Iraq and Al-Qaida

They Can Bill Me
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
March 25 2002 4:07 PM

Iraq and Al-Qaida

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Dear Jeff,

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Hey, we already have "some East Coast think tank" printed on ours.

And I think we can safely stipulate that the commander in chief did not make it all the way through your piece. I've consulted the Book of Revelations, though, and having Dick Cheney plugging The New Yorker is specifically mentioned as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse.

We're agreed (perhaps to the dismay of our Slate minders) that Saddam's regime is an extraordinarily vicious one and one that can't be permitted nukes. But just a minor tweak: I'd say that all the rest is policy. As we've discussed, there are real questions about how to move against Iraq (U.S. invasion? Afghan-style rollback?), even if the question of "whether" has been laid to rest. And the sequencing really is tricky. How thoroughly does al-Qaida need to be ripped up before the administration should start focusing firepower and political capital elsewhere? How bad can the Israeli-Palestinian mayhem be for the Arab political traffic to also bear movement on Iraq? Does the administration need to call Saddam's bluff on renewed U.N. arms inspections before moving, or does that just risk him stringing everyone along?

Pleased as I am to see the administration taking nonproliferation seriously with Iraq, I also fervently hope they'll have a policy on doomsday weapons that extends far further than Baghdad. Surely Job 1 in the era of catastrophic terrorism isn't just keeping nukes, germs, and gases out of the hands of state sponsors of terrorism but also out of the hands of terrorists themselves. Russia is rife with poorly guarded nuclear facilities and poorly paid nuclear scientists, and Pakistan's no prize either. I can't think of a higher strategic priority for the Bush administration than doing whatever it takes to make sure that "loose nukes" don't fall into the wrong hands—because if they do, we could see catastrophic terrorism on a scale that makes 9/11 look puny. And unlike Iraq, the sequencing here is the very opposite of complex. It doesn't have to wait. Indeed, it can't.

If that means higher taxes, they can bill me.

I'll see your philosophical point and raise you an internecine political one. The reason it's interesting that neocons like Wolfowitz, Perle, and Bill Kristol have led the charge on Saddam has more to do with internal Republican struggle over the foreign policy direction of the party than it does to do with old Cold War labels (even though I can't quite resist hearing a John Foster Dulles echo in charges that containment is a sellout and only rollback will do). At least some of the tension between State and the Pentagon over Iraq echoes the grand old rift in the GOP, between Kissingerian balance-of-power realists and Reaganite value-driven idealists. Wolfowitz—who demands respect both for being seriously smart and for having been turned into a fictional character in a Saul Bellow novel (Ravelstein, for the record)—left power in 1992 genuinely distraught about the feckless decision to let Saddam decimate the postwar Kurdish and Shiite rebellions that the first Bush administration encouraged and then abandoned. The reason I mention the neocon label isn't to rehash Cold War name-calling, it's to suggest that the most intellectually vigorous force within the GOP is working hard to make sure that Bush II looks significantly more Reaganite than Bush I. As these guys see it, all the rest is Commentary.

But that certainly doesn't mean that abhorrence of Baathist totalitarianism is the exclusive preserve of the neocons. (For one thing, that's hard to square with the fact that the beatified Reagan administration pursued "constructive engagement" with Saddam both before and—worse—after he gassed Halabja.) Some liberals have missed the boat in taking humanitarianism out of the case for moving against Saddam. The death of about 100,000 Kurds in the Anfal should still offend the collective conscience of humanity, as did the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars, which goaded the reluctant Clinton administration into a humanitarian war. There's a fine liberal case for getting Saddam as well.

But there's another reason to go after Saddam, and that has to do with drying up the swamp. It's one thing for bin Laden to exist; hideous as he is, everyone has their villains. But it's a sign of how badly Arab politics have gone wrong that there's such a thing as "bin Ladenism"—that this monster has resonance. If the polls are remotely to be believed, most people in the Arab world don't believe that Arabs staged 9/11, and bin Laden is rather widely seen as incorruptible, ascetic, visionary, and principled, rather than as a murderous conspiracy theorist. A lot of what's wrong in Arab politics is epitomized in Saddam. That's not to say that getting rid of him is a panacea. But thinking about reform in Arab politics remains an important part of the leap that's getting made between a catastrophic terrorist attack perpetrated by Islamists and a major subsequent intervention targeted at a secular Arab tyrant.

As for Arafat, who also bespeaks a great deal wrong in Arab politics—well, maybe next time. For now, let me just note that when you say "see you in Baghdad," you're just brave (crazy?) enough to mean it. In an era where American journalism ran pell-mell after trivia, slashed foreign budgets to fatten celebrity salaries, and fled from serious foreign coverage, more power to you for running some heart-stopping risks to get these stories. It matters, and it's a standing reproach to much of the rest of the industry. (Anyone from Disney reading?)

So let's grab a beer sometime to commiserate over the intifada and much else. But not in Baghdad. Let's try Manhattan. You know, where it's safe.

Best,
Warren

Warren Bass is a senior editor at the Washington Post's "Book World" section and the author ofSupport Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance.

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