The Earthling

Baghdad Bound

Here is a summary of the latest good news and bad news in the war on terrorism.

Good news: The Bush administration has finally “thrown the prestige of the White House behind addressing Middle East violence,” according to the New York Times. This should be welcomed by Americans who get the picture—who see that, because hatred of America will translate into American deaths with growing efficiency as technology advances, the festering Palestinian issue is a long-term security threat to the United States.

Bad news: George W. Bush seems not to be among these enlightened Americans. His suddenly heightened concern with Middle East violence has little to do with its direct implications for homeland security. By all accounts, his main worry is that the violence will complicate his plan to invade Iraq. Of course, that invasion could itself in some ways increase American security, but it would also have the downside of increasing the amount of Islamic hatred of America. So, one way to summarize the Bush Middle East policy is this: Let’s stop the carnage that is making America more enemies every day—at least, let’s stop it for long enough so that America can make some more enemies.

Good news: The administration continues to favor the resumption of United Nations arms inspections of Iraq.

Bad news: This stated position is of course disingenuous. The administration has scrupulously avoided defining what would constitute an acceptably robust inspection regime. This will free Bush to dismiss any regime Hussein agrees to as inadequate. For good measure, the administration has ensured that Hussein has no incentive to permit inspections anyway. As a Sunday New York Times op-ed piece by Ivo Daalder and Elisa Harris notes, Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that even if Hussein submits to U.N. inspections, regime change will be in order. So Bush’s message to Hussein is: If you don’t submit to weapons inspections, we’ll kill you, whereas if you do submit to weapons inspections, we’ll kill you.

Bad news: A much-discussed New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Goldberg posits a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida and offers evidence that Iraq smuggled chemical or biological weapons to the Taliban in 2000.

Good news: Goldberg’s case is far from conclusive. It rests on interviews with prisoners held by Kurds who have a strong political interest in convincing Americans of an Iraq-al-Qaida link. And the Kurds seem never to have let Goldberg interview the prisoners alone. And the smuggling allegation rests on the word of a single prisoner with an admittedly nefarious background. (Goldberg himself, in a Slate dialogue, carefully circumscribes the claims he makes in the piece.) In any event, the emotional impact of the piece comes from a different dimension of it—Goldberg’s vivid account of how the Iraqi government gassed to death many thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s. President Bush cited this part of the article as evidence of Hussein’s “barbaric behavior.” Of course, that Hussein is a horrible man is not exactly news, even if Goldberg drives the point home with special force. In fact, everyone in the Iraq debate—pro-invasion and anti-invasion—already agrees that Hussein is a ruthless monster. So, logically speaking, the New Yorker piece should have little effect on the debate over how to handle Iraq (though the tenuous evidence of an Iraq-al-Qaida link is suggestive enough to warrant a follow-up investigation by American intelligence).  

Bad news: In Washington, “logically speaking” and $1.50 will get you a ride on the Metro. Anything that stirs up visceral loathing of Hussein will work in favor of invasion, and the New Yorker piece certainly succeeds there.

Summary: All signs continue to point to war with Iraq—not as a last resort (which is the kind of war I favor), but as a first choice. And as for Israel: If lasting peace miraculously arrives there, the impetus will probably have come from somewhere other than the White House, whose overriding aim is to calm things down for a few months, not find a lasting settlement.