The real connection between al-Qaida and Iraq.

The real connection between al-Qaida and Iraq.

The real connection between al-Qaida and Iraq.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 7 2002 11:35 PM

A Tale of Two Enemies

The real connection between al-Qaida and Iraq.

President Bush opened his Monday night speech on Iraq with two stories. "Eleven years ago, as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi regime was required to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, to cease all development of such weapons, and to stop all support for terrorist groups," he began. "The Iraqi regime has violated all of those obligations." Then Bush turned to a second story: "On Sept. 11, 2001, America felt its vulnerability, even to threats that gather on the other side of the earth."


Throughout his speech, Bush tried to weave the two stories together. He argued that Iraq was entangled with al-Qaida and that Sept. 11 revealed new dangers in Iraq that required military action. He tried to show, as he has for months, that war in Iraq would be part of the war on terror. Instead, he confirmed the opposite. If Bush had evidence linking the two wars, this was his last plausible chance to divulge it. He didn't. It's clear that the two stories are objectively unrelated. The link between them is subjective: The events of Sept. 11 lowered our standards for using force.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The first story goes halfway toward justifying an assault on Iraq. It provides a clear justification for military action against Saddam Hussein. "Every chemical and biological weapon that Iraq has or makes is a direct violation of the truce that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991," Bush observed. He noted the many U.N. resolutions Saddam has breached since the war. The problem with this story is that it doesn't justify unilateral action by the United States. It justifies action by the Persian Gulf war coalition or by the United Nations.

That's why Bush turned to the second story. It provides a clear justification for American action. But the justification applies only to those who attacked us on Sept. 11. Bush tried to link Iraq to al-Qaida, but his attempts fell flat. He said that they both hate the United States, that some al-Qaida leaders have fled to Iraq, and that Iraqis have taught some members of al-Qaida how to build dangerous weapons. These things are true, but they aren't unique to Iraq. Bush also pointed out that Iraq harbors terrorists, but he ignored other regimes that are more guilty of this offense.

Bush said Iraq and al-Qaida "have had high-level contacts," but he didn't specify what they were or how long ago they took place. He said Iraq could unleash "a chemical or biological attack" against us by using "one terrorist or Iraqi intelligence operative to deliver it." The first delivery option makes the second gratuitous: If Saddam wants to send us anthrax or smallpox, he doesn't need Osama Bin Laden to do it. And on the question of Iraq's links to Sept. 11, the only evidence Bush produced was that "Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America." Not exactly a felony.

From the word games Bush plays, you can see how hard he's straining to connect the two stories. "Terror cells and outlaw regimes building weapons of mass destruction are different faces of the same evil," he declared, as though this metaphor clarified rather than confused the issue. Later, Bush spoke gravely of Saddam's "numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, a group he calls his 'nuclear mujahideen'—his nuclear holy warriors." This was an obvious attempt to make Saddam sound like a Muslim zealot when in fact he's a secular Arab nationalist.

So, what's the connection between Saddam and Sept. 11? The answer isn't in Baghdad. It's in our heads. Sept. 11 lowered our standards for throwing our weight around. No more Mr. Patient Guy. If you look like you might hit us, we're going to hit you first. In Bush's words: "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun, that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."

This lowering of standards takes many forms. Uncertainty becomes a reason to attack rather than forbear. "Many people have asked how close Saddam Hussein is to developing a nuclear weapon," said Bush. "We don't know exactly, and that is the problem." Second, nonviolence is no longer the default option. It must be shown to pose less risk than violence poses. Waiting "is the riskiest of all options, because the longer we wait, the stronger and bolder Saddam Hussein will become," Bush argued. Third, our tolerance for risk drops precipitously, as does our willingness to give the benefit of the doubt. "I am not willing to stake one American life on trusting Saddam Hussein," said Bush. Fourth, the mere threat of attack by the enemy becomes a basis for striking him first. As Bush put it, "We refuse to live in fear."

That's the connection between Sept. 11 and Iraq. One enemy whacked us, and Bush decided not to take any more chances with the other. He should tell it like it is and stop pretending they're the same enemy.