Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Stephen F. Hayes, the staff writer at The Weekly Standard whose recent article, Case Closed, reported on the U.S. government's secret memo detailing the links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
FP: Welcome to Frontpage Interview Mr. Hayes. It’s a pleasure to have you with us.
Let’s begin with the State of the Union Address last week. The President talked about the War on Terror, Iraq, the importance of fighting our enemy and finishing the job etc., but he did not touch on the Saddam-Al-Qaeda connection -- which you, among others, have done an excellent job documenting. Why do you think the President was silent on this crucial theme?
Hayes: I'm not sure the State of the Union is the proper setting for any kind of a detailed rehash of prewar arguments.
That said, I think the administration has been too silent on these connections for too long. We have learned some interesting things since the end of the war, not least of which is the support of the Iraqi regime for Abdul Rahman Yasin, an Iraqi native who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Center building. Coalition forces found a document in Tikrit several months ago that indicates the former Iraqi regime has provided Yasin housing and a monthly stipend for nearly a decade. Dick Cheney has mentioned this on a couple of occasions, but it has otherwise gone unnoticed. Why?
It's a big deal. It doesn't prove Iraqi complicity in the bombing -- we have not yet found any paperwork that suggests the regime was supporting Yasin before the bombing. But it certainly raises interesting questions. The Iraqis have said for years that they either didn't know where Yasin was or, at times, that he had been imprisoned in Iraq. We now know with reasonable certainty that they were lying. In any case, it demonstrates that Iraq was not only harboring, but supporting, a dangerous terrorist who has attacked America.
I hope the administration will abandon its reluctance to share this kind of information with the American public. Yes, anonymous leaks from sceptics at the CIA are inevitable and hard to challenge. The administration has argued for a year now that Iraq was -- and remains -- the central front in the War on Terror. These revelations will help explain why.
FP: So, let’s go over some of the facts. Tell us about the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam. It’s been confirmed beyond reasonable doubt hasn’t it?
Hayes: Yes. I think it's telling that before the war, many who were sceptical of such a relationship were saying that there was no connection whatsoever. In the face of additional evidence to the contrary, they now seem to allow that there were "contacts" but tell us that such contacts didn't amount to anything. How they know this is never explained.
The Saddam-al Qaeda relationship began in the early 1990s and was brokered by Sudanese strongman Hassan al Turabi. By 1993, Saddam and bin Laden reached an informal non-aggression pact -- you don't mess with me, I won't mess with you. There is some evidence that they cooperated throughout the mid-1990s, perhaps on chemical and biological weapons -- while al Qaeda was based in the Sudan.
The relationship seemed to pick up in the late 1990s, during periods of increased tensions between Iraq and the U.S. Some of the evidence is more circumstantial and suggestive, some of it is direct and incontrovertible. And much of it is still unknown.
I thought the administration might have oversold the importance of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda affiliate who went to Baghdad for "medical treatment" after the war in Afghanistan. He had a starring role in Colin Powell's presentation before the UN Security Council this time last year. It looks like I was wrong. He seems to have been a central figure in pre-war Iraq/al Qaeda collaboration and, more troubling, is helping to recruit terrorists and coordinate anti-coalition activities in Iraq now. Investigations in Germany and Italy are turning up new things on Zarqawi almost daily.
FP: As you have discussed in your work, there were actual contacts between 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta and Saddam’s people in Prague. And one of these meetings occurred in April, 2001, just a few months before 9/11. U.S. and Czech intelligence have confirmed these meetings, including the fact that they involved Saddam’s approval for funding Atta. What do you think of the significance of these meetings? How can anyone deny Iraq’s direct involvement in 9/11 if Iraqi intelligence officials were meeting with one of the main 9/11 perpetrators?
Hayes: It’s a fascinating story. Five top Czech officials are on record as confirming the meeting. The Czechs have also reported to the CIA that al Ani authorized a financial transfer to Atta from the Iraqi Intelligence service to Atta. The FBI and the CIA have not been able to confirm these reports to their satisfaction. Dick Cheney once described reports of the meeting as “credible” but “unconfirmed.” I think that’s the best way to leave it at this point. Al Ani, now in US custody, has denied it. I expect we’ll hear more about the alleged meeting and the conclusions about it in the near future.
FP: Many of those in our liberal media discount the possibility of a Saddam-bin Laden connection because they don’t see a possibility of Islamic fanatics colluding with a secular regime. Many officials in the U.S. government have also had this disposition over the years in framing U.S. policy. But isn’t this utter nonsense? Anti-American Middle East secularists consistently co-operate with Islamic religious fanatics against U.S. interests. No? Could you talk a bit about this?
Hayes: Well, the standard view that bin Laden considered Saddam an “infidel” and that Saddam was highly suspicious of bin Laden is, I think, essentially accurate. What bothers me is the great leap that the sceptics take, reasoning from those data. The notion that Saddam and bin Laden would never cooperate because of their divergent goals is, as you say, utter nonsense. History is replete with examples of long-time enemies cooperating against a common foe. The facility with which some CIA analysts and sceptical journalists rule out collaboration reflects a rather profound failure of imagination.
The New York Times reported last week that among the documents in Saddam’s rat-hole was one warning his Baathists to be “wary” of cooperating with jihadists. That’s not terribly surprising. The Times reporter, two paragraphs later, cited the document as further “evidence” that challenges Bush administration claims that Saddam worked with al Qaeda. Huh? The document shows no such thing. Most of those who believe that Saddam and al Qaeda cooperated argue that such a relationship was one of convenience. Evan Bayh, a Democratic senator from Indiana, explained this well in an interview I conducted with him a few weeks back. Saddam wanted to use al Qaeda to conduct terrorist operations on his behalf; al Qaeda wanted to use Iraq for the things that only a state can provide.
FP: What do you think of Saddam’s capture? What is its significance?
Hayes: Saddam's capture was huge -- just ask Howard Dean. I had been struck in the months after Baghdad fell, just how many Iraqis told me that things would not improve until Saddam was captured or killed. It seemed ridiculous. Here you had American Bradleys driving throughout central Baghdad and the Iraqis still believed Saddam could actually stage a comeback. On one trip in late July, a member of the Najaf City Council asked Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz if it was true that the CIA was holding Saddam and waiting to use him as punishment if anti-American activities continued. This was a well-educated Iraqi speaking some four months after the end of major combat.
In the short-term, I think one reason the Shia in Iraq have become increasingly vocal over the past month about the need for direct elections is that they had confirmation that Saddam is gone for good. The Shia were horrendously abused under Saddam, of course, and given our repeated failure to make good on promises to them from 1991, have historically had good reason to be suspicious of American motives.
FP: This question posed by the member of the Najaf City Council about the CIA holding Saddam etc., brings to mind the bizarre Arab conspiracy mindset. I must be honest, in almost every one of my political discussions with my Arab acquaintances/friends, I am always on the receiving end of some kind of long monologue that relates a fantastic tale about Saddam being an American agent, bin Laden now living in Miami, the Israelis “fixing” 9/11 etc. Someone else is always in control. There are these dark sinister American and Jewish forces that are behind every Arab failure, let alone every Arab event. The “interpretations” of Saddam’s capture in the Arab press I think were a good indication of this phenomenon. Could you give a few comments on this conspiracy mentality?
Hayes: I was at a dinner party within a couple of weeks of September 11 where a young Moroccan told me, matter-of-factly, that the Mossad was behind the attacks. The striking thing for me was not the existence of the conspiracy theory, but that it was posited by someone who had lived in the United States for more than a decade. That’s scary and somewhat bewildering.
FP: Yes, it is scary and bewildering. But could you give a little bit of an insight here into the psychological mindset? Is it connected to the fact that the real world is simply too painful for many Middle Eastern Arabs to accept, because it would necessitate too many painful truths about the failures and bankruptcies of their own culture and civilization?
Hayes: Well, that may explain part of it. There is clearly a segment of the Arab world, for lack of a better term, determined to scapegoat Jews, the West, imperialists, America, etc. If you believe the polling in the region – and I’m not sure that I do – that’s a big chunk. And it’s reasonable to expect that those feelings will diminish the more inhabitants of the Middle East can determine their own future and create their own success. That’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen over the next decade. Winning the “hearts and minds” of the Arab world is a long-term problem that requires a long-term commitment and fundamental, systemic changes in relations between countries in the region and the West.
FP: So where are we headed now in Iraq? In what direction should U.S. involvement in Iraq go?
Hayes: I think we're at an important juncture in Iraq. (Of course, I've been saying that for the past nine months, too.) Ayatollah Sistani, the leader of the Shia in Iraq, is by most accounts a reasonable man. He's certainly not a rabble-rouser, just stirring things up to cause trouble. We have no choice but to listen to his requests. I'm told that he's not being nearly as dogmatic in private as the press reports would have us believe. Yes, he has strong views and wants to make certain that the Shia are adequately represented in the new Iraqi government, but he's not ruled out some kind of compromise on direct elections.
I think we're in Iraq for a while. It's now become something of a cliché, but it's a cliché because it's true: we can't afford to fail in Iraq. The changes we have made throughout the Middle East -- in mindsets, if not yet political structures -- are huge. We can't lose that momentum.
FP: Is democracy possible for Iraq? What can we do best to prevent Islamization of the country or a Khomeini-style take-over?
Hayes: Yes. It’s difficult for me even to entertain the notion that democracy is impossible. As the late Michael Kelly once put it: who would choose to live in a dictatorship? There’s a lot of political space between a Jeffersonian democracy and a dictatorship. I expect that what evolves in Iraq will occupy some of that space.
Your second question is much more difficult. I think even advocates for democracies in the Islamic world struggle to come up with adequate answers. With respect to Iraq, the US has a tremendous potential ally in Ayatollah Sistani. He has quite a following and has indicated repeatedly that he favors some form of democratic government. He qualifies this by insisting that such a government must not conflict with the teachings of Islam – which leaves a lot open to interpretation. But I worry that we could alienate Sistani by refusing to be flexible about how, exactly, elections are to take place in Iraq.
FP: In my recent interview with Dr. Richard Pipes, he stated that he would advise Bush not to bother trying to install a western-style democracy in Iraq and just to concentrate on setting up an effective tribal government. He argues that, “Democracy requires that all institutions standing between the individual citizen and the state be eliminated, but this is not possible in countries with strong tribal traditions.” What do you make of this?
Hayes: I’m not sure I’d agree that democracy requires that all such institutions be eliminated. Many democratic theorists argue that a strong civil society is precisely what sustains democracies. The tribes in Iraq today are the source of tremendous power and loyalty – it’s one of the reasons that Saddam, after neglecting the tribes for so many years, appealed to them for support when he was threatened. Much of the work that U.S. forces are doing in Iraq is conducted with the active cooperation of tribal sheikhs.
FP: Where do we stand right now in the War on Terror?
Hayes: That's a great question, and one that ironically doesn't get enough attention. I was speaking to a member of the national Commissioner investigating the September 11 attacks not long ago, and he told me that we had captured or killed more than 75 percent of the top al Qaeda leadership. That's astonishing. I think most Americans understandably believe that as long as we don't have bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, we're not winning. It's important to get those guys, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the operation they once had at their disposal has been largely wiped out. That's not to say it isn't regenerating itself. It is. But as a measure of success, I like 75 percent.
One other point on that score. Remember all of the antiwar types who told us that we would lose cooperation in the broader War on Terror if we removed Saddam Hussein? They were wrong. And in some cases, mostly among our would-be allies in the region, we have seen a significant increase in cooperation on al Qaeda and its network.
FP: The antiwar types you refer to argued that we would lose our cooperation in the broader War on Terror if we attacked Saddam because that is what they wanted to happen. The Left clearly wanted the U.S. to be defeated in Iraq, just as it wants American defeat in the War on Terror. Do you agree? Why do you think the Left sides with the bin Ladens and Husseins of the world over the U.S. and freedom?
Hayes: I’m uncomfortable with sweeping generalizations about the Left – it’s a pretty diverse crowd. There are certainly some on the fringe who would be happy to see the U.S. defeated in the War on Terror. That has a lot less to do with their desire to bin Laden or Saddam succeed than it does with eagerness to see President Bush fail. It’s an imprecise guide, but I think it’s not unimportant that many Democrats supported the war in Iraq – including some who want to make political points now.
That said, I was astonished by the number of those on the Left who were unmoved by the human rights arguments for removing Saddam. One failure of the Bush Administration’s case for war was its refusal to highlight Saddam’s abuses. I understand that some of our allies – chiefly the British – wanted to focus on WMD. And it could have been rightly pointed out that we didn’t care so much about Saddam’s human rights abuses when he was fighting Iran. Still, I would have relished seeing Dominique de Villepin explain to the world why, in the face of perhaps 1 million Iraqi deaths, France did not support removing Saddam. The mass graves we are finding now were no secret before the war. I interviewed an Iraqi-American in Dearborn, Michigan, who said he knew the precise location of a mass grave and begged me to pass on to the US government directions to it.
At the end of the day, the French and their antiwar counterparts here in American, were determined to oppose us. So I don’t think such human rights arguments would have changed things dramatically. But a fuller airing of Saddam’s history of torture and murder would have helped expose their arguments as fundamentally political.
FP: Yes, the French made no secret about where their loyalties were on Iraq. What’s their problem?
Hayes: The French were determined to oppose us. There’s no getting around that fact. It’s funny, in the days after the unanimous Security Council vote on resolution 1441, Dominique de Villepin gave an interview with French radio that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. In defending the French vote he told the audience two things: 1) that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons that threaten America, and 2) that the language in the resolution threatening “serious consequences” was understood by everyone involved to mean war. Avoiding war, he said, was the responsibility of Saddam Hussein.
The subsequent French posturing was just that – posturing. They knew very well that they had, in effect, already signed off on a war. Everything they did from that point on was designed to position France as the key geopolitical alternative to the United States. It was dishonest in a fundamental way and why, I believe, we were right to deny them the opportunity to bid on Iraqi contracts.
FP: Ok, so tomorrow your phone rings and it is President Bush. He is calling to ask you what concrete steps he should take next in Iraq and the War on Terror. He just wants a few concrete short-term plans. What do you tell him?
Hayes: I tell him to call someone a lot smarter than I am.
FP: Ok, so I guess that question didn’t work. Well. . .let's pretend that Bush doesn't call you then. Let’s just say I call you and ask you what you think the U.S. should do next in Iraq and the War on Terror. In your estimation, in what direction should U.S. policy be headed?
Hayes: It's important that we remain aggressive. It would be nice to imagine that our work is done, as I think half the country does. They're wrong. It's arguably more important to pressure outlaw regimes now than it was shortly after September 11. The terrorists and their state sponsors think of America as soft, as unwilling to sustain casualties, as lacking the will to fight. They're wrong, I hope, the more we can demonstrate that we are serious about removing threats the better we will be.
This does not, of course, mean more wars. Diplomacy can be more effective now, after the use of force, than it would ever have been after eight years of Clinton Administration dithering. Who, in early 2001, believed we would use force to eliminate terrorists and their state sponsors? Who doesn't believe it now?
FP: Thank you, Mr. Hayes, our time is up. I really appreciate you taking the time out to come on Frontpage Interview.
Hayes: My pleasure Jamie.