Conspiracy Theories

Garden of the Forking Paths

Saddam's not even good for conspiracy theories

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How depressed is the market for Saddam spider hole conspiracy theories? So depressed that for more than a week DEBKAFile, a version of The Onion funded by secret walking-around-money from the Mossad, had the only counter-history with any legs.

DEBKA's theory—that Saddam Hussein was not actually caught on December 13, when his capture was announced, but had been in the custody of somebody (former followers, Kurds, etc.) since November 16—generated a fruitful run of spinoffs. Rep. Jim McDermott quickly opined that the Bush Administration had carefully selected the announcement of Saddam's capture for political gain (how the Christmas shopping season, with the election still 11 months off and the Democrats in full primary henpeck, was a propitious time McDermott declined to say). Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took it to the next level by famously speculating that President Bush is planning an October surprise wherein Osama bin Laden, now presumably getting a trim and an oral exam at some undisclosed Marine detention center, will be brought out to heckle Jim Lehrer during a Bush-Dean debate.

The most entertaining piece of forensic data in Saddam revisionism, if only because it recalls the supposedly anomalous shadows in the Lee Harvey Oswald backyard photo, concerns the freshness of the yellow dates on trees in the background of photos taken at the time of the capture. Inspired by a wave of speculation in the Middle East and a bumper crop of ambiguous questions (was Samira Shahbander, the second Mrs. Hussein, a lovelorn dupe or Saddam's betrayer?), I'm trying to circulate my own counterfactual to explain Saddam's "drugged" appearance: The Bully of Baghdad was suffering from poisonous bites from the spiders that had infested his luxuriant hair.

Today the gadflies got a second wind, thanks to reports that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) did the heavy lifting in capturing Saddam. These reports appear to have at least some element of truth in them, and while you may have a hard time understanding how this undermines the good news for the Bush Administration, or for the mission in Iraq, perhaps you're just not trying hard enough. "Saddam was held by Kurdish forces, drugged and left for US troops," Agence France Presse sniffed in one headline. "Pentagon/ White House/ Fox News disinformation has unraveled," one unfriendly observer decided. The British Sunday Express quoted a blind intelligence source declaring, "Saddam was not captured as a result of any American or British intelligence," an odd claim, given that some intelligence—even if it was easily obtained—must have been necessary just to go to Adwar and pick Saddam up. It doesn't really matter that the Pentagon has never denied the Kurds played a role in Saddam's capture, that quibbles about the details don't put much of a dent in the overall story, that Saddam's having been held by hostile parties—though it's certainly interesting in terms of narrative—has few or no implications for Election 2004. (Back in March, who would have guessed that it would take until December to know Saddam's final disposition anyway?) Within a few months there will be people who insist the United States stole all the glory from the Kurds, and other people who will accuse you of being a Saddam lover if you even bring the Kurds up.

Of all the slings and arrows the Bush Administration has endured this past year, the most absurd may be the "Foot In Mouth" award given by the so-called Plain English Society to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his comment on "known unknowns." I can't be the only one who finds Rumsfeld's frequent excursions into existential doubt not only perfectly understandable but even necessary for success in an ambiguous environment. Every story, even and perhaps especially the most heartwarming, comes festooned with dubious details, ideological flapdoodle, and distorting prejudices. This one will be no different, and if that means nobody controls the official story, or better yet, that no official story materializes, that should be a relief.