From the annals of artful verbal construction ...
"Iraq is turning out to be a continuing battle in the war on terrorism."
-- George W. Bush
August 22nd, 2003
Sarcasm fails me ...
From the annals of artful verbal construction ...
"Iraq is turning out to be a continuing battle in the war on terrorism."
-- George W. Bush
August 22nd, 2003
"Time to Unite" is a typical -- or, in other words, excellent -- column by The Washington Post's David Ignatius. Pique, anger, resentment, schadenfreude, hidebound ideology -- everyone must set aside everything in order to cooperate on finding a practical solution to solving the crisis in Iraq and stablizing the situaiton. As Lincoln said, we must all disenthrall ourselves. Ignatius seems more optimistic than I am that the administration has seen the light on this one. But, in this case, I'd be very happy to be proven wrong.
As promised, here is part two of our interview with al Qaida expert Peter Bergen.
Bergen is the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, and interviewed bin Laden in person in 1997. He is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.
(You can read part one of the interview, here. The complete interview will be posted in the TPM Document Collection.)
The interview was conducted early Wednesday afternoon ...
TPM: One thing you said recently--it's a bitter irony, but you know--that there seems to be little evidence that al Qaida was in Iraq (or at least the part of Iraq that Saddam controlled) before this April. But it seems quite possible that there might be now. Or if not al Qaida, people who are jihadists.
BERGEN: Yeah, jihadists and I think al Qaida. Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri and other top leaders of the group have made repeated statements since the beginning of the year to go fight jihad in Iraq. [And] for the people who sign on to this sort of thing it's sort of akin to a religious order. It's in the middle of the Middle East. Saad al Fagih, who has a good understanding of all this says--
TPM: And who is that?
BERGEN: Saad al Fagih is the leading Saudi dissident, he's based in London. And he--
TPM: Dissident from which, just for the--in which direction?
BERGEN: He's opposed to the royal family. In fact, six weeks ago someone tried to mount an assassination attempt on him, very possibly the Saudis.
TPM: Right, but in a Western direction, as opposed to a ?
BERGEN: No, I think kind of an Islamist, a moderate Islamist direction.
BERGEN: And the way he explained it to me is the following, and this makes a huge amount of sense. This is not about killing civilians in New York. This is about attacking an army that is occupying the heart of the Muslim world. After all back -- for people like bin Laden, the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 is as recent as for us, the OJ trial. It's part of the mental furniture. And so, to have quote 'infidel' troops in the holy land, Saudi Arabia, that used to be their principal gripe, now Iraq is going to become their principal gripe ... On October 7th, 2001 bin Laden came out and he said a very interesting thing. He talked about the humiliation of the past 80 years and of course what he was referring to--
TPM: The end of the caliphate?
BERGEN: Was the end of the caliphate, then you know the British and French basically carved up the Middle East, the British got Iraq, the French got Syria -- this is all very recent history for people like bin Laden. We did a very smart thing in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar made a calculation that we would be drawn into a Soviet-style invasion. They would respond with guerilla warfare. They would have some tactical successes in that warfare, and a strategic success that the United States would be reviled around the Muslim world for its brutal occupation of Afghanistan.
That didn't happen, obviously, and there are only 300 Americans in the whole, on the ground. That was very smart. Obviously, the US and British occupation of Iraq is different from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in many many ways -- not least of which is that Soviets killed a million Afghans and made five million of them refugees. Obviously that hasn't happened in Iraq. But there are some similarities in the following way: We are occupying in large numbers in thick spaces and we are doing that in the middle of the Middle East. And it seems that we're going to be there indefinitely. It seems that way, according to the Iraqis and to everybody else. Obviously we're in a period of guerilla warfare, these kind of high-profile terrorist attacks. You know, that's the future. I mean al Qaida is not going to get off this little exercise. Obviously the United States is not about to change its policy in Iraq. So I think, given those two facts, we're going to see more of what we saw at the United Nations Headquarters in the future. I mean this is just the beginning, I think.
TPM: I think I saw an interview you did on CNN in which you discussed the the question of who, if there are foreign fighters in Iraq now, who are they? And I think you had said that a lot of them seemed to be Saudis who'd actually come in through Syria. Whatever details you have -- who are these people? Where are they coming from? Are governments assisting in bringing these people in?
BERGEN: I don't think governments are assisting in bringing these people in at all. Because if you think about, Syria has been quite cooperative in the war on terrorism, Jordan has fallen all over itself. That's one of the reasons the Jordanian embassy was attacked. Kuwait, don't have to explain that. But judging from what US counter-terrorism officials say and what Saad al Fagih says they're predominantly Saudi, which makes sense. Saudis were predominantly the people in Afghanistan, and the major group of people at Guantanamo Bay are Saudis. So that all kind of coheres. Some Kuwatis, and I would imagine a sprinkling of other nationalities, although I haven't heard any other than the Saudis and Kuwatis--that's all I've heard about. Now you know, if Zarqawi is in Iraq--although apparently he might be in Iran. So maybe there are some Jordanians, I don't know. But it doesn't sound like people from the Philippines are coming to Iraq, as it were, and coming to Afghanistan.
TPM: They would stand out?
BERGEN: They'd stand out. And also maybe it's just a matter of time. After all, this whole thing is a relatively recent phenomenon. I mean it seems to me that these volunteers, as it were, jihadist volunteers, either came directly before the war, during the war, or even more so after the war. The Saudi volunteers especially have come in the last few months. But I think this is all totally predictable. I don't see this as being a surprise.
TPM: Well you know before the war, and in the arguments that were made on either side before the war, there was an argument made--at least by certain neoconservative voices in the pro-war camp -- that getting rid of Saddam had its own immediate advantages (non-conventional weapons, threat to his neighbors, and so forth) but that changing the government in Baghdad could basically trigger a kind of domino effect in the region.
BERGEN: I just saw that as a sort of theological position.
TPM: Yeah, there was that position and then the contrary position, saying it's going to domino the other direction.
BERGEN: I'm going to firmly sit on the fence, because I think all we can say about the events of the Iraq war is the following: We speeded up history, right? Because we volunteered for this, we really didn't have to do it. There wasn't an imminent threat, you know there was no link to 9/11. Saddam's a horrible human being, but there are plenty of those around. So we volunteered essentially, and we basically sped history up. I know that you're a professional historian. When you speed history up, to say [with] rose-tinted spectacles, it's all going to be great, there's going to be democracy around the Middle East and everyone's going to love us, I mean that is as wrong as saying this will be the biggest disaster of all time. We just don't know.
I mean, we are playing the tape now. Maybe this is an easy way out of your question. The tape is being played. We just have no idea how it's going to turn out. Yeah, you could imagine a situation--you could easily say ten years from now, Iraq will have split up into a series of -- essentially a civil war between various Sunni jihadists and Shiia whatever. Or you could say, you know, Chalabi is running it and everything is fine and we're all happy. Or you could say -- I don't know. I think making predictions about this is impossible. But to say that it's all going to come out fine, that always struck me as being wishful thinking of the first order. We just don't know.
TPM: Regardless of where a particular commentator comes down on these basic questions of the big picture, the relationship between what happens in Iraq and what happens in Saudi Arabia is a key one for everyone. As near as you can tell, what is happening in Saudi Arabia? Because there's clearly been -- they're having these fire fights breaking out.
BERGEN: Actually, one interesting point: May 11th was the 9/11--May 11th, the Riyadh attacks in Saudi was like the wake-up call, the 9/11 for the Saudis. You know, up to that point, I've heard from several different US counter terrorism officials, the Saudis, even post-9/11, were not being cooperative.
TPM: Now what exactly does -- in the US press, we hear that all the time. You know, they're dragging their feet. Can you tell us what does that mean in practice?
BERGEN: We're talking about a very secretive society, and we're talking about a very secretive investigation anyway. So it's hard to tell, but I think you can make some commonsense observations. Fifteen of the hijackers were Saudi. Isn't it kind of curious that none of their mentors or buddies or facilitators or people that booked their tickets or whatever -- we haven't heard a single thing about them? There's an absence of the kind of things that you would expect to hear given the fact that this was an entirely Saudi operation.
Now, maybe in fact the Saudis have got all these people in jail and they haven't told us about it. I kind of don't believe that. But now May 11th comes along and that changes everything. Because al Qaida and its affiliates are really an existential threat to the House of Saud; they want to overthrow the House of Saud. And the HOS for a long time chose to kind of play both sides of the street, I think. But now this crackdown is very severe apparently. So part of the reason you're seeing these people show up in Iraq is, A) there's a very attractive group of Americans to go out and attack, but B) you know, the Saudis are really cracking down.
TPM: So there could be a push and a pull.
BERGEN: So I think that's also a factor. But you know they got this al Ghamdi guy that they just got in custody and some of his information led to that alert about hijackings. So you know, the Saudis are cooperating. And interestingly enough they're probably the last -- you know, I mean other countries around the Middle East have understood that al Qaida represents an existential threat, that it really makes sense to get on board whether with Jordan or Syria or whatever.
The Saudis I think have finally -- they've got a problem, which is -- they've got a lot of their own problems. They didn't want to grasp this nettle. But it seems they are doing quite a good job now. Apparently there's quite a lot of cooperation on this Riyadh attack in terms of law enforcement with the US.
TPM: Now there was--Crown Prince Abdullah gave a speech a week or so ago, a very seemingly muscular, aggressive speech in which he said that there was everything that happened before the attack [on May 11th] and everything after. So your sense, on balance, is that this has really qualitatively changed, with the seriousness of the crackdown?
BERGEN: Yeah, I think that's true. The biggest challenge to them is the Islamist challenge. I think that they have cracked down on that. Long-term -- you know, will that save their bacon as it were? I don't know. It seems to me that they've got so many multiple problems beyond that.
TPM: Going back to Iraq, as you say, we're playing the tape now, maybe playing it at fast forward. In the US there's a debate between basically proceeding as we are right now or moving toward some form of internationalization of the occupation. In practice, we can't really get up and leave. So what is there we can do to combat this kind of stuff?
BERGEN: Well I don't know. I mean I don't know what the answer is. I mean it seems to me that they're are -- one possible way of combating it would be to say, you know, "Let's produce some very low benchmarks of what constitutes success and then just walk away." I mean, I don't think that's going to happen. But you could imagine a situation saying, "Well OK, so the electricity's back on, we've got this Iraqi council. You know we're not in the business of totally rebuilding this country. It's too expensive, and it's too much whatever. It's proving too costly in terms of blood and treasure." And you produce these relatively low benchmarks and you leave. Now, but I don't think the Administration is going to do that, do you?
TPM: No, I certainly don't.
BERGEN: Because you're asking, what can be done about it? I don't think anything can really be done about it. Given the policy, and given that al Qaida's modus operandi and motives and that it's right in their backyard, etc., etc. You know I just think we're going to see more of the same. All you can do is just sort of say like "OK, we'll just make security better." [Unintelligible] Other than that, I don't see. This may be a question sort of outside my expertise -- I think it is -- because I just don't know what you can do.
TPM: We'll there's -- from what the president said yesterday -- there seemed to be some sense on the part of the Administration that we're in a kind of a hearts and minds battle over the Iraqi people with the terrorists. And maybe the masses of Iraqis will see this now and say, "This isn't just against the US, it's against us."
BERGEN: I think right now, I'm not sure if that's true. I get the impression that a lot of Iraqis don't want us to be there also. So, I just don't know what the answer is -- obviously it's a hearts and minds question. So I don't know. I don't really have an answer for that.
We're all going to be kind of reassessing the situation as the result of this. Look at the size of the headlines in the New York Times and the Washington Post -- this is a huge story and represents I think an entirely new phase in the whole deal. And how you adjust for that? It's going to be complicated.
TPM: Last question. Over the last month or so, in various publications there's been this -- what's called the flypaper theory. I don't know if you've heard this. This is basically the idea that even if there are attacks inside Iraq that this is actually good because we're sort of bringing everybody out of the woodwork and fighting them on our terms--
BERGEN: I think that's -- that's kind of, that's a post-facto rationalization. Don't you think?
TPM: Well I think-- [crosstalk] there's not a finite number of terrorists, at least in practice ... [crosstalk]
BERGEN: You can attract them all to Iraq--
TPM: And kill them and then you're done.
BERGEN: At what cost? If that is the idea, no one in the Administration is standing up to articulate that. Plus that seems like a very high-risk strategy. And also it doesn't make sense anyway. Because Afghanistan was a sort of an anti-flypaper thing where we went in and we bombed them and they all left.
So I don't think the Administration is thinking like that. I think that they really believe their own theories, I guess. There's really no other explanation for what they did. And going back to this whole al Qaida-Iraq connection, the reason ultimately I think that it's important -- forget about whatever people in the Administration said -- something that swayed the American people was that this connection existed. To me, the only justification for the war was you know, getting rid of Saddam's tyranny. But that's a sort of Gladstonian, liberal position.
I don't think that would have been easy to sell to the American people -- saying, "Hey, we're just going to liberate this place because this guy's a total you know, whatever." They sold it on the basis of this kind of putative connection, I think. I think that was the background. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed before the war thought Iraq was involved in 9/11. So I think this question of whether there was a link between al Qaida and Iraq is not a trivial one, because certainly people believed it.
TPM: One quick last question. To the extent that you're in touch with the guy in London, the Saudi dissident--and people in the countries around the periphery around Iraq, is there a consensus among people in these countries about the situation we're in? You certainly hear the Administration saying "You know, it's tough going but we're moving in the right direction." What do people in the region, outside Iraq, think we have on our hands?
BERGEN: I don't know the answer to that question. But there's a very interesting survey by--was it Pew? I think it was Pew. You know in countries as diverse as Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco, and Jordan, when asked "Who do you have more confidence in, Osama bin Laden or President Bush?" A substantial majority said Osama bin Laden in those countries. These are all countries that are closely allied to the United States. I think those figures speak for themselves about the faith they have in what we're doing.
Even George Will.
From today's column ...
Perhaps the administration should recognize that something other than its intelligence reports concerning weapons of mass destruction was wrong. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, was wrong in congressional testimony before the war. Although he said "we have no idea what we will need until we get there on the ground," he insisted that Gen. Eric Shinseki, a veteran of peacekeeping in the Balkans, was "wildly off the mark" in estimating that several hundred thousand troops would be needed in occupied Iraq.
Enough talk already. Enough excuses and mumbo-jumbo. Our situation in Iraq is bad. But our situation in Washington is worse.
Despite what some people are saying, I really don't think the situation in Iraq is irretrievable. Frankly, we can't allow it to be irretrievable because the consequences of failure are too dark to imagine. But it's only retrievable if the people in the driver's seat can shake themselves free of wishful thinking and ideologically-rooted assumptions and have the courage to reevaluate the situation and make some course corrections.
I hesitate to throw wisdom after foolishness. But Lincoln captured some of what's necessary when he said: "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present ... As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."
But look what we're getting.
In an article about the recent reverses in the Middle East, Ken Adelman told the Post: "We should not try to convince people that things are getting better. Rather, we should convince people that ours is the age of terrorism." Richard Perle said: "It may be a very long time before we've so substantially eliminated the source of terror that we can pronounce that we are safe."
The logic of these comments and others from administration-connected hawks is that the president should stop telling the public that things are getting better. Things really are as bad as they look in Iraq. But that's because we're in an all-out global war against the terrorists.
Rather than these guys disenthralling themselves, they're yet again trying to bend logic and chronology into a metaphysical pretzel in which the failure of the policy becomes the justification for the policy.
I was briefly heartened when it seemed that we were -- or rather Colin Powell was -- trying to use the bombing as an opportunity to revisit the issue of the UN's involvement. I was a lot less heartened when I heard this exchange Thursday evening between Paula Zahn and Dick Holbrooke ...
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm now also joined by Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations to help us better understand what took place at the U.N. today. Not a very good day for Colin Powell, was it?
RICHARD HOLBROOKE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: Not a good day for the United States.
I think Bill Cohen, my former Cabinet colleague, put it exactly right when he said that we need to try to bring the international community in. And that means a little flexibility for the U.N. What Colin Powell did today at the U.N. was come to New York and offer the same resolution, essentially, that we'd offered two weeks ago and portray it as a tribute to the fallen and great and brave Sergio Vieira de Mello and the other U.N. people.
This created a very, very unfortunate attitude at the U.N. among other nation states.
ZAHN: How so?
HOLBROOKE: Including many countries that want to help us.
Well, they were offended by it. Now, what is the answer to this? As Bill Cohen just said to you, we need to internationalize the effort. We have to. We are not going to defend the U.N. people. The U.N. was playing an indispensable role in support of American foreign policy. Sergio Vieira de Mello was a Brazilian working for the U.N., but everything he did, working closely with Jerry Bremer in Baghdad, was in support of the U.S.
And the attack on the U.N. was an attack on the U.S., because they only went after that building because it was a softer target. Those people are now going to be targets again. They can't be left unprotected. The U.S. cannot add the additional burden of protecting them. So, as Bill Cohen just told you, we need international force.
In order to get that, the U.S. is going to have to make a deal, an easy deal, a deal that any diplomat can make with some of the other countries. We should encourage Kofi Annan and his colleagues to create a resolution in the Security Council which creates a U.N. protective force for itself that operates as a separate command within the overall American umbrella.
Secretary Powell said today at the U.N. that this would violate the unity-of-command principle. With all due respect to a great American hero who was a soldier, I don't understand that. We have violated that principle in Afghanistan already, with NATO on one side and the U.S. on the other. We can do it in Iraq. And we need to do something fast. And I hope, by next week, we will have a better resolution.
This is truly remarkable. As I noted on Wednesday, Moveon.org has started a drive to raise money to support the eleven Democratic state senators from Texas who are now holed up in Albuquerque, New Mexico to block the DeLay-driven Republican redistricting plan.
(You can read my thoughts on DeLay's gerrymandering jihad in this new piece in The Forward.)
The money will go to defray the hotel and other expenses the pols are racking up during their sojourn in New Mexico (they're conducting state business there, essentially on their own dime) and mount a media campaign to help in their fight. Moveon.org set a goal of raising $1 million. And as of this evening they've already raised more than 60% of that goal. And the campaign only began this week.
(If you'd like to add your two cents, or five dollars, or five thousand dollars, visit the drive site here.)
On the one hand, this is a lot of support both moral and financial for a cause that I obviously think is quite worthy.
More broadly, though, it shows that Internet-based, progressive, small-donor fundraising and political organizing has really come of age. The Dean campaign has blazed the trail. But the phenomenon transcends any single candidate or issue.
This evening we're very pleased to run the first half of our interview with al Qaida expert Peter Bergen. Part two will run Friday afternoon.
Bergen is the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, and interviewed bin Laden in person in 1997. He is currently a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.
The interview was conducted early Wednesday afternoon ...
TPM: There've been a series of [recent] attacks --the attack on the Jordanian embassy, the attack yesterday. And no one has claimed responsibility. There's the big debate about who's doing this. So what is your sense on the narrow question of who did it, and more broadly, what's happening in Iraq right now, this escalation?
BERGEN: Well, what's happening is utterly predictable, unfortunately. Which is that Iraq is acting as a sort of super-magnet for ... al Qaida or the jihadists in general. And they're coming to Iraq. Were they behind the Jordanian embassy attack? Very possibly. It happened on August 7th, which is a date that al Qaida is fairly preoccupied by, because that was the day that President Bush [Sr.] announced Operation Desert Shield and [began] posting American troops in Saudi Arabia. And then 8 years later [al Qaida] blew up two US embassies simultaneously on that day.
TPM: Huh, I'd never heard [that it was on the same date.]
BERGEN: They don't operate on anniversaries, but this is one that they have operated on. And they would definitely -- you don't spend five years [planning for] blowing up two US embassies without actually deciding, "We're going to do it on a day that really makes sense for us." And their principle political beef has been the US presence in Saudi Arabia. So the fact that the Jordanian embassy was attacked on August 7th, it's an interesting coincidence at least.
Then, attacking embassies, doing it in a professional manner. This is something that al Qaida has -- al Qaida or its affiliates -- among their specialties. Whether it was in Africa in '98, the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan in '95, attempting to blow up a series of Western embassies in Singapore post-9/11, which didn't happen.
So that's point one. Then point two: The United Nations is definitely -- attacking the United Nations is definitely something that for starters was a suicide attack, probably extremely well-organized. I don't think there's a huge group of people willing to martyr themselves to bring Saddam Hussein back to power. I mean it just doesn't make sense on the face of it. You know, there might be people who are nostalgic, but not nostalgic enough to want to kill themselves â¦ Secular socialism posits heaven here on earth, rather than in eternity.
Now, there's information just now that the FBI is saying that the explosive materials involved indicate some sort of military Iraqi [connection], which is interesting. So maybe there is some alliance between these former military people and the jihadists. But I think that -- I've never heard of a suicide operation mounted by people who don't believe in heaven.
TPM: Right, right. Does it tell you anything that no one has claimed responsibility for either of these attacks?
BERGEN: Well, al Qaida tends not ever to claim direct responsibility. I mean, there was a bogus thing, where they did claim responsibility for the blackout, but I doubt that was al Qaida. I mean claims of responsibility are -- you know, there are two claims of responsibility in the attack in Jerusalem: Hamas and Islamic Jihdad. So, I don't know. Claims of responsibility are sort of curious. Al Qaida as a general proposition has tended not to make claims of responsibility, so make of that what you will.
I don't think there are any claims so far. You know on Monday of this week, just before the attack on the United Nations, an audio tape came out from an al Qaida spokesman, calling for attacks on Iraq and making sort of a -- deriding US efforts to bring more people into the coalition. Obviously an attack on the United Nations' headquarters, it sends a very strong signal: If you're contemplating sending troops, you know, "Don't do it."
TPM: As you mentioned, there was this report today that these were Soviet-era munitions that the former regime had around. And that at least raises the question of whether there's some sort of coordination. Now obviously before the war this was one nominal casus belli. So, what is your sense on that big question: Was there a link between Iraq and al Qaida, was there coordination before the war -- and might there be now?
BERGEN: You know, the best evidence linking al Qaida to Iraq was what Colin Powell said with George Tenet sitting behind him at the United Nations. And it's this guy Zarqawi who went for medical treatment in Baghdad. Now I've talked to US officials and European intelligence officials and Zarqawi had his own organization that's not part of al Qaida. And even if you put the best possible spin on everything, A) he has a separate organization, and B) the way US intelligence officials look at it, they say that he would say, "Yeah, sometimes I do work for Osama."
But the fact is that this guy spent more time in Iran and Lebanon than he spent in Iraq.
I mean, he went to Iraq for medical treatment. He also traveled under an alias, by the way. This is a guy with many aliases. It's quite possible that he was getting medical treatment without the regime knowing it. After all, he's Jordanian.
So Zarqawi's their best [evidence] --and it's a pretty thin reed. You know, Iraq actually has quite good medical treatment compared to most other countries in the Arab world, from my understanding. So the fact that he went there -- and just by the law of averages, by the way, if we accept the fact that, as President Bush said in the State of the Union, that there are sixty countries where al Qaida exists, just by the law of averages, some of them are going to show up in Iraq.
But, you know, I spent years researching my book on al Qaida, and one of the striking things is how few Iraqis there are in the organization. I mean, everybody has an alias in al Qaida. They're called al Misri, which means you're from Egypt, or you're called al Jazeera, which means you're from Algeria. Very few are al Iraqi. The only one who is significant is a guy called Mahmud Salim who's actually in prison, and has been in prison since '98, who was a significant player in the leadership of al Qaida.
But obviously bin Laden is a Saudi, most of the top leadership is Egyptian, rather than Iraqi. And if you do a breakdown of who went through the training camps, the overwhelming numbers, from the Arab world at least, would be Saudis, Yemenis, and Algerians. Those would be in the top three. Iraqis really would have come down [the list]. And also, no one from Iran. There were no al Iranis in the groups.
TPM: Now that would be at least a sectarian divide?
BERGEN: Actually there's more evidence for al Qaida playing footsie with Hezbollah in the early '90s. You know, if you look at the model, the al Qaida model is the Hezbollah model. And this goes back to the question du jour--which is, what's happening in Iraq?
If you accept the fact -- and it is a fact -- that bin Laden modeled al Qaida's tactics on Hezbollah in Beirut in the mid '80s, when the bomb went off and we withdrew, and also on Mogadishu, where 18 Americans were killed and then we also withdrew ... If you accept that as their model, then that's the model they're going to apply in Iraq. That would explain the Jordanian embassy, the UN Headquarters, and the future attacks there are undoubtedly going to be against US soldiers there.
Some people trained with Hezbollah in Lebanon who were members of al Qaida and [bin Laden] met with Imad Mugniyah, who was sort of the operational commander of Hezbollah. But that's in the early '90s. On the Iraq question, he also met with Iraqis when they were living in Sudan. But you know, we all have meetings that don't mean anything. Look at the UN sometimes. So the fact that these guys were having meetings doesn't really mean, I think, very much.
TPM: How about Ansar al Islam, which is the other player in this debate?
BERGEN: Ansar al Islam A) is a small group of people, and B) was in the part of Iraq not controlled by [Saddam]. In fact, the only reason Ansar al Islam existed as a group, if you think about it, was because we were enforcing a no-fly zone. Totalitarian regimes don't tolerate opposition of any form, whether it's religious, political, whatever. Saddam Hussein would have executed people in Ansar al Islam.
So that's -- I think to say ex post facto that these attacks can be laid at Ansar al Islam might be convenient for the administration. And may or may not be true -- I don't know. There is the fact that Ansar al Islam mounted a suicide attack on a group of Western journalists during the war and killed an Australian. So they have managed to assign operations against Western targets. But to me they seem a rather trivial [group] when you're looking at numbers of 3,000 Saudis, as Saad al Fagih, the leading Saudi dissident told me yesterday.
I think the maximum number of people in Ansar al Islam were in the several hundred. And they seem much more preoccupied with attacking the Kurdish leaders. Other than this attack that I mentioned on the Australian journalist there doesn't seem to be a lot of indication that they're involved in anti-Western terrorism.
TPM: Now one of the accusations, at least before the war, was that the Saddam Hussein regime was aiding Ansar basically because they had a mutual enemy in Kurdish leaders. And to the extent that there was any argument about cooperation, that's how people built it up.
BERGEN: You know, maybe it's true. What does this all mean? The bottom line is, was [Iraq] involved in 9/11? Obviously not. Were Saddam and al Qaida in cahoots? No.
If you actually talk to the people who investigate this stuff --- the people in the US government [for whom] this is their daily bread, this is what they get up and think about every day --- they will say, well, one of them will say, "Don't get me started. My blood pressure was fine before you mentioned it. They came to me for a casus belli before the war and I said, 'I'm not the guy, there's nothing here.'"
And these are people who have investigated al Qaida arguably since 1993.
TPM: People in the US intelligence community, law enforcement, etc.?
BERGEN: Yeah. One of the key pieces of evidence is this guy Farouk Hijazi, who was the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey and a fairly senior Iraqi intelligence officer, that he might have met with bin Laden in December of '98. And [the US intelligence officials] say, "We really don't know if that's even true."
So I think going back to Colin Powell's presentation is the most useful exercise, because Powell didn't want to get out in front of what basically they felt they could nail down. Yes, Zarqawi went to Baghdad for medical treatment. Yes, there were meetings in Khartoum between al Qaida and Iraqi officials. But other people I've talked to in the US government say, "Those meetings happened. What to make of them, who knows?"
Also, another official would say, "Actually, bin Laden was just doing that to be polite, because Sudan and Iraq were closely allied at that time."
And I can speak from my own personal experience. Because when we met with bin Laden in '97, at the end of the interview (when this was a question of no political import at the time) Peter Arnett, the correspondent (I was the producer of the interview) asked bin Laden, "What do you think of Saddam?"
And he said, immediately, "He's a bad Muslim"--and no argument there, I mean that's a statement of fact--"and he took Kuwait for his own self-aggrandizement"--again, no argument there. These are both truthful statements that represent bin Laden's unmediated [views]--that's his response.
You know, proving negatives, of course, is difficult. But I think the case that al Qaida and Iraq had any kind of relationship, even of the most trivial kind, has not been proven at all. And look, if we find a warehouse of documents that proves the Iraq-al Qaida link in Baghdad, I'll be the first person to say, basically, I've got this one wrong. Because I don't have a dog in the fight -- I really don't care. I mean, obviously it's interesting. But it's not like something that I've got an ideological thing of wanting to separate these things out. It's just if it's not there, it's not there.
You know, we now have in custody, after all, the two people -- al Ani, who was the Iraqi intelligence agent who supposedly met with Mohammed Atta in Prague, is in custody. Don't you think he knows his get-out-of-jail-free card to some degree is saying "Hey I did meet with Mohammed Atta"? He's obviously not saying that, otherwise we'd know about it.
And then Farouk Hijazi, the guy I just mentioned, is also in custody. He must know that his biggest -- you know, I mean, we're not hearing about it. And what's very interesting is that we do know that the CIA -- the interrogations of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh are saying, "We specifically rejected Iraq's help." And these people by the way, the high ranking al Qaida operatives are giving very useful information for reasons that -- it's kind of puzzling in a sense -- ego, wanting to show that they're in the game, that they're important, whatever. They are producing useful information. They know that they're going to be in custody for the rest of their lives and very possibly executed. If there's any way of making their lives slightly more comfortable, don't you think they would have said, 'Hey, we have this relationship with Iraq?' So, au contraire, they're not saying that.
I see from Matthew Yglesias' site that there is a notion being peddled by certain conservative columnists that the bombing of the UN mission in Baghdad is actually a sign that the bad guys are on the ropes. Now, that strikes me as a rather creative of interpretation of the event. To the extent that the form of attack is different -- mass casualty terrorism versus isolated guerilla attacks on soldiers -- I suspect it's because the perpetrators are not the same people. But that's just a supposition on my part.
However that may be, this new theory from the war-hawks suggests a broader question, a deeper problem.
I'm probably getting certain particulars of this wrong, but there's a basic principle in scientific theory: an hypothesis, to be a real hypothesis, must be capable of disproof. In other words, for an hypothesis to be a valid basis for research, there must be some data which, if found to be true, would prove the hypothesis was false. Otherwise, there's no way to test it.
Now, foreign policy is no science. But some looser version of this principle must apply here as well. To be a policy, as opposed to a theological position, there must be some potential results that would show the policy was not working. The proponents of the policy should be able to say ahead of time that if this or that result happens, the policy has failed.
The utility of requiring this would be that if the result of the invasion of Iraq is an Islamic theocracy, governed by Osama bin Laden, and purchasing nuclear weapons from Pakistan at bargain-basement prices, we'd have the hawks on record saying this was in fact not a positive development.
Now, we've already had the 'flypaper' theory: that guerilla attacks against American troops are a good thing because we're pulling 'the terrorists' out of the woodwork and attacking them on our own terms. And now we have what I guess we could call the 'paradoxically positive mass-casualty terrorism event' theory: that mass-casualty terrorism events show the success of our policy since they are a sign 'the terrorists' are becoming desperate.
For my part, I don't think either guerrilla attacks or mass-casualty terror attacks in themselves show the administration's policy is a failure. This is a difficult business. But they also don't strike me as positive developments.
So I think it's time for the hawks to give us a few examples of events that would show that our policy was not working or at least facing setbacks. You know, just so we can put down some benchmarks, so we can know what we're working with ...
I just conducted my interview this afternoon with al Qaida expert Peter Bergen, the author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden.
We plan to publish the interview tomorrow evening.
One thing that caught my attention was Bergen's comments on the identity of the foreign jihadists now operating in Iraq and why they're there. According to Bergen, the majority of them are Saudi militants -- numbering as many as a few thousand -- who've come into the country not through Saudi Arabia but through Syria.
Now, why these guys would want to go into Iraq to kill Americans might not seem like much of a mystery. But there may be as much of a push as a pull. According to Bergen, the current Saudi crackdown against Islamic militants is actually quite fierce. And he says that many of them are fleeing Saudi Arabia because of it. Ironically, the crackdown on Islamist militants in Saudi Arabia may be leading to an upsurge of their numbers in Iraq.
If you're wondering whether the Texas redistricting fracas is being orchestrated from Washington, look at this article in today's Dallas Morning News.
The one Republican who's broken ranks over redistricting is Bill Ratliff (R-Mount Pleasant). He's not just any state senator. After President Bush left for Washington in 2001, he was succeeded by then-Lt. Governor Rick Perry. Ratliff's colleagues then chose him to serve as acting-Lt. Governor, an extremely powerful office in that state.
Today Ratliff revealed that "in the summer of 2001 he was asked by Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land and current U.S. House majority leader, whether he, as acting lieutenant governor, would suspend the Senate's two-thirds rule so the GOP could push through a favorable congressional redistricting plan during a special session." Breaking the two-thirds rule is what triggered the exodus of Democratic senators to Albuquerque and prompted Ratliff to come over to their side.
Add that to this from the Houston Chronicle in mid-June ...
Rove called state Sen. Bill Ratliff of Mt. Pleasant, the most likely Republican to oppose a GOP-drawn redistricting plan in Texas. Ratliff, who is undecided, said Rove stopped short of saying Bush wanted him to vote for the bill but "indicated that it could be important to the president."
Regular readers of TPM have heard plenty from me about this ugly episode and why I believe it matters. Now Moveon.org is organizing efforts to support the eleven Democratic state senators who are now holed up in Albuquerque, New Mexico to block the latest attempt to push through Tom DeLay's precedent-busting redistricting plan.
Here's a letter from state Senator Rodney Ellis explaining what's at stake and what's happening now.
What these eleven are doing is really important.
Stop by the site. If you think this is important, get involved.