Hitchens on terrorists in Saddam's Iraq


I know, Hitchens is an evil guy with a beard, but it’s a viewpoint worth looking at if only to hash out the issues it raises. (I am sure these issues have already been discussed so I expect the usual volley of “you fucking idiot” posts.)

One of my beefs with the Iraq war has always been that Bush surfed ambiguous anti-Arab sentiment after 9/11 in order to muster political will for this invasion, and allowed (still allows) confusion to reign over whether or not Saddam actually had anything to do with 9/11. Bush says that “after 9/11” he couldn’t let America stand by while a potential enemy exists, which always seems odd to me as the lesson might as well have been learned at Pearl Harbor or any number of other places – there are always dangerous nations and you evaluate them as the situation calls for it; this was the case in statecraft millennia before 9/11. 9/11 is not some magical watermark except with regard to what it tells us about Al Qaeda and other anti-American Islamist terrorist groups. (Pro-war response: we forget that lesson from time to time and 9/11 has jolted us out of our complacency.)

It seems the “primary” cause of the Iraq war as we were told at the time (the WMDs) has been more or less discredited. Other arguments always floated about (Wilsonian nation building exercise, Saddam shot at our planes, he violated UN resolutions, there is a humanitarian case) and all can be dissected seperately. (I guess I’d say #1 is dangerously overambitious, #2 is a fair point but not necessarily sufficient for an invasion – though it would be interesting to note the reaction if one of our planes had actually been shot down, #3 is something that is generally ignored or not ignored at our convenience, and #4 is worth considering but must be weighed against the humanitarian cost of the war itself and and also the unlikeliness of a relatively clean exit a la Kosovo.) There is also of course the separate question of how Bush sold the war to the American public – which reasons he chose to emphasize and how valid/invalid they were.

So here is Hitchens saying what others have said, which is that Iraq under Saddam did support Islamist terrorists & therefore falls under the larger mandate of the so called War on Terror – nations which support terrorism are our enemies and will be treated as such. I suppose there are any number of angles from which to chip away at this if you want. 1) Why aren’t we invading Northern Ireland or Iran. (Likely counters: the War on Terror applies primarily to “militant Islamist” terrorism, and invading Iraq was both more practicable than Iran and there were also more corroborating reasons to invade like the UN resolutions and humanitarian case and blah blah blah.) 2) Such a broad mandate for the War on Terror is impractical and dangerous. 3) Any number of nations can be construed to “support terrorism” if you slice it the right way and have already decided for other reasons that you want to invade them.

Anyway it’s a common anti-war sentiment to say “what the hell does Iraq have to do with 9/11?” and here is Hitchens’s answer to that, for whatever it is worth. Assuming Hitchens’s interpretation of the facts is accurate (which I suppose will be disputed itself), it does perhaps compel one to critique the Iraq war on a deeper level. That is, it becomes not sufficient to say that “Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror” but instead one must critique the “war on terror” itself as being too broad or too vague or too easily manipulated to whatever more immediate political ends are in view. If any nation that has harbored/helped or does harbor/help terrorism, in whatever degree, suddenly becomes a (potential) green light on the Invade Now! list, is this a proportionate and rational response to 9/11, or is it a sort of cheap & easy way to snooker an understandably scared and angry public into supporting dubious adventurist enterprises?

These supposed ties have been trotted out repeatedly over the last few weeks since other rationales have fallen through.

There are a couple glaring problems:
-The obvious critcisms you mention in the relative scale of connections with muslim terrorist grups. There are others, too, like the tricky case of Saudi Arabia. Besides, neither of these come anywhere near the damage done by, say, Pakistan letting a guy who sold nuclear plans to just about everyone go totally free. Yet we couldn’t even muster the strength to say anything about that. I agree this particular debate quickly turns into pointless comparisons – BUT it is worth pointing out the hypocricy and selective use of the facts, because it goes a long way towards supporting the idea that maybe, just maybe, the war was based on a silly neocon domino fantasy for the Middle East, and not really about terrorism or liberation (or, to their credit, oil).

-Zarqawi was hanging out in a part of Iraq that was outside of Saddam’s control, and where we could have took him out, were he not a convenient excuse. See story from this crazy liberal newspaper:

-The New Yorker article that Hitchens dismisses actually goes into quite a bit of detail about Yasin. Hitchens skips the fact that he was held in an Iraqi jail. Sure, so what if Saddam was holding him as a bargaining chip? That hardly translates to support in my book.

So yes, there are a few extremely tenous connections between a couple muslim terrorists and Saddam. But is that really the best they can come up with as a justification for this invasion? They would do much better to stick to the whole liberation and bring democracy to an oppressed people argument, even if it is unlikely to work out that way for the Iraqis.

It’s hard for me to discuss this because I believe the problem is the debate has been framed in entirely the wrong way. You sort of hit on this already. It is not a “war on terrorism”, it is a war on a fairly specific extremist muslim ideology. It’s very hard to see how the quite predictable fallout from rushing into the Iraq war: A very unlikely Iraqi democracy, rock bottom world opinion of the U.S., loss of credibility and damaged alliances, a glaring example terrorists recruiters can point to of western aggression against Islam (justified or not) – would ever lead to success of any sort in the war against that ideology.

I have to admit that I don’t believe the more broad “War On Terror” justifies invading a country for the purpose of regime change.

That is, it becomes not sufficient to say that “Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror” but instead one must critique the “war on terror” itself as being too broad or too vague or too easily manipulated to whatever more immediate political ends are in view.

It was always useless to debate, on either side of the divide, over whether the “war on terror” and “war on Iraq” were literally linked. Rather than trying to link Saddam to 9/11 – or point out that Saddam wasn’t linked to 9/11 – Americans should have had a much more proper debate over “What to do about confronting rogue regimes post-9/11.”

My answer to “What did Saddam have to do with 9/11?” is that his was one of a handful of regimes that continue to openly defy the UN on WMD resolutions — and their defiance is an intolerable state of affairs post-9/11.

At that point, the world should have had a sincere debate over how best to confront these regimes. (In the event, Bush overplayed his hand, announcing he’d go to war no matter what – thus allowing the Europeans to cynically wiggle their way out of any responsibility for enforcing the UN’s own mandates.)

I admire Hitchens for being the only liberal in 2001-02 to write with sense and maturity about the need for a showdown with these regimes. For Hitchens, as for me, it was principally about forcing a choice between two simple paths:

A) Confronting rogue regimes and bringing them into line with international demands, or…

B) Not.

Don’t get me wrong. Iraq has been a disaster and has only set back the larger (and still-needed) effort to corral rogue states. Bush’s biggest failing – by far the very biggest – is that the half-assed Iraq effort has weakened our position for dealing with the very real showdowns that still remain. Because remain they do, regardless of what anyone, including me, wants to hope.

It’d be wonderful if the debate was done on terms you specify, Dan, but it wasn’t.

The reason it wasn’t? Bush’s team was smart enough to know there’s no way in hell the US would favor invading Iraq based on that. Wasn’t gonna happen.

Instead, what received an “education” from the GOP media organs that Saddam was behind 9/11 somehow. Just keep throwing out loony theories - never mind if they’re factually wrong, insane, or mutually contradictory - eventually everyone will believe at least one of them. Support for the invasion turns turns up!

And along for the ride, a crowd of well-meaning moderates and liberals hoping they can ride the wave to get their other good goals out of it - a democratcy in Iraq! No more sanctions poisoning the region against us! I was one of them.

Problem is that wars sold on lies tend to turn out badly. Maybe it’s karma.

Interesting for compare-and-contrast: Nitze’s exaggerations about the Soviet threat which got us fighting the Cold War.

Oh yeah: do you agree with the Bush crowd’s focus on states being behind everything?

I suspect that’s the real reason we got Iraq - their Cold War-fused brains couldn’t wrap their minds around the concept non-state US sponsor. Clearly, a non-state actor is unpossible; therefore someone has to back these terrorists; and of course it’d be someone we didn’t like anyway, right?

Perfect logic, if you ignore you’re stuck in reverse and grinding the hell out of the gears. Come on in, Axis of Evil!

I admire Hitchens for being the only liberal in 2001-02 to write with sense and maturity about the need for a showdown with these regimes.

These regimes? Or Iraq? Because Saddam’s regime is a pretty lousy example of a genuinely dangerous “rogue regime”. He was pretty much locked up tight and was no longer much of an offender when it came to UN regulations (remember, he didn’t have the WMD). Not to mention, unlike say, N. Korea’s crazy ass leader, Saddam was a pretty predictable self-interested despot. Yes, he was doing horrible things to his own people, but let’s not pretend this has anything to do with human rights, and there’s a long list of other regimes on that list.

principally about forcing a choice between two simple paths:
A) Confronting rogue regimes and bringing them into line with international demands, or…
B) Not.


True isolationists are few and far between nowadays (mostly utopian hippie types on the left and Pat Buchanan xenophobes on the right). The real debate is about how we confront rogue regimes.

Plenty of liberals are for direct confrontation with rogue states. Plenty of liberals, myself included, supported the Afghanistan war, even if they disagreed with some of the details of how it was handled. It’s Iraq where the debate really began, and with good reason.

I’d be fascinated to hear what you think the whole assed solution was in the Iraq war. I genuinely don’t think there was one given the situation in 2003 (no clear threat, no real evidence of WMDs, no strong evidence of a war on terror connection). A solution would have been keeping a steady stream of inspectors and fixing the abuses in the oil for food program.

I agree with you about the weakened position in the world, though. We’ve got no leg to stand on in pressuring Iran diplomatically, and our head is completely in the sand about N. Korea after ignoring it for so long.

EDIT: removed extraneous PoMo quotes and one silly assumption.

If you’ll check the news, you’ll find what many of us already suspected: Iraq had been effectively contained. Any “defiance” was Saddam Hussein showboating for political gain.

Furthermore, 9/11 had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. Last I checked, a hijacked 747 wasn’t a WMD.

For Hitchens, as for me, it was principally about forcing a choice between two simple paths:

A) Confronting rogue regimes and bringing them into line with international demands, or…

B) Not.

You’re confusing the “simple” with “simplistic”. Unilaterally mounting a half-assed and misguided invasion isn’t the only way to confront a rogue regime. And, as it turns out, those other ways were already successful.


The sanctions against Iraq were amazingly successful. Despite the corruption that had the potential to undermine the sanctions, Saddam had complied pretty completely with the UN resolutions, perhaps as completely as was possible given his internal political situation.

Ironically, in attempting to “enforce international demands”, the US managed to discredit probably the most successful UN enforcement regime to date.

Calling the Oil for Food bribery an “amazingly successful” sanction is pushing the limits of credulity.

Yeah, I agree with that, it’s an overstatement. I think Saddam was very effectively contained, but the oil for food program had some obvious corruption problems.

Of coruse, the hawks using that as an after-the-fact justification for the war is just laughable. “Wait, there’s some corruption in the sanction program” “No, no, we aren’t going to push to fix it” “Only one reasonable response, forget the whole thing, invasion is the only possible solution” “Yeah, I know we never said that before the war, but that’s what we meant”.