When the vice president of the United States touched down here in Arkansas the other day, he went down his list of talking points with accustomed dispatch.
Nobody ever accused Dick Cheney of being some kind of touchy-feely romantic. That may be one of the more assuring things about him in these dangerous times. Say what you like about the guy, he's not cute. (Unlike, say, John Edwards.) The essence of his stump speech was, "Sometimes the other team is stuck in a pre-September 11 mentality."
Whereupon, the senior senator from Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln, rose to the defense of her party. In particular, she challenged the vice president's claim that one reason Saddam Hussein needed to be locked up (among others) was his regime's connection with the al Qaeda network. Mrs. Lincoln was quick to say there really wasn't much of a connection between the two and, "If Vice President Cheney has all this proof he's been talking about, maybe he should share it with folks."
Nice jab, but the senator needn't go to Mr. Cheney for documentation. She could just read the recent report of the bipartisan September 11 commission, which records a number of contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam's Iraq.
In a revealing sidelight, the report quotes Richard C. Clarke — yes, the former counterterrorism chief who has been claiming Osama bin Laden had no connection with Saddam's regime.
Yet Mr. Clarke opposed a U-2 flight to track down Osama in Afghanistan because the Pakistanis would need to be apprised of it and they, in turn, might let Osama know the Americans were about to bomb him. "Armed with that knowledge," Mr. Clarke warned, "old wily Osama will likely boogie to Baghdad." Once there, warned Clarke, he would put his terrorist network at Saddam's service, and it would be "virtually impossible" to track him down. It's all there on Page 134 of the commission's report. (Osama's actual meeting with one of Saddam Hussein's senior intelligence officers in late 1994 or early 1995 is mentioned earlier, on Page 61.)
If that's not enough to establish a Saddam-Osama connection, Mrs. Lincoln could take up the matter with Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the September 11 Commission.
When the usual suspects in the media (the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, et al.) tried to give the commission's report the same spin Mrs. Lincoln did, Mr. Hamilton said: "There were contacts between al Qaeda and Iraq going back clear to the early 1990s, when Osama bin Laden was in Sudan, then when he was in Afghanistan. I don't think there's any dispute about that."
If still doubtful, Mrs. Lincoln could just read the papers. Even the New York Times, not exactly a Republican organ, eventually caught on. ("Iraqis, seeking foes of Saudis, contacted bin Laden, file says" — New York Times, June 25.)
Mrs. Lincoln is an impressive lady — when she knows what she's talking about. On this subject, the senator is, yes, stuck in that pre-September 11 mentality the vice president mentioned. She is still not connecting the dots.
Exactly how strong or continuous was the connection between Saddam's regime and Osama's outfit? That question could be debated indefinitely without ever reaching a clear conclusion. But that's not to say the connection was weak or nonexistent. How weak could it have been if Richard Clarke's first reaction to a scheme to hit Osama's camp from the air was that al Qaeda's leader would probably "boogie to Baghdad"?
Osama bin Laden's pattern was to establish a close working relationship only with the rogue regime whose hospitality he enjoyed at the moment — whether in Sudan or Afghanistan. But as Richard Clarke instinctively recognized, that wouldn't have kept wily old Osama from moving to Iraq and linking up with Saddam's operation in a Baghdad minute.
This debate over the Saddam-Osama connection grows tedious. Americans are a forward-looking people, much more interested in where we go from here than in debating different views of the past. But this much is beyond dispute:
There no longer is a connection between these outlaws. And there's not likely to be one in the future. That's one thing we needn't worry about just now. Osama is on the run and Saddam is no longer lobbing missiles at American jets almost daily.
Thanks to the Bush administration and, to give credit where it's really due, the U.S. armed forces and those of our allies, Saddam's realm now has been reduced to one jail cell. Surely even Mr. Cheney's critics would agree that's an improvement.