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Did the Iraq War Help al-Qaeda? By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Tuesday, May 20, 2003


It's fascinating to be this far into the post-Saddam period and still to be arguing about weapons, about terror, and about Saddam. According to one school, the total effect of the whole thing has been to expose WMD claims as a sham, ratchet up the terror network, and give Saddam a chance at a populist comeback.

I don't think that this can be quite right. I still want to reserve my position on whether anything will be found, but I did write before the war, and do state again (in my upcoming Slate/Penguin-Plume book) that obviously there couldn't have been very many weapons in Saddam's hands, nor can the coalition have believed there to be. You can't station tens of thousands of men and women in uniform on the immediate borders of Iraq for several months if you think that a mad dictator might be able to annihilate them with a pre-emptive strike.

The Iraqis also tended to admit things in reverse. In other words, it was only at the height of the Blix moment in 2003 that they conceded how near they had been to a nuclear weapon in 1990, when almost nobody believed they had such a capacity. And we know how many chemical and biological weapons they possessed at one time because they reluctantly handed over long lists stating what they were.

Thus if nothing has been found so far, and if literally nothing (except the mobile units predicted and described by one defector) is found from now on, it will mean that the operation was a success. The stuff must have been destroyed, or neutralized, or work on it must have been abandoned during the long grace period that was provided by the U.N. debates. One senior U.N. inspector adds a caveat to that, which is worth stressing. The intention of the regime to acquire weapons at some point, or to reacquire them, should not be doubted. There are many blueprints and many brains and many computer discs full of know-how. These would be nearly if not actually impossible to discover, and they will now not be reassembled by a Baathist government. Thus if you take my line of the "long short war," and a timeline of 1990 to 2003, Saddam Hussein went from being a threshold nuclear potentate with the capacity to invade Kuwait to an ex-potentate unable even to deploy his Republican Guard. This was the outcome of a series of measures, from sanctions to bombing, designed to create the conditions for regime change or to make regime change (desirable for numberless other reasons) possible. The anti-war movement opposed even the sanctions at first and the military part of the operation at all times. But Iraq is now disarmed, and who will argue that it was not the believable threat of intervention that brought this about?

Perhaps half-aware that this is true, anti-war Democrats and some others are now saying that the world has nonetheless been made more dangerous because of the threat of additional terrorism. Some stuff may have gone missing, and the fanatics may have been encouraged. Well, they can't have this both ways, either. If there was stuff to go missing, then it was there all along, wasn't it? And it wasn't being kept for recreational use. The incompetence of the U.S. protective and investigative teams, in this and in some other areas (like the elementary delivery of supplies and repairs) doesn't alter that fact. As to the terrorists who (remember?) had "no connection" to Saddam Hussein, they seem moved nonetheless to take revenge for his fall. Can that possibly mean they feel they have lost a friend?

Let us skip over this obvious point and inquire about what they managed. In Saudi Arabia, which is a fertile place for anti-Western feeling of all sorts, they managed to kill a number of Saudi officials and bystanders while inflicting fairly superficial damage on Western interests. Widespread and quite sincere denunciation of this has been evident across Saudi society. While in Morocco, where the evidence for an al-Qaida connection is not so plain, whatever organization did set off the suicide attacks in Casablanca has isolated itself politically. Please try to remember that al-Qaida and its surrogates are engaged in a war with Muslims as well: They boast of attacking the West in order to impress or intimidate those Muslims who are wavering. But they are steadily creating antibodies to themselves in the countries where they operate. The jihadists who murdered tourists in Egypt were widely execrated and not just because they threatened to ruin the tourist industry. The Bali bombers in Indonesia caused something of the same effect. The recent suicide atrocities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were clearly directed, by their timing, against elements in the Palestinian Authority who want to make a deal.

This is where all our political and cultural intelligence will be required. In a civil war within the Islamic world, secularists and liberals have the chance to make many allies against theocracy and its gruesome tactics. It is not just Christian Nigerians who oppose the imposition of sharia law in that country and the stoning of Amina Lawal. As the jihadists begin to explode themselves and their devices on Arab streets, they will not fulfill the usual prediction of bringing ever more recruits to Bin Laden. Quite the contrary. Instead, and as in Afghanistan and Iran, there will be more people willing to oppose theocratic absolutism. Of course this political project can be called a "war" because it does also necessitate the use of remorseless force. But when the murderers strike next on American or European soil, it won't prove that it was wrong to fight them, and it certainly won't demonstrate that we brought it on ourselves by making them cross (i.e., by fighting back). It will remind us that it is indeed a war. So, it's depressing to see that, just as many Arabs and Muslims are turning against Bin Ladenism, some Western liberals are calling for a capitulation in the mind and hinting that this war is either avoidable or, even worse, not worth fighting, lest it offend the enemy.


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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