Dialogues

Will Saddam Go Samson on Us?

Dear Warren,

Cynical? You? Not at all. Of course Saddam Hussein cannot be permitted to get nukes. If he gets them, he’ll use them to murder large numbers of people, among them American soldiers (think of the nightmare of force concentration in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear-capable Saddam); Kurds (he’s already gassed them; I wouldn’t put it past him to nuke them as well); Saudis; and, of course, Jews, his ticket to immortality.

But here’s the question: How do you deny him nuclear weapons without denying him power? Jessica Matthews, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, argued against regime change, saying that the problem isn’t Saddam himself, but simply his desire to acquire nuclear weapons. I know, it made no sense to me either. (It was in this column that she argued, in defiance of crushing evidence to the contrary, that Saddam is a typical tin-pot dictator, no better and no worse than any of the world’s vulgar despots.).

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Here’s my challenge to you: I’ll pay you 25 dinars if you can explain to me a sure-fire way to deny Saddam weapons of mass destruction while leaving his regime in place.

Let’s got back to the subject of the Ansar al-Islam and my article, for a moment. I think you have (unintentionally, I’m sure) mischaracterized my story, inflating its claims in order to deflate the underlying message. I have never claimed that the Ansar al-Islam, the terror group operating in a small slice of Iraqi Kurdistan, is the primary point of connection between Saddam and Osama; nor do I claim that Ansar has global terrorist ambitions. You write, “As my colleague Ken Pollack (who handled Iraq on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council) points out, if Saddam and al-Qaida want to talk, hey, they can talk. Why go through this band of disreputable, penetrable, and unreliable Kurds?”

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I never said they did go through this band of disreputable Kurds. If this is Pollack’s position, then it’s obvious he didn’t read my story. In the story, I report the allegation made by an imprisoned Iraqi intelligence agent that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ex-Egyptian Islamic Jihadist who now serves as Osama’s deputy, visited Baghdad as early as 1992, but this visit is unconnected to Ansar al-Islam. Ansar al-Islam is a group dedicated to the overthrow of the secular Kurdish government in the free zone of northern Iraq. Both Osama and Saddam want to see the Kurdish experiment in self-governance and civil society ended, which is why they would work together. Of course, the Ansar al-Islam is alleged to run an underground railroad for fugitive al-Qaida members, and Ansar members may have served as smugglers for Osama, bringing Iraqi weapons to Afghanistan, but I don’t make the kind of grandiose claims ascribed to me. All I do in The New Yorker is suggest a couple of points of possible overlap between Baghdad and al-Qaida.

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Speaking of people who talk about New Yorker stories without reading them (believe me, I appreciate the fact that you did—it’s not the shortest thing I’ve ever written), let me tell you about my absurd encounter on CNN with Aaron Brown, who let himself be used by the CIA. As I was led onto the set one night earlier this week, I noticed that David Ensor, one of CNN’s on-air reporters, was looking smugly in my direction. I knew that he is often used by people in the national security establishment as their mouthpiece, so I guessed that I was in trouble. On-air, Brown asked me to summarize my story (in about 20 seconds, of course), and then said—I’m paraphrasing—”Jeff, I have to tell you, CNN has just spoken to a senior government official who says that while he respects your work, your story isn’t credible.” I caught a glimpse of Ensor, who couldn’t contain his smirk.

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I happen to know the “senior government official” in question; he’s a friend of mine (and a great writer to boot), and I knew that his bosses were eager for him to shoot down the idea that the vast American intelligence apparatus somehow overlooked the al-Qaida members I found in Kurdistan. I held my tongue, mostly, even when Brown asked me if I felt I was being used by the Kurds to get their message across, as if I had not dealt with this question in the story.

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Bureaucratic resistance in Washington to helping the Kurds is understandable; the State Department is not known for its love of small peoples (just ask a Tutsi). What is astonishing is that journalists, who, I’ve always been told, side instinctively with the oppressed, quite regularly line up against the Iraqi dissident community (and I don’t mean just the Iraqi National Congress) in its fight against the fascist regime in Baghdad.

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OK. Here’s a question. What would Saddam do if he knew he was done for? My friend Jacob Weisberg, of this magazine, brings up this point, and it’s an important one. If we keep signaling to Saddam our interest in finishing him off, won’t he go Samson on us, killing as many of his enemies as he can before dying himself? This is the most effective argument I’ve seen against an all-out invasion. The Kurds understand this. One peshmerga general (the peshmerga—”those who face death”—are Kurdish guerrillas) pleaded with me to tell people in Washington to “knock out Saddam” with a single punch. Otherwise, he said, the Kurds are in terrible trouble. What think you?

Best,
Jeff

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