Excerpt: The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq

Was Saddam Hussein ever really a threat to the U.S.? Taken from AlterNet's latest book, this excerpt examines the Iraqi dictator's real -- and imagined -- relationships with terrorists.

By Christopher Scheer, Robert Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry / AlterNet   November 18, 2003

5 liesEditor's Note: From the enormous bait-and-switch operation that, within hours after the collapse of the World Trade Center, tried to link Al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, to the clumsy attempts by the U.S. military to pacify, reconstruct and democratize a complex Muslim nation on the other side of the world, AlterNet's new book -- jointly published by Seven Stories Press and Akashic Books -- razes the house of cards upon which our foreign policy has been built since 9/11. The excerpt presented here, taken from pages 47-52, attempts to provide readers with an overview of Saddam Hussein's real and imagined relationships with terrorists.

"If the only problem the United States had with Saddam Hussein's regime were its involvement with terrorism, our problems would be relatively mild. On the grand list of state sponsors of terrorism, Iraq is pretty far down -- well below Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and others."
–From The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq by Kenneth M. Pollack, published by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2002
According to the logic of those who supported the Iraq invasion, it was a no-brainer that it would make the world safer from the threat of terrorism, since the White House said Iraq was a "state sponsor" of terrorism with "links to Al Qaeda."

On the surface, this theory seemed reasonable: If a state with the resources and ruthlessness of Hussein's Iraq teamed up with a gang of zealots with the range and training of Al Qaeda, they could be a very destructive tandem. Since Hussein and Bin Laden played in the same sandbox and both despised the United States for humiliations real or perceived, would it be so strange for them to team up like a duo of super-villains seeking world domination for their own evil ends?

Well, yes, actually, it would be strange. Exceedingly so. As with many of the scary-sounding accusations Bush and his counselors threw out about Iraq, this one conveniently side-stepped any facts or analysis that would undermine a world view in which Hussein was the New Hitler. The administration never explained what it meant that Iraq had sponsored terrorism. Against who? When? For what motive? How much? How effectively?

The reality had long been that the Iraqi dictator's forays into sponsoring or undertaking terrorist acts were constrained by a completely different set of motivations and limitations than those facing Al Qaeda. Despite its ties to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is mobile, decentralized, and supported by a far-flung network of impassioned fundamentalists willing to die for a cause, or pay for it. Hussein's regime, in contrast, was immobile, centralized, and supported by his political and economic control of Iraq.

These differences were enormously relevant when considering if Hussein really posed a serious terror threat to the United States or even Israel. For example, consider again that Bush quote: "Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." Faced with "could" and "might" assertions like this, the press rarely if ever took a hard look at whether they even made sense, much less were based on hard evidence. For example, it would have been worthwhile in this case to ask what Hussein would stand to gain from such a strategy. If they had, many of them would have likely come to the same conclusion as Pollack, who supported preemptive war with Iraq but didn't buy the terrorism angle.

"Saddam has never given WMD to terrorists (at least to our knowledge) for the same reasons he has distanced himself from international terrorist groups in general," wrote Pollack in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. And, "If he is uncomfortable with foreign terrorist groups because he cannot be certain how they will act and how their actions will affect his own security, this point is ten times more salient when weapons of mass destruction are involved. If Saddam were ever tied to a WMD terrorist attack, the targeted country would look to extract a fearful vengeance from him."

What the White House did know or should have known about Hussein was that his central goals were consistently the same: a) to remain in power as Iraq's dictator, and b) to look tough inside the region or in a blustery standoff with the United States as part of his constant struggle to be the leading power in his region. Hussein, while certainly a megalomaniac, is not a particularly religious man like Bin Laden, or one who seeks to impose his philosophy on the world, such as Lenin. By all expert accounts, he has long fancied himself an earthly caliph, ruling men by his wiles and the sword.

"Saddam's strategic objective appears to be to dominate the Persian Gulf, to control oil from the region, or both," wrote General Brent Scowcroft in the Wall Street Journal in August 2002, in an overt attempt to derail the White House's move to war with Iraq before it could gain momentum. Remember, this man was the National Security Advisor for Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush Sr. -- hardly a "Saddam-appeaser," in the memorable lexicon of conservative columnist William Safire. Scowcroft continued:
But there is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the September 11 attacks. Indeed Saddam's goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them.

He is unlikely to risk his investment in weapons of mass destruction, much less his country, by handing such weapons to terrorists who would use them for their own purposes and leave Baghdad as the return address. Threatening to use these weapons for blackmail -- much less their actual use -- would open him and his entire regime to a devastating response by the U.S. While Saddam is thoroughly evil, he is above all a power-hungry survivor.

Saddam is a familiar dictatorial aggressor, with traditional goals for his aggression. There is little evidence to indicate that the United States itself is an object of his aggression. Rather, Saddam's problem with the U.S. appears to be that we stand in the way of his ambitions. He seeks weapons of mass destruction not to arm terrorists, but to deter us from intervening to block his aggressive designs.
When we look at Hussein in this way -- as he is, not as a cartoon reincarnation of Adolf Hitler -- many of his tentative dabbles in the terror business start to make more sense. Rather than global or quixotic, they are local, pragmatic, and designed to increase his clout in his immediate neighborhood.

Having supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization before it toned down its activities a bit at Anwar Sadat's urging, for example, he later switched his support to Abu Nidal and other radical rivals to the PLO's leadership. Yet, ironically, his "support" for these groups usually meant giving them refuge in Iraq -- and then restraining them from actually doing anything. It was as if Hussein wanted to look like a powerful Arab nationalist but didn't actually want them to use Iraq as a launching pad for anything that would bring down destruction upon him. To be a terrorist living in Baghdad was to be a showpiece of the dictator, kept behind glass.

This was especially true after Hussein turned westward for help in his phenomenally destructive war of attrition with Iran. Again, from Pollack:
Saddam's increasing desperation as the Iran-Iraq War dragged on caused a major shift in his support for terrorism. As Iraq became increasingly dependent on the support of the moderate Arab states, the United States, and Europe, it began to distance itself from its former terrorist colleagues. Saad al-Bazzaz, a high-ranking Iraqi defector, claims that in the 1980s Saddam made a decision not to engage in terrorism against the West. Saddam recognized (in large part because the United States and Europe told him repeatedly) that his support for terrorism could scuttle Western assistance with the war effort. Saddam got the message. He allowed the Abu Nidal Organization to remain in Baghdad but basically prevented it from conducting operations. Iraq became one of the most forward-leaning of the Arab governments on the issue of peace negotiations with Israel. In addition, Saddam appears to have concluded that terrorism was a dangerous game that could get him into trouble but was not of great value in accomplishing his goals.
The United States, by then a de facto ally with Iraq against fundamentalist Iran, took notice in a 1986 State Department report that "the war and Iraq's accelerated drift toward the moderate Arab camp made terrorism an even less useful -- indeed counterproductive -- weapon" [italics added]. State's take on Iraq also noted that even before this shift, its support of terrorism had been limited to the region, employed "largely to intimidate Arab moderate governments and moderate elements within the PLO."

Not surprisingly, Hussein also supported groups of varying degrees of sincerity and brutality trying to incite rebellion in neighboring Turkey and Iran. For its neighbors, these efforts at destabilization were little more than annoyances -- and the kind of tit-for-tat dirty tricks that hostile neighbors engage in (think: Pakistan and India). These militias also gave Hussein another weapon to use against any Iraqis he felt were getting out of line, since they owed him their existence.

Yet for the United States, which had supported Hussein in his war against Iran, to critique such regional gamesmanship as reprehensible terrorism was to be chucking big stones from a glass house: Under the Iraqi Liberation Act, federal money -- U.S. taxpayers' money -- was available to fund eligible anti-Hussein factions like Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al- Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, a Shiite rebel army trained and armed by Iran that fought a vicious guerrilla war against Iraq's Ba'ath government for more than two decades. (Al-Hakim, a key postwar ally of the occupying forces, maintained that he did not receive money from the United States despite being officially eligible to do so. He was killed on August 29, 2003 in a car bomb attack in Najaf, Iraq.)

In recent years, Hussein had sought attention and Arab support by being one of the countries that provided cash to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Over the decades, Iraq had also shown itself willing and able to directly assassinate individuals beyond its borders. Usually these were Iraqi exiles, but perhaps Hussein's boldest covert action ever was his alleged attempt to have ex-president George Bush Sr. killed on the latter's triumphant visit to Kuwait in 1993. The attempt was apparently so clumsy as to be easily "rolled up" long before Bush Sr. arrived; according to Paul Pillar's Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, published by the Brookings Institute, U.S. intelligence officials were astonished at the inept and primitive nature of Iraq's attempts at carrying out terrorism by itself.

The neocon clique had also made strenuous, but ultimately unconvincing, attempts to link the 1993 World Trade Center attack to Hussein. According to Con Coughlin, author of Saddam: The Secret Life: "In an attempt to show that Ramzi Youssef, the Egyptian-born terrorist convicted of carrying out the attack, was in fact an Iraqi agent, Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary, last year sent James Woolsey, the former CIA director, with a copy of Youssef's fingerprints to Swansea University to prove that Youssef was the same person as an Iraqi student who had studied at the university. Unfortunately for Mr. Wolfowitz, the two sets of fingerprints did not match."

Despite a decade of such obsessive stalking, there is still missing in this dismal record any proof that Iraq had cooperated with radical fundamentalist terrorists in general or Al Qaeda in particular. Faced with this dearth of evidence, the White House tried to take what few lemons were lying around and make lemonade.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer and Lakshmi Chaudhry a senior editor at AlterNet. Robert Scheer is a professor at USC and a syndicated columnist. To read more about the book or to order copies, click here.

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