work together in the future that the United States had to take action in advance. The documents that have emerged so far tend to reinforce the 911 Commission's finding that Saddam and al Qaeda had not actually planned any missions together, but they make me, at least, less comfortable that they would not have in the future.

Bergen anticipates my point to some degree, but he does so by rather dramatically overstating his case:
Some administration supporters have drawn an analogy to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, in which Stalin and Hitler put aside ideology in favor of pragmatic goals (carving up the Baltic states, Poland and Finland). But history is not a good guide here: not only was the ideological divide between Al Qaeda and Baathist Iraq far greater than that between the two 20th-century dictators, but unlike Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two sides had nothing practical to gain by working together. (bold emphasis added)

Now, I'm not going to argue with Bergen's estimate of the ideological divide between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda, but it does seem to me that the Stalin-Hitler analogy is exactly on point. Stalin and Hitler promoted starkly adverse ideologies -- you can't get further apart than communism and national socialism -- that drove them to similar results: expansionist totalitarianism. Saddam and al Qaeda claim different ideological roots, but they both aspire to the reestablishment of the Caliphate, they both use terrorism to promote that end, they both are intransigent opponents of the United States and Israel, they both hate the House of Saud, and, by the nineties, they both were using Islamist rhetoric in support of their geopolitical objectives.

That leads me to the second point, which is that Bergen and other critics hurt themselves by overstating their case. In addition to his highly suspect rejection of the analogy to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Bergen in his short op-ed piece Bergen makes at least two other highly disingenuous points. First, he writes that "Vice President Dick Cheney has argued that the evidence for such an alliance was 'overwhelming'". False, actually. According to the left-wing Center for American Progress, Cheney said:
There's overwhelming evidence there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government. I am very confident that there was an established relationship there. (bold emphasis added)

This is precisely the conclusion of the 911 Commission, which is cited approvingly by Bergen. The argument here is not over Cheney's statements, however much Bergen tries to make it so, but over the significance of the "connection" that everybody agrees was there. Did it hold the potential for an alliance that the United States could ill afford?

Second, Bergen tries to discredit evidence of a 1995 meeting between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi government representatives:
The results of this meeting were ... nothing. Two subsequent attacks against American forces in Saudi Arabia — a car bombing that year and the Khobar Towers attack in 1996 — were carried out, respectively, by locals who said they were influenced by Mr. bin Laden and by the Saudi branch of Hezbollah, a Shiite group aided by Iranian government officials.

What Bergen does not tell you, however, is that the same 9/11 Commission that he cites so approvingly for the proposition that Iraq and al Qaeda had no operational connection noted that there was, in fact, evidence that tied al Qaeda to the Khobar Towers bombing. See the 9/11 Commission report at p. 60 and the sources cited there. Khobar Towers was, in all probability, a joint venture. It is extremely disingenuous of Bergen to fail to note at least the possibility that this might be true.

Beyond the simple objective of bashing the Bush administration, the important question remains unrefuted: could the United States tolerate the risk that Saddam's Iraq, free of sanctions, would form an alliance of convenience with al Qaeda? I still believe that the answer was that we could not.
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1. Bergen's use of the past tense is curious. It is interesting that opponents of the Bush administration's policies can't decide whether the war with al Qaeda is over or if it has gotten much worse because of his incompetence.

22 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 28, 10:57:00 AM:

I think the use of was is meant to imply that al-Qaeda has changed substantially since 9-11, not that it no longer exists or is no longer relevent.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Tue Mar 28, 11:06:00 AM:

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Tue Mar 28, 11:11:00 AM:

I too think Bergen hurts, rather than helps, his argument by referencing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. He apparently doesn't remember how utterly surprising this arrangement was to observers in the West. But it made perfect sense to Hitler and to Stalin, both of whom gained time and territory in the deal.

We shouldn't forget that bin-Laden worked alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan to drive out the Soviets in the 1980s or that his declaration of jihad in the 1990s, which came as a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, was directed not against Iraq but against his former ally in the West. These contradictory facts make perfect sense only if we understand that bin Laden's only allegiance is to supporting and propagating his vision of a global Islamic movement. He will apparently form any accomodation as long as it suits his long-term strategy, which is exactly what Hitler did entering his pact with Stalin.

Neither should we forget Saddam found it expedient to give at least monetary support to Palestinian suicide bombers. Iran supports Hezbollah, which in turn has supported Palestinian suicide bombings for years. Bin Laden has made no secret of his allegiance to the Palestinians, and has garnered much allegiance among Palestinians in return. None of these observations is conclusive, but they may be suggestive, and lead one to reasonably conclude that there is a point at which even diverging interests can and will align.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 28, 12:14:00 PM:

1. the important question remains unrefuted: could the United States tolerate the risk that Saddam's Iraq, free of sanctions, would form an alliance of convenience with al Qaeda? I still believe that the answer was that we could not.

2. Instead of merely swatting flies in Afghanistan, would finishing that job and taking a methodical approach to Saddam have eliminated al Qaeda -- negating #1 above? I believe that the answer is yes, and the important unrefuted question is invalid.  

By Blogger Lazerlou, at Tue Mar 28, 01:08:00 PM:

Your ex post justifications are pathetic. By your reasoning we should have invaded Iran, Syria and N. Korea, maybe even Pakistan before Iraq. These are the true threats to the U.S. both directly and in terms of helping Qaeda. Time to let it go dude. Our President is a fraud and lied to the American people to justify a war he planned well before 9/11. Face facts and stop kidding yourself.  

By Blogger Robert Lewis, at Tue Mar 28, 01:24:00 PM:

Okay, let's take this one step at a time . . . you guys are still claiming that a totalitarian secular Baathist dictator aligns himself with fundamentalist Wahabi-style Saudi terrorists who think that he is an infidel.

Saddam Hussein would have had Osama's heart on a kabob if he could have orchestrated it.

In nearby Syria, old Ba'athist war horse Hafez el Assad had a problem with the Moslim Brotherhood, a kind of forerunner to al-Qaeda. Assad surrounded their stronghold in Hama, and the Syrian army basically exterminated 10,000 brothers.

The Syrian army, by the way, is made up of Sunnis, Shia's and 12-15% Christians. Up to and including general officers.

Baathist's are secular. The idea of any real cooperation between a secular militarist and radical religious fundamentalists - who have sworn by the beard of the Prophet to destory secular infidels - is so preposterious only truly ignorant folk - l;ike George W. and Condi, could ever buy into such a lame conjecture.

Read all the newly released documents you want - there's no "there" there.  

By Blogger ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ, at Tue Mar 28, 02:12:00 PM:

Tigerhawk:..."you can't get further apart than communism and national socialism"

I must strongly disagree with your above quote. Both of these philosophies are strongly rooted in Marxism.

For an excellent exposition of this go to: http://jonjayray.0catch.com/musso.html and also http://jonjayray.tripod.com/hitler.html

ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ  

By Anonymous hepzeeba, at Tue Mar 28, 02:29:00 PM:

At least one member of the 9/11 Commission has been careful not to dismiss the new documents out of hand:

"Mr. [Bob] Kerrey said he believed America's understanding of the deposed tyrant's relationship with Al Qaeda would become much deeper as more captured Iraqi documents and audiotapes are disclosed."


http://www.nysun.com/article/29746  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Tue Mar 28, 07:00:00 PM:

Robert Lewis

We have all heard the argument that it's an impossible alliance. Adding a sneer at how stupid we are doesn't impact that much.

What would be potentially persuasive is an explanation of why the impossible occurred.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 28, 07:03:00 PM:

Seems to me that since the "government" possessed the files and is just now "releasing" them, that the "government" would probably (hopefully!) have read them already, and found whatever viable connections there were. Or at least you'd think so. Regardless, it's not like a game show where the audience gets to participate...if there was something in these documents we'd have heard about it.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Tue Mar 28, 07:28:00 PM:

Last Anonymous Guy: Actually, no. The problem, apparently, is that the government does not have enough translators and other analysts to do this work over a period of years. The hope of the people pushing this idea is that the government will release lots of stuff from the millions of pages of captured documents that has never been translated, and people all over the world will translate it and argue about its meaning. If it comes to pass as hoped by its advocates, it really will be a remarkable experiment in open-source analysis. I hope it in fact works out that way.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Mar 28, 07:48:00 PM:

Robert Lewis: Your post is a great example of the old phrase, "There's nothing so dangerous as a little knowledge." You're so secure in your superior wisdom that you can simply brush something away as, "That's impossible and only an idiot would believe it."

The Muslim Brotherhood is still around. It is a political Islamist group that dates back to the 1920s, immediately following the disolution of the Ottoman Empire. It is primarily political and thereby widely suppressed in the Middle East. There was an uprising in 1982, backed by the Brotherhood, which was smashed by the Syrian army vis massed artillery bombardment. They weren't targeted for their beliefs. They were targeted (like plotted on a map and blown up targeted) because they rebelled against the government. Describing the Syrian Baathists as impossibly opposed to Islamists because they put down the MB revolt is not accurate.

Aside, how would you explain Syria's support for Hezb Allah? A Baathist (secular!) government supporting an Islamist militia, and one that was founded by and essentially acts as a tool of a reactionary theocracy? (Iran, who also happens to be a close ally of Syria and has been for some time)

"The idea of any real cooperation between a secular militarist and radical religious fundamentalists - who have sworn by the beard of the Prophet to destory secular infidels - is so preposterious only truly ignorant folk - l;ike George W. and Condi, could ever buy into such a lame conjecture."

Uh huh...  

By Blogger Robert Lewis, at Tue Mar 28, 09:07:00 PM:

"What would be potentially persuasive is an explanation of why the impossible occurred."

Uh, the problem with your thesis is that the impossible didn't occur - and so, for a reward, you get promoted from assistant to "The Village Idiot" - congratulations!

As for you, Dawnfire82, you ask how I would explain Syria's support for Hezballah? I would respond that unlike you, I have spent time on the ground in Damascus, Beirut and the Bekka Valley, and, as it was explained to me over cocktails at the Damascus Sheraton, Syrian support was contingent upon Hezballah dropping its theocratic aspirations in favor of participating in a parliamentary government, and expanding its goals to include liberating the Palestinian territories. In your case, a little knowledge would be a whole lot better than no knowlege whatsoever.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Tue Mar 28, 10:13:00 PM:

Robert...

Iraq/Al Qaeda 1995. Zarkawi/Iraq 2002.

For openers.

As to those cocktails in Syria, well I guess that just settles the issue as to your credentials, doesn't it? I had no idea we were moving in such exalted company.  

By Blogger Railroad Stone, at Wed Mar 29, 12:49:00 AM:

I can't believe you're still flogging this dead horse.

I suppose it's easier to keep hunting for proof than it is to answer the question
"Why, in the absense of any evidence, let alone proof, did you ever believe in such a link?"

You only ever heard about it from one group (and their friends in the media), and you believed it.
Others didn't, and you probably called them traitors, or appeasers or something like that.
There were people whose job was to know the answer, but you didn't want to listen to them.

Now, the group in question have abandonded their talking point, denying that they ever made it.
And here you are, still trying to do their hard work for them.
If I were your friend, I'd call you a fool.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Mar 29, 06:20:00 AM:

You didn't really read the post, didja Railroad?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Mar 29, 02:03:00 PM:

[quote]
What Bergen does not tell you, however, is that the same 9/11 Commission that he cites so approvingly for the proposition that Iraq and al Qaeda had no operational connection noted that there was, in fact, evidence that tied al Qaeda to the Khobar Towers bombing. See the 9/11 Commission report at p. 60 and the sources cited there. Khobar Towers was, in all probability, a joint venture. It is extremely disingenuous of Bergen to fail to note at least the possibility that this might be true.
[/quote]

Neither this nor the 9/11 report in any way links Iraq and Al Quaeda. Iran is reported as the sponsor
of both the 1995 attack and the Khobars Towers attack in 1996, with, as the 9/11 report put it,
perhaps some assistance to the local team from Al Quaeda in getting explosives.

Further, you've noted that there is at least the possibility that Iraq and Al Quaeda might have
formed an alliance of convenience, but you leave out the SIC report, which quite clearly shows
that they did in fact attempt to negotiate this - and failed to get past initial discussions.
Apparently Saddam handled them as he did all other terror groups he deal with; he was unwilling to
give them access to weapons or anything else that could then be used against him. The talks died
off in the late 90's, and in any case we only know of a few tentative discussions.

The only terror group that Saddam armed and supported in a big way was Khalq e'Mujaheddin, which
was a group of Iranian ex-pats who conducted operations against Iran. This is in the SIC report
as well. The conclusion there that there was no operational cooperation between Iraq and Al
Quaeda, despite attempts by Saddam to set this up, and the fact that Saddam preferred to rely on
proxy payments and the like rather than substantive operational support for terrorists argues
strongly against the idea that the two would find common ground and put aside their disagreements.

If there was ever a ruler who could not tolerate compromise, it's Saddam. Why then put forth an
argument that depends on him breaking this pattern?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Mar 29, 05:45:00 PM:

Saddam and al Qaeda?

You're just too funny ... tell me the one about the WMDs again daddy!

You've been taken.

Either admit it, or stop taking up space.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Mar 29, 07:19:00 PM:

Outstanding. So you admit that the Baathist government in Syria came to an understanding with the Islamist militia to pursue common goals? And here I thought I was going to have to argue with you some more.

Oh, and you glazed over the part where Syria and Iran were allies, and have actually signed a mutual defense pact. (though I didn't mention that before) In case you forgot or something.

By the way, you have no idea what I have or have not done and where I have or have not been. You presume from your tower upon high, assumedly somewhere in Damascus. It's pretty bold of you to proclaim my ignorance after essentially admitting my main point. Maybe we (and by 'we,' I mean 'you' in a patronizing way) should rethink our pretensions, hmm?

Arrogant asshole.  

By Blogger alwaysright, at Wed Mar 29, 07:38:00 PM:

THIS is the debate. Like Tigerhawk, I suspect that neither side is going to be able to do the victory dance on this one. Personally, I see considerable convergence of interest between Saddam and Al Qaeda in hurting America, and bin Laden's history certainly suggests that he would be flexible in his alliances. As for Saddam, I simply think it's folly for any armchair analyst to assert with perfect certainty that Saddam would never cooperate with bin Laden... How the f*#% would you know?

And if not Saddam, how do we know Uday or Qusay weren't freelancing a little with Zarqawi, for example.

This whole thing is a Rohrschach test. People who are inclined to blame America first will always believe that "Our President is a fraud and lied to the American peole to justify a war he planned well before 9/11."

Incidentally, it was well before 9/11 when the Clinton Administration made regime change in Iraq official American policy. Maybe W just thought if you're going to say it, maybe you should mean it.  

By Blogger Robert Lewis, at Wed Mar 29, 09:48:00 PM:

Who cares about "Islamist militia"? What part of "dropping its theocratic aspirations in favor of participating in a parliamentary government" don't you understand? It's fundamentalist religions of all stripes that worry me.

And I do know two things about you: first, you haven't done shit (dramatic name that "dawnfire82!"), and second, its not "pretty bold" to declare the obvious.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Fri Mar 31, 08:58:00 PM:

Well, if you get right down to it you could classifiy Al Qaeda as an Islamist milita. So you ought to care.

I understand perfectly. What you don't get, or won't admit, is that the very FACT that Hizb Allah and Syria came to an agreement to work together makes

"The idea of any real cooperation between a secular militarist and radical religious fundamentalists - who have sworn by the beard of the Prophet to destory secular infidels - is so preposterious only truly ignorant folk - l;ike George W. and Condi, could ever buy into such a lame conjecture"

WRONG. And by being wrong and becoming combative upon correction and trying to argue past me (you still haven't addressed the Iranian/Syrian alliance, either) you've proven your value as an intellectual debater. That is, worthless and undeserving of time and energy. I do wonder though; are you stubborn? Or stupid?

I'd like to imagine that you can't be stupid and have 'done shit,' up to and including 'drinking cocktails in Damascus,' so that would make you stubborn. Almost excusable, I suppose, seing as how you have been upbraided by a cocky self-assured ignoramus who has obviously *not* 'done shit,' since he has a "dramatic" handle. (and damn your eyes for finding me out!)

On the other hand, that does put me in the same category as the President and SecState, so maybe I ought to think about this differently.

Thank you for showing me the way to enter the senior ranks of government. Apparently, I just have to keep on my current path. Now please... see your way to the door.  

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