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The word among wags in Washington is that George W. Bush will invade Iraq right after the fall congressional elections, giving himself time to get the war out of the way before his own presidential campaign swings into gear. An attack before November ould be difficult because the desert would be too hot for troops to maneuver with all their biochemical gear, or so the argument goes.

More importantly, launching an expensive—and hard to justify—assault amid a suspect economy and heated midterm battles for the House would be politically tricky, at a minimum. What’s more, say those who purport to know, the defense industry needs time to build up its stock of smart bombs, run down in the razing of Al Qaeda strategic positions and Afghan villages.

With all the press speculation focused on an attack in February or March, an autumn shot might be a surprise. Since American allies in the Middle East are skittish about letting us launch attacks from their soil, aircraft carriers will be much more important than during the Persian Gulf War. By November, five of them—each carrying up to 85 planes, including 50 strikers—will be near enough to carry out raids. Finally, Bush’s current major foreign-policy advisers, Ariel Sharon and the rest of the Israeli right, are pushing the president to go for it. They’re even vaccinating hundreds of key emergency responders for smallpox, just in case the Iraqi president retaliates with an unprecedented biological assault.

“Any postponement of an attack on Iraq at this stage will serve no purpose,” Raanan Gissin, a senior Sharon counselor, told The Guardian over the weekend. “It will only give Saddam Hussein more of an opportunity to accelerate his program of weapons of mass destruction.”

As a practical matter, while modest reservations against an attack have been voiced by such luminaries as former Daddy Bush top aide Brent Scowcroft and retiring House heavy Dick Armey, most of the criticism is actually thumb-sucking by people like Henry Kissinger, who are skilled at being on all sides all the time. The only real opposition in Congress is from the right-wing Republicans. The Democrats are demure.

The political opposition, such as it is, pretty much thinks war is in the cards. “My feeling is that the administration has staked so much in it that they’re going to have an awful hard time backing down,” says Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist and author of the anti-imperialist treatise 9-11. “I suspect that they’re putting such a heavy stake in it to make it difficult to back down.”

Chomsky says the current hawks are mostly recycled Reaganites, bullies who steamrolled dissent in the ‘80s and can be expected to do the same now. “Anytime they wanted to ram through some outrageous program, they would just start screaming and Congress would collapse,” he says. “I mean, it’s not just Congress; it’s the same in what’s called intellectual discussion. Very few people want to be subjected to endless vicious tirades and lies. It’s just unpleasant, so the question is, Why bother? So most people just back off.”

Those Reaganites have had their own dealings with Hussein, and they remain preoccupied with him now. They were there when the United States helped Iraq with its chemical warfare against Iran, as The New York Times reported, letting the world in on what everyone in Washington knew already. In fact, as Iraq gassed its enemy, the United States actually removed the nation from its list of terrorist states and enthusiastically increased military and other aid across the board to help Saddam beat the fundamentalist Muslims in Iran.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iraq never was a predictable ally for the West. In the early 1970s, Saddam signed a friendship pact with the Soviets, nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company, and strongly opposed Israel. But in the face of Iranian fundamentalism, the U.S. sought ways to curry favor with Iraq against Iran.

After reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iraq in 1984, the United States expanded its guaranteed agricultural exports to Hussein. Saddam shifted away from collective farms and toward tree crops, chickens, and dairy products, a changeover that went hand-in-hand with the relocating of the population from the countryside to the cities. At one point, the United States sold as much as 20 percent of its entire rice crop to Iraq. And Saddam wasn’t just buying food. In December 1990, Village Voice writer Murray Waas documented the U.S. sales of military hardware—weapons systems and helicopters—to the Iraqis, shipments that armed Saddam with weapons he later used against us in the Persian Gulf campaign.

Despite having our own equipment at his disposal, Saddam quite quickly went down to defeat—a lesson not lost on Hussein’s military commanders or on neighboring nations. Chomsky argues the Iraqi army would fare no better this time, but he warns against false confidence on the part of the White House. The last time around, Mideast leaders wanted Hussein out of Kuwait. This time, they want the United States out of their affairs. “If I was in the Republican Guards, I’d just hide my rifle and run,” Chomsky says. “They’re just going to get devastated. And I also suspect that the guys in Washington may be right in their assumption that the rest of the region and the world will be so intimidated that they won’t do anything. That’s a possibility. On the other hand, the whole place might blow up. It’s just flipping a coin—you’ve got no idea.”

The only certainty, it seems, is that the United States will attack. “I think this war will happen, and I think it’s likely to be right after the midterm elections or sometime in winter 2003,” says Chris Toensing, editor of MERIP Report, which tracks the Middle East. The thinking of the administration is that “the U.S. is strong enough that none of these countries [Britain or the Middle Eastern allies] can mount an individual challenge to the United States, and that they won’t, and that they will protest until the last moment, and when it becomes clear that the war is going to happen, then they will be quiet and let it go on and assist in various ways, either quiet or open. . . . The group of policy-makers that’s really pushing this forward, that’s really driving the policy, the really hawkish group, believe in American unilateralism as, not just a necessity, but a virtue. It’s the first principle of their international relations.”

Morton Halperin, senior director for Democracy at the National Security Council under Clinton and a present director at the Center for National Security Studies, thinks Bush will at least solicit the support of Congress before going in, but not because of the War Powers Act or any other legal requirements. “He will consult because people will tell him that this is going to be very expensive, it’s going to be very complicated, we’re going to have to stay there for a long time, and you don’t want to do it without having gotten the permission of Congress,” says Halperin. “And at the end of the day they’re not going to turn you down.” Turning dove on Iraq proved painful for Democrats before, he says, and they’re not about to take that chance again.

These days, the smartest opposition to attacking Hussein comes from quarters like the left-leaning think tank Foreign Policy in Focus, which has published a point-by-point rationale on its Web site, www.foreign policy-infocus.org.

  • The war would be illegal, the group argues. The dispute with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction rightly belongs to the United Nations, not the United States. If the United States on its own decides to attack Iraq because it violates a Security Council resolution, then any other member of the Security Council, acting on its own, can attack any other country, thereby creating international anarchy.

  • Our allies in the region oppose the war. Kuwait itself has been mending fences with Iraq, which has agreed to respect Kuwait’s sovereignty. Kuwait is opposed to a new attack by the United States.

  • There is nothing to show that the government of Iraq had links to Al Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists.

  • None of the 9-11 hijackers were Iraqi, no major figure in Al Qaeda is Iraqi, and no Al Qaeda funding has been traced to Iraq.

  • U.S. officials have admitted that there is no evidence that Iraq has resumed its nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs. After the 1991 war, all of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems were destroyed. Before U.N. inspectors were withdrawn in 1998, they reportedly oversaw the destruction of 38,000 chemical weapons, 480,000 liters of live chemical weapons agents, 48 missiles, six missile launchers, 30 missile warheads modified to carry chemical or biological agents, and hundreds of pieces of equipment with the capability to produce chemical weapons. “In its most recent report,” writes Foreign Policy in Focus, “the International Atomic Energy Agency categorically declared that Iraq no longer has a nuclear program.”

  • “Iraq’s current armed forces are at barely one-third their pre-war strength,” the group argues, with a nonexistent navy and a tiny air force. Military spending is one-tenth of what it was in 1990.

  • Iraq is not a military threat to its neighbors, most of which have sophisticated air-defense systems. The think tank quotes Israeli military analyst Meir Stieglitz, who noted in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot: “The chances of Iraq having succeeded in developing operative warheads without tests are zero.”

—James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway is a political columnist for The Village Voice, where this story first appeared. Research assistance by Joshua Hersh, Gabrielle Jackson, and Cassandra Lewis.

Connect the Imaginary Dots

Desperate for evidence to justify an invasion, Bush administration hawks and their media supporters talk tough—and hope no one checks their facts

Who died and left Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of State? Seems like every few days, he meets with the press and tosses out another foreign-policy making remark. Students of bureaucratic gamesmanship must view the defense secretary with awe. When the Afghanistan campaign was under way last year, he took to holding daily briefings with the Pentagon press corps. The sessions were a hit; among the commentariat there was silly talk that Rummy, with his no-nonsense style, had become a matinee idol. (For whom? Republican matrons in their 60s?) But every day he was out there making news—or making it onto the news—and as the war in Afghanistan slowed to a trickle of small actions, Rumsfeld still kept his date with the television cameras. With less to talk about Afghanistan-wise, he was happy to share his views on other matters—the Middle East, say. Most recently, he warned (at a public meeting with Army troops) that if Russia maintains its trading relationship with Iraq, the nation will be branded a pal of terrorism and global investors will steer clear of Russia.Normally, it would be the job of the secretary of state or the president to wag a finger at another nuclear power. But in this instance, the secretary of defense—on his own or not—was sending a serious foreign-policy message. Colin Powell, call your office. Henry Kissinger would never have stood for this.

Rumsfeld has been most out front on Iraq—pushing the case, without providing evidence, that Saddam Hussein and his brutal cronies are up to their mustaches in terrorism and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A few weeks back, at one of his press briefings, Rumsfeld suggested that Iraq had developed underground bunkers and mobile labs for its WMD scientists and engineers. If true, this would render an international weapons-inspection effort more difficult, perhaps even futile, and provide the United States with more reason for what appears to be the Bush administration’s preferred course of action: military preemption. But Rumsfeld neither offered proof such facilities have been built, nor did he claim that intelligence—which, of course, cannot be made public—confirms the existence of these hard-to-find laboratories of death. (Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, argues that there is no evidence to back up this Rumsfeld claim.)

More recently, Rumsfeld supported another attempt to tie Iraq to Sept. 11 by saying at a news conference that it “is a fact that there are Al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq.” As the Washington Post noted, in reporting Rumsfeld’s remarks, “Eager to bolster the case for military action, administration hawks have pressed for months for whatever evidence can be uncovered about any links between Hussein’s government and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.” This eagerness, unfortunately, has caused Rumsfeld and others to be disingenuous. After all, the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq has meaning only—in this context—if Saddam is providing these fighters sanctuary or somehow collaborating with them. In fact, the Post quoted a “senior U.S. intelligence official” who said there is no evidence Saddam has “welcomed in or sheltered” the terrorists. And another U.S. official commented, “They aren’t the official guests of the government” and described these Al Qaeda fighters as largely “on the run.”

But Rumsfeld rejected—without refuting—these observations. “In a vicious, repressive dictatorship that exercises near-total control over its population,” he huffed, “it’s very hard to imagine that the government is not aware of what’s taking place in the country.” On other occasions, though, Rumsfeld has estimated that Al Qaeda has a presence in 60 or so countries. Do these nations deserve to be threatened with invasion? The point is not to suggest that Iraq is Al Qaeda-free or that Saddam would never join with the enemy of an enemy. But Rumsfeld should not be able to get away with substituting assertion for argument. Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq? It could matter much. It could matter not at all. It depends on the details. Yet Rumsfeld, in transmitting administration views to the world, skips over the specifics.

This is in keeping with the desperate efforts of administration officials (and their supporters) to find some dots—any dots—connecting Saddam to Sept. 11. Up to now, the get-Saddam gang has relied mostly on the allegation that 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta in April 2000 met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official. This encounter has in no way been confirmed. The Czechs at one point seemed to say it had not happened. Yet the story won’t fade, and the hawks continue to claim this debate is not settled. Let’s say this tete-a-tete did transpire. So what? The significance of this event can be determined only if one knows the purpose of the meeting. Sure, it’s possible—though not probable—that Iraqi intelligence was officially assisting Al Qaeda and knew of its 9/11 master plan. But perhaps this intelligence officer was acting on his own. He could have been unofficially assisting Atta. Or he could have been trying to penetrate Al Qaeda. Maybe he was a rogue officer trying to peddle arms to Al Qaeda. Maybe he and Atta were old school chums. Come up with your own scenario. The bottom line is that unless someone has a transcript of this Prague meeting or memos written about it—that is, if it did happen—no one can judge its significance. It is rather thin stuff on which to wage a war.

All of this loose talk amounts to a pretty damn ugly attempt to drive the nation to war via underhanded means. Perhaps this is one reason why former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, during a recent interview, called deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle—two main cheerleaders of the go-to-war crowd—“devious.” For the latest exercise in deviousness, see William Safire’s New York Times column of Aug. 22. It’s a beaut. Without providing a single named or unnamed source—how does the paper of record let him get away with this?—he reports that “an Iraqi intelligence officer” heads a “force of some 120 Arab terrorists” that is operating in the Kurdish portion of northern Iraq and that this group has been trying to assassinate democratic Kurds and set up chemical weapons facilities. Safire also claims an Osama bin Laden aide helped train “many” of these terrorists. He cites this as “evidence of Saddam’s close connection with terrorists” and concludes, “terror’s most dangerous supporter can be found in Baghdad.”

OK, forget the total absence of sources. Safire is still playing a rotten version of connect the dots. He writes that the former Iraqi intelligence office leading this force, Fowzi Saad al-Obeidi, “supposedly defected from Saddam Hussein’s ranks.” Should Saddam be held responsible for what a defector does? Obviously, Safire believes the defection was a cover story. Hence, his use of “supposedly.” But can he establish the defection was phony? Safire notes Saad’s family “continues to enjoy privileges in Baghdad.” That’s his proof. Possibly this means what Safire thinks it means. Possibly not. There could be other explanations for Saad’s family’s situation. Without more information, Safire’s inference carries little weight. Assuming his facts are correct—a bold assumption, given the lack of sourcing—what the reader is left with is this: A onetime Iraqi intelligence officer, who may or may not still be working for Saddam, is leading a small group of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists of whom some (the amount is not specified) were trained at some point in time (when is not specified) by a senior Al Qaeda commander. Without more data regarding Saad’s current connection to Saddam, this story says nothing concrete about Saddam’s relationship to Al Qaeda and global terrorism. Safire is turning a lead into a conclusion. Like Rumsfeld, he is using partial and unproven allegations to whip up sentiment for war.

It could well be that Saddam is a suicidal maniac with bin Laden’s private number on his speed dialer. But there is no evidence the Prague meeting occurred; no evidence Saddam is protecting Al Qaeda leftovers; no evidence there are underground WMD labs in Iraq; no evidence Saddam is running a terrorist group jointly with Al Qaeda. The devious ones are throwing all they can at Saddam, and much of it won’t stick.

In recent days, the Bush White House has seemed worried that war talk has gained too much speed. In Crawford, Texas, Bush interrupted his vacation to tell reporters that regarding Iraq, “I’m a patient man and that we will look at all options and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence.” It could be that the White House was spooked by recent opposition to a unilateral war against Iraq voiced by several prominent Republicans, including Brent Scowcroft, chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a Bush family friend, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and Lawrence Eagleburger, who served in the Bush I cabinet.

If the White House is truly concerned speculation about war with Iraq has outpaced actual deliberations, it ought to tell Rumsfeld to shut up—at least when it comes to innuendo—and to stop playing secretary of state on television. But if Rumsfeld and other hawks in the administration are going to hype any allegation, confirmed or not, about the alleged threat from Saddam and his alleged terrorist contacts, the White House should expect the public to expect war. With devious people calling the shots, it’s not foolish to assume shots will be fired soon and for dishonest reasons.

—David Corn

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.

The Battle of Washington

Republicans line up against each other in a heated argument over the wisdom of war

The Republicans have gone to war, only this time it’s against themselves. This war is over going to war, specifically against Iraq. The hawks are led by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and the neo-conservative Likudniks who surround them. Also arrayed on their side are a host of cheerleaders in the media, including the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard and Fox News, and political pundits like Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol. Speaking out against the planned attack are the foreign-policy veterans of the elder Bush administration, led by the old man’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger, and, inside the younger Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War.The two sides began jousting shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, even as the nation was still reeling from the attacks. Less than 10 days later, members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) published an open letter to the president pressing him to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as part of the global war against terrorism “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the [Sept. 11] attack.”

At the same time, the chairman of the Defense Policy Board (DPB), neocon Richard Perle, with the support of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and his like-minded deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, convened the DPB to discuss possible ways to overthrow Saddam. The DPB also invited the head of an Iraqi opposition group to address them, without notifying the Powell-led State Department.

As war drums began sounding in Washington, the usually low-profile Scowcroft published an op-ed in the Washington Post stressing the need to build a broad coalition of European and Arab allies to support the war against terror. The elder Bush’s national security adviser argued that any unilateral action against Iraq would be potentially ruinous for such an effort. In response, columnist Charles Krauthammer accused both Scowcroft and Powell of being responsible for the ultimate betrayal of the Gulf War: persuading Bush Sr. to stop the war at the Kuwaiti border instead of taking it all the way to Baghdad.

The low-intensity conflict continued into the spring, when Scowcroft voiced concerns in the Post about Bush Jr.’s failure to exert real pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw his forces from the reoccupied West Bank. The withdrawal would be an important first step in an expedited peace process that would include the deployment of an international force to separate the two sides. Within a month, however, President Bush moved precisely in the opposite direction, aligning U.S. policy squarely with Sharon, thanks to the increasing influence of Cheney and the Pentagon hawks.

The war warmed up again in July, however, when the uniformed military at the Pentagon started leaking detailed plans for war against Iraq—plans that made clear the profound divide within the administration between civilian hawks and the senior military officers and State Department and CIA analysts who opposed the planned war.

Scowcroft fired the opening salvo in a broadside published in the staunchly neoconservative Wall Street Journal. Apart from jeopardizing international cooperation in the war on terrorism, Scowcroft warned that the attack “could well destabilize Arab regimes in the region, ironically facilitating one of Saddam’s strategic objectives.”

Scowcroft, who has access to top-level intelligence as the chairman of the Presidential Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), also dismissed any suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. “[T]here is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks,” he wrote. “Indeed, Saddam’s goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them.” It was a move designed to infuriate the hawks who have repeatedly referenced such links as a sound justification for a war.

Scowcroft’s op-ed might well have created little more than a minor stir during the dog days of summer. But instead it became a major media event the very next day, when The New York Times cited Scowcroft’s dissent in its lead article, headlined, “Top Republicans Break with Bush on Iraq Strategy.”

The article cited Scowcroft’s article and a column by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who argued that a war against Iraq could be justified but required greater support at home and abroad. It also drew special attention to similar critiques recently voiced by Lawrence Eagleburger and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). And it quoted unnamed senior State Department officials who said they were working desperately from within to halt the push towards war.

The bomb-Saddam crowd was quick to respond. Last week, readers got a double blast, with both the Journal and the Standard taking aim at the Times and Scowcroft. In its lead editorial titled “This is Opposition?” the Journal ridiculed any notion of a split within Republican ranks. Journal editors claimed that Scowcroft and Powell were practitioners of “realpolitik,” which “striv[es] for balance of power in the old European sense, [and] . . . typically favors ‘stability,’ even when it’s imposed by dictators over democratic aspiration.” It went on to blame Scowcroft for “stop[ping] the Gulf War early, based in part on a CIA fear that a divided Iraq without a dictator was worse than a ‘stable’ Iraq ruled by Saddam or his Baath Party successor.”

The Standard weighed in with its own attack penned by William Kristol, a PNAC founder and reliable spokesman for the neocons allied with Cheney and Rumsfeld. The article, “The Axis of Appeasement,” accused the Times of “shamelessly” mischaracterizing Kissinger’s position, noting that “the establishment fights most bitterly and dishonestly when it feels cornered and thinks it’s about to lose.”

“Reading the Scowcroft/New York Times ‘arguments’ against the war, one is struck by how laughably weak they are,” Kristol wrote. “European international-law wishfulness and full-blown Pat Buchanan isolationism are the two intellectually honest alternatives to the Bush Doctrine,” he added. “Scowcroft and the Times embrace neither, so they pretend instead to be terribly ‘concerned’ with the administration’s alleged failure to ‘make the case’ [for going to war].”

But the central target of Kristol’s attack was Colin Powell, who is seen as the heart of the “axis of appeasement.”

“Colin Powell is an impressive man. He is loyally assisted by the able (Deputy Secretary of State) Richard Armitage. They are entitled to their foreign policy views. But they will soon have to decide whom they wish to serve—the president, or his opponents,” Kristol wrote. The column also cited various statements made by Rumsfeld, Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice defending the war, presumably as evidence of their loyalty.

Whether and how Scowcroft or Powell will return fire remains to be seen, but initial signs suggest that—as Kristol predicts—Powell will indeed have to choose sides. Soon after, the White House announced that Powell will be sent to Johannesburg for the Second Earth Summit—the administration equivalent of Siberia—while Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice were summoned to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, on the very same day. With the battle lines now so clearly drawn, the question now is who else will enter the fray.

Democrats, who control a majority of the Senate, are keeping so far to the rear as to be virtually invisible. While neocon Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) is clearly on the Baghdad bandwagon, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) is lined up behind Powell, other leading Democrats have been more cautious. Party heavyweights, however, worry that a failure to support the war on Iraq will make them vulnerable to charges of disloyalty. A more immediate concern is the risk of alienating major Jewish donors, who already have contributed heavily to the defeat of Southern black incumbent congressmen who criticized the extension of the war on terrorism to include Yassir Arafat and Saddam.

But Scowcroft’s willingness to take on the hawks has spurred much greater speculation about the position of Poppy Bush, who remains very close to his former top foreign-policy aide and even coauthored a 1997 book with him. “For Scowcroft to say anything that can be seen as critical towards the administration is quite amazing,” noted one former senior official who worked with Scowcroft during the first Bush administration. “Frankly, I can’t conceive of him doing so without first talking with Bush’s dad.”

—Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet, Inter-Press Services, and Foreign Policy In Focus.


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