Eyes on the Prize

Reihan Salam has a post up claiming that Spencer Ackerman is too dismissive of Saddam/al-Qaeda links, based on Saddam’s ties to the Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam:

Ansar al-Islam is widely believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. Against, this isn’t evidence of a grand alliance. It is just more evidence for a straightforward proposition: that Saddam was willing to cooperate with groups of widely ranging ideological proclivities in pursuit of his broad objectives, among them hunting Americans and reducing the ambit of American power. This helps explain some of what we know, e.g., that Saddam’s intelligence service sought to build relationships with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other Islamist groups. The Bush Administration’s rhetorical efforts to associate Saddam with Al Qaeda were clumsy and based on category error upon category error. We don’t need to defend these clumsy efforts, however, to see that Saddam was willing to employ brutal, unconventional tactics even towards the tail end of his regime.

Now, the question of Saddam’s ties to Ansar al-Islam is still up in the air; for every Eli Lake who thinks them significant, there’s a Sunil Ram or (here’s a kicker) George Tenet who think they aren’t.
But let’s grant for a second Reihan’s proposition, that Ansar al-Islam is affiliated to both al-Qaeda and Saddam. So what? Earlier in his post, Reihan writes that on the Saddam/al-Qaeda link issue, “Of course, a great deal depends on what one considers ‘significant.'” But this isn’t some academic question being debated by experts on the region as a scholarly pursuit. This is a policy question being debated by opinion journalists to judge the war in Iraq’s merits. For the latter purpose, the definition of “significant” is pretty clear-cut: “ties strong enough that Saddam was inclined to use Ansar al-Islam to convince al-Qaeda to attack the United States or American interests abroad” or, to follow the narrative the administration laid out in 2002-03, “ties strong enough that Saddam was likely to funnel biochemical, radiological, or nuclear weapons through Ansar al-Islam to al-Qaeda for use against the United States or American interests abroad.”
Now, this is a high bar to set; there are certainly ways in which the Saddam/Ansar al-Islam relationship could have led to Saddam benefiting al-Qaeda that fall short of these definitions. But then again, there should be a high bar when it comes to launching massive invasions and occupations of countries that haven’t attacked us. And I don’t think there are broader definitions of “significant” here that describe a Saddam/Ansar al-Islam relationship warranting military intervention. If Saddam was using Ansar al-Islam to funnel money or cash to al-Qaeda, which seems like the most extensive the relationship could have been, and which I doubt very strongly, then the UN could freeze Iraqi government assets, or tighten the arms embargo. Even that extreme case doesn’t come close to warranting war.
This goes to a point that Matt was making the other day, that the more factually grounded (and I use that term very relatively) Saddam/al-Qaeda link promoters, like Stephen Hayes, actually have a far less coherent view of how that link constitutes a threat to the United States than balls-out conspiracy theorists like Laurie Mylroie (who, this being the Bush administration, was still really influential). It’s easy for people like Reihan and Lake to scrounge up things like the questions about Ansar al-Islam and accuse liberals of being too dismissive of the Saddam/al-Qaeda ties. But in doing so, they lose sight of what this argument is actually about, namely the merits of going to war. And I don’t think either of them would posit that Saddam’s relationship with Ansar al-Islam was sufficiently threatening to the United States to render the decision to invade any more defensible.

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