As American casualties mount in Iraq, politicians at home now fight over who said what and when about weapons of mass destruction and the need for going to war. One of the most frequent charges is that President George W. Bush hyped a non-existent link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida and that as a result, we diverted our efforts from finishing off the real terrorists to start a new and costly war to replace a secular dictator.
This charge is false for several reasons and illogical for even more.
Almost every responsible U.S. government body had long warned about Saddam's links to al-Qaida terrorists. In 1998, for example, when the Clinton Justice Department indicted bin Laden, the writ read: "In addition, al-Qaida reached an understanding with the Government of Iraq that al-Qaida would not work against that government and that on particular projects, specifically including weapons development, al-Qaida would work cooperatively with the Government of Iraq."
Then in October 2002, George Tenet the Clinton-appointed CIA director warned the Senate in similar terms: "We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida going back a decade."
Seventy-seven Senators apparently agreed including a majority of Democrats and cited just that connection a few days later as a cause to go to war against Saddam: ". . . Whereas members of al-Qaida, an organization bearing responsibility for attacks on the United States, its citizens, and interests, including the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, are known to be in Iraq."
The bipartisan consensus about this unholy alliance was not based on intriguing but unconfirmed rumors of meetings between Saddam's intelligence agents and al-Qaida operatives such as Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta.
Nor did the senators or the president ever claim that Saddam himself planned the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead the Justice Department, the Senate and two administrations were alarmed by terrorist groups like Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaida affiliate that established bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.
More importantly still, one of the masterminds of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Abdul Rahman Yasin, fled to Baghdad to find sanctuary with Saddam after the attack. And after the U.S.'s successful war against the Taliban, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the present murderous al-Qaida leader in Iraq, reportedly escaped from Afghanistan to gain a reprieve from Saddam.
All of this is understandable since Saddam had a long history of promoting and sheltering anti-Western terrorists. That's why both Abu Nidal and Abu Abbas terrorist banes of the 1970s and 1980s were in Baghdad prior to the U.S. invasion and why the families of West Bank suicide bombers were given $25,000 rewards by the Iraqi government.
Saddam worried little over the agendas of these diverse terrorist groups, only that they shared his own generic hatred of Western governments. This kind of support from leaders such as Saddam has proven crucial to radical, violent Islamicists' efforts.
After Sept. 11, it became clear that these enemies can only resort to terrorism to weaken American resolve and gain concessions and can't even do that without the clandestine help of illegitimate regimes (from Saddam in Iraq to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the theocracy in Iran, Bashar Assad in Syria and others) who provide money and sanctuary while denying culpability.
Middle Eastern terrorists and tyrants feed on one another. The Saddams and Assads of the region and to a less extent the Saudi royal family and the Mubarak dynasty deflected popular anger over their own failures on to the United States by allowing terrorists to scapegoat the Americans.
Yet, for a quarter-century, oil, professed anti-communism and loud promises to "fight terror" earned various reprieves from the West for these dictatorships, who were deathly afraid that one day America might catch on and do something other than shoot a cruise missile at enemies while sternly lecturing "friends."
That day came after Sept. 11. To end the old pathology, we took out the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, pressured the Syrians to leave Lebanon, encouraged Lebanese democracy, hectored the Egyptians about elections, told Libya's Moammar Gaddafi to come clean about his nuclear plans, and risked oil supplies by jawboning the Persian Gulf monarchies to liberalize.
The theory behind all these messy and often caricatured efforts was not the desire for endless war we removed by force only the two worst regimes, in Afghanistan and Iraq but to allow Middle Easterners a third alternative between Islamic radicalism and secular dictatorship. No wonder that wherever there are elections in the Middle East Afghanistan and Iraq legitimate governments there have the moral authority and the desire to fight Islamic terrorism.
Americans can blame one another all we want over the cost in lives and treasure in Iraq. But the irony is that not long ago everyone from Bill Clinton to George Bush, senators, CIA directors and federal prosecutors all agreed that Saddam had offered assistance to al-Qaida, the organization that murdered 3,000 Americans. That was one of the many reasons we went into Iraq, why Zarqawi and ex-Baathists side-by-side now attack American soldiers and why an elected Iraqi government is fighting with us.