Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

The Price of Victory
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 16 2004 11:06 AM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Rightly deposed
Rightly deposed

A short answer to Fred Kaplan's question of Wednesday: If the James Risen story in the New York Times is correct, which I have no reason to doubt, it is still written upside down, or at least would read just as well if printed that way. In other words, one might as well make a "disclosure" out of the fact that Saddam was in close touch with his own thugs concerning the movements of jihadist ones: movements of which he was very well aware.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens
Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism and The Passion of Joschka Fischer, which is forthcoming in the spring. Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of Longitudes and Attitudes. Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor toSlate. His most recent book is A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slateand is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon. George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article about the occupation recently appeared. He is working on a book about America in Iraq. Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In an Uncertain World. Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.

On its own, that would now surprise nobody. Nor does it contradict anything we know already. My own analogy for the Baathist/al-Qaida collusion has always been that of a Hitler-Stalin pact: a cynical agreement on common interests and common enemies by ostensible and actual rivals. The analogy would break down a bit in point of relative scale: Saddam used to have a state machine, and the jihadists (at least after the fall of Kabul) did not. But that doesn't affect the argument very much. At all times—the case of Ansar al-Islam in Kurdistan might be another example, or the less Islamist Abu Nidal network—Saddam wanted to be the one using, not the one used. And he wanted control. He was an absolutist dictator, before we forget.

Advertisement

The statements made by al-Qaida spokesmen come out the same way: They don't support Baathism, but they did strongly support Saddam against the coalition and they did and do want to make Iraq into a site for holy war.

The leaked document on this relationship from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which contains a great deal of information that has not been contradicted, shows the same pattern. Deniable Iraqi envoys were sent to seek accommodation and understanding, at arm's length, with the newest and most serious anti-American force in the region. How could it have been otherwise? It was the Mukhabarat's job to do such things. (And sometimes to undo them, as when they murdered Abu Nidal in the run-up to the invasion.) It's only a few weeks since the New York Times breathlessly informed us, in another upside-down disclosure, that Iraqi middlemen seeking to avert an invasion made an offer, among other things, to surrender a certain Mr. Yasin—wanted for the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and ever since that date a resident of Baghdad. The main effect of that report was to tell the paper's readers, for the first time, of the existence of this very fascinating connection.

One still reads ignorant stuff about how "secular" the Baath Party once was. This ignores at least a decade's worth of ostentatiously jihadist propaganda, the building of mosques with militaristic names, and the writing of a special Quran allegedly in Saddam's own blood. To say nothing of open and boastful military and financial support for the jihadist suicide-murderers in Palestine, i.e., for the enemies of the more secular PLO. I dare say someone could now write an exclusive story for the New York Times saying that private letters showed that Saddam Hussein was never really sincere about his personal conversion to Islam. And I would believe that report, too.

Very occasionally, I feel sympathy for the anti-intervention forces. They can quite pardonably claim that they don't know quite which protean Bush/Cheney/Powell/Rumsfeld case they are debating, or which is today's prowar headline or justification. But the same applies in reverse. For example, once I finish arguing with someone who says that a thousand Osamas will spring up to replace the killed Osama, I turn to confront someone who angrily says that Bush hasn't killed Osama yet (which the first contestant can presumably not desire, unless he desires a thousand Osamas). And one can become dizzy, as between those who feel that there are too many American forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, and those who denounce Washington for sending too few.

I myself thought it was plain enough, when I spoke to Jacob's point about "cost," that I was alluding not merely to Iraq but to the whole front between ourselves and the jihad and its state allies. But perhaps I should have taken more care to bodyguard my remarks. (And I certainly didn't say that such a matter was "irrelevant.") I believe nonetheless that such a cost-accounting is impossible. At what point could it have been determined in advance that the fall of Saddam Hussein was worth X or Y? At what stage would cost have dictated discretion? Would halfway to Baghdad have been cheap at half the price? How was the "cost" of allowing continuing Baathist rule to be calculated? Have we really overspent in Afghanistan? Who would decide how the investment necessary for the demolition of the Taliban had hit diminishing returns? And when? And how would the money have been better spent "at home"? There is such a thing as knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. (Fred Kaplan comes closer to genuine bargain-basement reasoning by declaring boldly that he will endorse any policy that can be guaranteed as a painless victory in advance. Or that he might have done so until recently.)

Of some interest are the predictions made, by both Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, on precisely this point. In well-reported speeches and sermons, and in one instance in a tape-recorded exchange with a U.S. ambassador, both men predicted with boastful certainty that Americans would soon weary of the cost of combat and retire from the field, either because of "body bag" considerations or because of the general decadence produced by Judeo-capitalism, hedonism, corruption, impiety, etc. It seems to me to be of the very first importance, for reasons of morale and of strategy (as well as the imposed necessity of rehearsing and improving our tactics and soldiery by means of practice) that these predictions go into the dustbin of history as among the stupidest and vainest things anyone has ever said. I don't know how to quantify such a necessary attainment, but I do know that the contrary example would come in at a very high price indeed, and be very dearly bought for no comparative advantage.