Rarely has an American President delivered a more critical but less compelling address than George W. Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. Even as he spoke ominously of “tragedy,” “appeasement” and “suicide,” he failed to show that the Iraqi regime is an immediate threat to the United States. Again, he offered an analogy between Baghdad’s armaments and the Nazi war machine of the 1930′s, although no one back then believed that we would defeat Hitler in a matter of days.
Yet the President’s appeal to fear has persuaded his chosen audience, if not the world. Opinion surveys following his appearance indicate that most Americans now accept his dubious assertion that “every measure has been taken to avoid war.” One reason why Americans are rallying around the White House, despite the strong doubts reflected in those same polls, is that many Americans also believe things that are simply not true.
Over the past several months, as the President and his aides promoted the arguments for war, the American people came to believe that the Iraqi dictatorship has nuclear weapons. They believe that the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came from Iraq. Most importantly, they believe a single “big lie”: that Saddam Hussein worked in concert with Al Qaeda to perpetrate the atrocities of Sept. 11.
The President has encouraged that false idea, even though he knows very well that our intelligence agencies have uncovered little information to substantiate the charge. During his prime-time press conference last week, Mr. Bush told the nation, “I believe Saddam Hussein is a threat to the American people. I believe he’s a threat to the neighborhood in which he lives. And I’ve got good evidence to believe that … he has trained and financed Al Qaeda–type organizations before, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.”
If Mr. Bush actually does possess “good evidence” of Iraqi complicity with the Islamist terror network, he should turn it over to his own government right away-because, so far, they haven’t been able to find any. According to the State Department’s most recent annual report on the general subject, titled Patterns of Global Terrorism , Baghdad has no ties to Al Qaeda or, for that matter, to any of the “Al Qaeda–type organizations” operating in the Middle East and Africa. Although the report finds that Iraq has assisted “numerous terrorist groups,” those outfits are all secular and “Marxist” or “socialist” in ideology-in other words, “infidels,” the insult used by Osama bin Laden to describe Saddam Hussein. That same report, released last year, notes that the “main focus” of Saddam’s terror expenditures has been on “dissident Iraqi activity overseas.”
Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who has spent two decades reporting on Islamist movements, reaffirmed that assessment recently. “I don’t think the Al Qaeda link [with Iraq] is significant,” he said. “I don’t think Saddam Hussein is about to give chemical weapons to them … I think the [alleged] linkages with Al Qaeda are very tenuous.”
So the case against Iraq as a sponsor of Al Qaeda is weak. The absence of evidence that Iraq has acquired any nuclear materials, or is currently attempting to build nuclear weapons, has been discussed previously in this space. The comparisons between war-ravaged, militarily and industrially weak Iraq and Hitler’s Germany-rhetorically indulged in by both Mr. Bush and his British echo, Tony Blair-are ludicrous. As excuses for “collateral damage” to innocent civilians, these arguments are worse than unconvincing.
This is not to say that Saddam Hussein doesn’t deserve to be deposed, or that he may not have hidden some very dangerous chemical and biological weapons somewhere in his domain. While the Bush administration’s plans for a post-Saddam Iraq are murky, the idea of freeing the people of Iraq from hideous oppression appeals to every decent person. It is hard to imagine that whatever regime replaces him could be worse.
The questions remain: at what cost and to whose benefit? The real price of the coming conflict, in blood and treasure, has been concealed rather than debated. While Mr. Bush spoke of the certainty of “sacrifice” of our own young people in uniform, he has barely acknowledged the terrible suffering likely to be inflicted on innocent Iraqis.
The future price of the diplomatic misadventures that have led us to this moment, in ruined alliances and damaged institutions, cannot begin to be reckoned now. For the President and his political advisers, an easy victory promises better poll numbers and election prospects. For the American corporations that are already being invited by the Bush administration to bid on multibillion-dollar reconstruction contracts, such short-term gains may outweigh global problems on the distant horizon.
For the rest of us, however, life amid the diplomatic wreckage may gradually become more dangerous, more difficult and more expensive than Mr. Bush and his optimistic advisers have imagined.