President Bush's Clintonian calibrations on al-Qaida.

Military analysis.
June 17 2004 6:09 PM

It Depends What the Meaning of "Relationship" Is

President Bush's Clintonian calibrations on al-Qaida.

Talking to reporters after his Cabinet meeting this morning, President Bush disputed the 9/11 commission's conclusion that no "collaborative relationship" existed between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. "There was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda," Bush insisted. Then the president drew a distinction:

The administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al-Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence agents met with bin Laden, the head of al-Qaeda in Sudan.

Let's examine these words closely because President Bush clearly chose them carefully. The latest chapter of the 9/11 commission's report, which was released Wednesday, notes that there were—as Bush put it—"numerous contacts" between the two entities. It cites the same meetings with Iraqi intelligence agents that Bush cited. So Bush's "dispute" with the commission's findings isn't a dispute at all. He just meant to make it look like a dispute—to make some people think the commission might be wrong.

This stratagem is in keeping with the president's rhetoric on this issue all along. He has never precisely alleged that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He's just meant for his words to look like allegations.

Advertisement

The operative word in the commission's finding is "collaborative." Contacts between Iraq and al-Qaida, it reported, "do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship." Bush doesn't dispute this either. In fact, he agrees; he claims that he never said that Saddam and Bin Laden "orchestrated" the attacks.

But didn't he at one point? Wasn't the claim of collaboration a rationale for invading Iraq? On Sept. 25, 2002, Bush said, "You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror." On May 1, 2003, aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, beneath the "Mission Accomplished" banner, he declared, "We have removed an ally of al-Qaeda and cut off a source of terrorist funding."

Again, look closely. He never said outright that Saddam had connections with 9/11. He suggested connections—and did so repeatedly until a majority of Americans believed Saddam was somehow involved in the attacks. But his comments were never more than calibrated suggestions—loose phrasings, words that seemed to be interchangeable but really weren't.

For instance, in his weekly radio address of Feb. 8, 2003, Bush said: "Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct, and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and al-Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s." At first glance, the second sentence seems to be an elaboration of the first sentence. And it might be—but it also might not be, and, in fact, it wasn't. Saddam did have strong ties to "terrorist networks," but those networks were not al-Qaida; they were Hamas and Palestinian suicide bombers.

In his May 1 address aboard the Lincoln, he came close to crossing the line but stopped just short. "The battle of Iraq," he said, "is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001. With that attack, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got."

This passage could be read as equating the toppled Iraqi regime with the terrorists of 9/11 or at least with their supporters. But that's not the only possible reading. Read the sentences, even the individual clauses, not as a logical stream but as separate thoughts. Iraq did support terrorists (not al-Qaida, but terrorists), so the war could be seen as part of a war against terrorism. The terrorists of 9/11 did declare war on the United States (though those were different terrorists from the ones Saddam supported). And war is what the 9/11 terrorists got (in Afghanistan).

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Federal Law Enforcement Has Declared War on Encryption

Justice and the FBI really do not like Apple’s and Google’s new privacy measures.

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 6:39 PM Spoiler Special: Transparent
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?