Among the more curious developments of the past week were explicit and apparently purposeful statements by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the effect that the administration does not now believe — and apparently never believed — there was a direct link between Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Do they understand they may have blown the whole game — that they are on the verge of admitting there was never a good justification for the war whose wake is so messy?
Last week, in response to a question about whether Saddam was personally involved in the attack, Secretary Rumsfeld said, “I’ve not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that.” That same night, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice talked about a threat in “a region from which the 9-11 threat emerged,” but insisted that “we have never claimed that Saddam Hussein had either direction or control of 9-11.” On Wednesday, President Bush said, “We’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11th (attacks).”
This is fascinating. The administration has strongly hinted that Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaida were a big part of the reason for going to war, and hints about links have been pervasive enough that some polls show 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was involved in or responsible for the 9-11 attacks.
Washington journalist James Bovard — whose new book, “Terrorism and Tyranny” is an invaluable source for those whose memory of who said what and when could use a little refreshing — said this: “It’s true that administration spokespeople have not said directly that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11, although the president came very close in his message to Congress seeking authorization for the war. They may be trying to avoid an embarrassing inquiry like the uranium yellowcake controversy.”
Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at Oakland’s Independent Institute, believes last week’s flurry of comments was an attempt at damage control in response to Vice President Dick Cheney’s appearance a week earlier on “Meet the Press.”
“Dick Cheney went well beyond what reputable intelligence people believe in trying to justify the idea of a close link between Saddam and al-Qaida,” Eland said. “I think Cheney put the administration in a box and they decided to nip a possible controversy in the bud.”
If so, it’s a short-term political calculation that could have long-term damaging implications. Directly denying that Saddam had any link to the 9-11 terrorists knocks out the last justification for the war in Iraq. The United States has not found chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and even if some evidence of “programs” turns up, there was no imminent threat to the United States or Saddam’s neighbors. Saddam was no doubt a vicious ruler, and, for some people, that has become justification enough. But it’s looking more and more as if the United States conducted an aggressive war of choice, not necessity, marking a sharp turn in traditional U.S. policy.
We need to remember this if (when?) war hawks start touting the need to invade another country.