Talk about the “missing WMDs” and the notion that President Bush lied about Saddam Hussein having them in order to push America into war has more to do with a discredited anti-war movement desperate for something to be right about than whether the war was justified. The more astute observers have recognized that the issue isn’t whether Saddam Hussein actually had such weapons at his disposal–since everyone from Bill Clinton to Jacques Chirac believed that he did–but whether Saddam had ties to al Qaeda and would supply support and WMDs for the terrorists to use in a repeat of 9/11. Mimicking the WMD debate, critics have accused Bush of coming up empty on this assertion, thereby making the war unjustified. With all due respect, this, too, is wrong.
To begin with, the assumption that bin Laden would never work with Saddam is false. As the Sunday Telegraph reported in April, Saddam had reached out to al Qaeda in 1998, the same year Saddam expelled the UN inspectors, and met with its representatives to try to form an alliance. The meetings went so well that they carried on for a week.
It is not yet known what the precise end result of this dialogue was. Two captured al Qaeda members claimed that Osama bin Laden ultimately rejected the offer of assistance, as he did not want to be beholden to Saddam. Of course, the words of those two are of dubious reliability–al Qaeda members are all trained to say certain things after being captured, such as to accuse the prison guards of being brutal and violating their rights. However, we do have a more direct line to the intentions of al Qaeda: bin Laden’s own words.
Before the war began, bin Laden released an audio message to al Jazeera directed “to our Muslim brothers in Iraq.” While the message first noted that “we stress the loyal intentions that the fighting should be in the name of God only, not in the name of national ideologies nor to seek victory for the ignorant governments that rule all Arab states, including Iraq,” bin Laden demanded that “[t]he Muslims as a whole, and in Iraq in particular, should pull up their sleeves and carry jihad against this oppressive offensive and to make sure to stock up on ammunition and arms.”
While bin Laden viewed Arab governments with some amount of distaste, he always saw things in terms of a Muslim nation fighting together. “By conducting 9/11, bin Laden expected the masses to rise up against the U.S.,” said Rohan Gunaratna, author of “Inside al-Qaeda.” You could think of it as something akin to Charles Manson’s idea that by committing one terrible crime, others would rise up and join the cause in helter-skelter. Which is why it was natural for bin Laden to have ended his message by noting, “It does not hurt that in the current circumstances, the interests of Muslims coincide with the interests of the socialists in the war against crusaders.” Bin Laden admitted that his interests were the same as Saddam’s when facing a common foe because his vision extends to Muslims as a whole, not just to the religious or righteous.
A new Pentagon analysis reaches the same conclusion: that al Qaeda is not a group bound by ideology. Rather, it has reached out for assistance from nations that, though they sponsor terrorism, do not share al Qaeda’s extremist views. Much like other religiously opposed groups–for example, the Sunnis and Shi’as, who have worked together at times–al Qaeda has sought help in pursuit of mutually acceptable goals. Surely al Qaeda would prefer that all Arab nations became Taliban-like regimes, but bin Laden is not above putting practicality into perspective. When his goals match up with that of a leader like Saddam, he’s quick to realize that there is something to be gained as a result.
Saddam was already terrorist-friendly, having supported the Palestine Liberation Front and such groups, and we now know he was actively courting al Qaeda and harboring terrorists like the recently captured Abu Abbas. Even if bin Laden rejected an alliance in 1998, al Qaeda had renewed reason to obtain Saddam’s support after being flushed from Afghanistan. Without a stable puppet nation from which to plan attacks and gather weapons and materiel, the terrorist organization would need all the support it could get to rebound. And certainly, as bin Laden’s own words attest to, al Qaeda saw its interests as matching those of Saddam’s before the war began. Their partnering, if not already fully in force, was inevitable.
Of course, it’s naturally difficult to prove a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda when the anti-war crowd keeps raising the bar on what constitutes proof. We’ve captured at least one terrorist associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian with close ties to al Qaeda, in Iraq already, although we’re still looking for Zarqawi himself. For that matter, we’re still looking for Saddam yet we’re not assuming he had no ties to Iraq. We’ve raided at least one terrorist camp in Northern Iraq as well. More evidence and captures will be forthcoming, just as with the WMD debate.
But the essential point is still clear: Saddam wanted to help out al Qaeda and bin Laden was practical enough to accept. Like with the WMDs, if it weren’t already true, it would be in just a short matter of time. Don’t be surprised to see the latest attacks on the justification for the war go the way of the “quagmire” of the advance to the “millions” who would die and the “looted” Baghdad museum and the “$1.92 trillion” the war would cost and so many other disproven tracts already lobbed by the anti-war crowd. The war was justified.