Together Again for the First Time

The perpetual hunt for an Osama-Saddam Entente


If you get your news from Murdoch-owned media or from the pro-war wing of the blogosphere, you've surely heard about Stephen Hayes' piece in The Weekly Standard on the alleged links between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. If you avoid those sources, you may have missed the excitement, so here's a quick update. The article draws on a memo written by Defense Undersecretary Douglas Feith, a longtime believer in the Osama-Saddam alliance; it was directed to Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who had asked Feith to support the allegations he made in testimony to the committee last July. The memo argues—to quote Hayes' lede—that "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda—perhaps even for Mohamed Atta."

Predictably, war boosters have seized on the article, sometimes rather uncritically. Just as predictably, war opponents have been quick to discount it. I lean strongly towards discounting it myself. But then, I was against the war, so you could have predicted that.

Most predictable of all: The Internet was soon buzzing with commentary on Hayes' piece. Liberal bloggers Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, and Joshua Micah Marshall offer the best early arguments for taking it with a lot of salt, while Slate's Jack Shafer makes the case that, accurate or not, the memo is a legitimate story. The upshot of the critiques is that (1) Feith's gang at the Office of Special Plans has a history of cherry-picking the data that support the conclusions it wants to reach, even when the source is rather dubious, while overlooking the much more substantial information that contradicts it, so (2) caveat emptor. This is, after all, the same group responsible for so much faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. It doesn't help that the Pentagon responded to the Standard story with a press release confirming that the memo existed but adding that it "was not an analysis of the substantive issue of the relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, and it drew no conclusions."

Still, obviously, no one can conclusively declare the Feith memo refuted without knowing a lot more about the intelligence it relies on. Just as obviously, no one can trumpet it as proof of an Osama-Saddam alliance without possessing the same information. Knowing what we do about the document and where it came from, it seems best to approach it with severe skepticism. But there clearly could be some legitimate leads in it, whether or not the rest of its claims are accurate and whether or not its conclusions hold water.

A more answerable question is what exactly we are attempting to prove when we assert or deny that Hussein and bin Laden were allied. There are degrees of cooperation, after all, yet people sometimes talk as though there's no difference between low-level interaction and a joint plot to hijack the airplanes of September 11. Hardly anyone denies that there were "links" between Iraq and Al Qaeda, if by "links" one means periodic communication; then again, not many people are willing to endorse a war just because Osama was in somebody's rolodex. Quite a few people, on the other hand, deny that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 conspiracy, for the rather good reason that there's little evidence that it was. (Feith's claim that hijacker Mohamed Atta met with Iraqi agents in Prague is his most disputed assertion.) What we're arguing over is the middle territory: whether Saddam aided and abetted attacks on American civilians, and whether he was planning to aid future attacks. At this point, given the pool of sodium that surrounds Feith's testimony, there still isn't demonstrable evidence that he was.

The flipside is the constant refrain among war critics that Saddam and Osama "would never" work together because the first is a secular dictator and the second a fundamentalist foe of all insufficiently Islamic leaders. There's a valid point in there, but it isn't necessarily the point the speaker thinks he's making. In fact, Osama is quite willing to work with people he hates when it suits him; in the '80s in Afghanistan he even worked with the United States, and we all know what he thinks of us. The issue is at what point the benefits of the alliance outweigh the drawbacks—at what point Saddam would be willing to collaborate with someone so otherwise opposed to his interests.

This is where the crux of the anti-interventionist case lies. Bin Laden had ideological reasons to despise the U.S., above and beyond the American actions that served as the rationales for his war. Saddam was more interested in power than ideology, and his ambitions were regional; bin Laden was a threat to those ambitions and that power. The only thing that could make anti-American allies of such natural foes is U.S. policy towards Iraq, which turned a distant dictator into a national enemy. It was Washington's war on Baghdad—the first Gulf War, then the sanctions, then this year's invasion—that pushed matters to the point where Bin Ladenesque jihadists now descend on Mesopotamia to attack American soldiers. If investigators ever uncover a joint effort between bin Laden and Hussein to kill Americans, they will have found a compelling reason to have intervened against Iraq. They will also have found a compelling demonstration that our past intervention in the region was a failure.

That's history, of course. Why talk about it now, with the die cast and the U.S. already occupying Saddam's former territory? Well, partly because Feith and The Weekly Standard brought it up. But more importantly because there have always been two broad models for fighting the war on terror—more than two, actually, but it's the difference between these that the alleged entente brings to mind. One is to take on the network that attacked us in 2001 while detaching ourselves from our other entanglements in the region, allowing us to track down our enemies while eliminating most of the policies that help recruit more enemies. The other is to remake the Middle East in a way that treats that network's potential recruits as though they're already all a part of the same great beast—and without much concern for whether you're engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether or not Ba'athists and Islamists collaborated in the past, they're clearly collaborating now, and their victims frequently have American names. That's the result of one approach to fighting terrorists. It's not too late to start shifting to another.