This story is starting to get a lot of attention. The gist of it is that the Bush administration nixed three times – as if in a fairy tale or something – plans to take out Zarqawi when he was in Northern Iraq. This happened after September 11th, and when the admin had credible evidence that Zarqawi was plotting evil things for America. If true, the story is absolutely damning, for obvious reasons.
If true – but right now, I can’t really make any sense of it. Here’s the explanation for the admin’s failure to go after Zarqawi:
Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawiâ€™s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
This makes no sense at all, since at the time the admin was bombing the crap out of Iraq in anticipation of the full-scale war. It was bombing its communication system, its anti-aircraft installations, its supply chains, and it was doing it with increasing vigour as the war drew nearer.
Given this, what harm would a little bombing of a terrorist camp do? It’s just very hard for me to believe that the admin would refrain from something like this because of what the neighbours might think.
I suppose it is just possible to argue that bombing the terrorist camps in Northern Iraq would undermine the case for war by demonstrating that the U.S. wouldn’t need to invade in order to deal with terrorist threats in Iraq. That’s the only explanation I can think of for holding off, and it’s pretty stupid.
Look, I’m happy to admit that the principle of charity doesn’t usually apply when you want to interpret the admin’s actions. I complain all the time on this site that the admin is stuffed with mouth-breathers. But the story as I understand it is just too wacky to believe – at least without strong confirmation. And remember that the admin has made some fairly serious enemies in the military. This might be a leak or a spin calculated to damage the admin.
For now, handle with caution.
UPDATE: OK, so I walked the dog, listened to a little music and mulled things over. And, yes, eventually it hit me that just a few posts ago I was dinging the Oxbloggers for being naive. Am I being naive here? Is it always a mistake to give the benefit of the doubt, no matter how small? Well, consider the best case against the admin here, put nicely by Josh Marshall:
Ansar was a Sunni Islamist terrorist group operating from Iraqi Kurdistan which had ties of some sort and degree with al Qaida. Zarqawi, a Jordanian national and accomplished terrorist bad guy, had set up shop with Ansar and he too was affiliated with al Qaida — though again the degree and closeness of the connection is a matter of some controversy . To add to the storyline, Zarqawi had apparently been to Baghdad for medical treatment.
So Zarqawi and Ansar were in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus they were ‘in Iraq’. And they were linked to al Qaida. So al Qaida was ‘in Iraq’. That was the argument.
Now, there was a pretty big problem with this argument. Namely, the US and the UK had made Iraqi Kurdistan into a virtual Anglo-American protectorate through its no-fly zones which kept not only Iraqi air power but basically all of Saddam’s forces out of the region. The Kurds themselves had already set up a de facto government, though the region where Ansar was operating from was one they didn’t control.
In other words, saying Ansar was operating out of Iraq was deeply misleading in anything other than a narrowly geographical sense since Ansar was operating from area we had taken from Saddam’s control. Saddam might as credibly — perhaps more credibly — have charged us with harboring Ansar as vice versa.
In any case, to review, using Ansar and Zarqawi as proof of a Saddam-al Qaida link had serious evidentiary and logical problems. But that didn’t stop the White House from making it a centerpiece of their argument — as Colin Powell did during his presentation at the UN.
In the immediate lead-up to the war there were various parts of the White House’s argument for war that were becoming weaker by the day. That, after all, was what was happening with the inspectors themselves who were, in the weeks and months just before the war, generating lots of new evidence that threw many of the earlier suspicions of WMD into real doubt — particularly on the nuclear front.
The reports we have now about the White House’s refusal to move against Zarqawi are still incomplete. And I think we’ve got to keep open the possibility that there were military or diplomatic restraints we were operating under that are not yet clear.
But if the reports bear out, the White House’s reasons for not moving against Zarqawi when we could have don’t seem to require much explanation. If we got rid of Zarqawi and Ansar the much-trumpeted Iraq-al Qaida, already so profoundly tenuous, would have collapsed altogether. To put it bluntly, we needed Zarqawi and Ansar.
That would mean it was a political decision — one intended to aid in convincing the American people of the necessity of war — for which we are now paying a grave price.
Yeah, yeah. Suppose so. Still, as long as the AQ-link was a load of crap and everyone paying attention knew that, why not bomb ‘em in Northern Iraq and then claim that you had to go in to finish the job? They didn’t need Zarqawi and Ansar to go to war with Iraq. They needed to scare people into thinking that Saddam Hussein was in bed with them, and it didn’t matter much whether the story was in the past tense or not.
As long as your pretext is absurd, you might as well eliminate your enemies while you’re at it, no?
Then again, I suppose nothing should suprise me.