It was a real glass-half-empty/glass-half-full moment. The world suddenly looked like one of those trompe-l’oeil drawings that, while remaining unchanged, appears by turns to be an ornate vase and a pair of faces staring at each other. In the New York Times, Jessica Stern, a lecturer at the Kennedy School at Harvard and author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, wrote that “the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one.”
A pretty damning indictment, you might suppose. But the Wall Street Journal carried an editorial the very same day claiming that the attack was “merely validating what some of us have said all along about the war in Iraq” — namely that “the link between Saddam and al Qaeda might not have been provable beyond a reasonable doubt, but they shared the common purpose of ousting the U.S. from the Middle East. Now the foreign jihadis flooding the country are proving the point by joining up with Baath Party remnants that want to restore Saddam’s terrorist rule.”
Hold on a minute there! How could the same event — not similar events but the same event — prove Bush both wrong and right about Iraq and terrorism? If terrorists were appearing after Saddam Hussein was gone, did that mean they were not there before? Or did it mean that those who identified Iraq as a center of terrorism while the dictator was still in place were really doing so proleptically? To me it seems obvious that neither of these things can be true. But it is absurd to suggest, as Miss Stern does, that America has somehow created the terrorist threat, or that the war in Iraq has led to a boom in “terrorist recruitment around the globe.”
Does she really suppose that, were it not for the invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda would have had to pack up and go home for lack of any way to recruit volunteers? Of course they used the invasion of Iraq to recruit, but they will use anything that’s to hand for that purpose. And for so long as we do anything about terrorism, there will be something to hand for them. We know that there are a number of itinerant Islamic terrorists in the world. Many of them were in Afghanistan until they were driven out. Now they must be somewhere else. If you were one of them you might well want to go to Iraq just now for the chance to encounter the enemy directly, but your being there would tell us nothing one way or the other about the Bush administration’s justifications for war. It certainly would not justify any claim that it had turned the country into a terrorist threat.
But the rival interpretations of the same event provided a good illustration of a truth that we all think we know about politics but that we all have to re-learn with monotonous regularity: everything depends on how you look at it. If you see the world as Jessica Stern does, it seems an easy step to go on to say, as Maureen Dowd did on the same page of the same day’s Times, that the terror attacks were particularly piquant because the Bush administration before the war had “ginned up links between Saddam and Al Qaeda” and so “made it sound as if Islamic fighters on a jihad against America were slouching toward Baghdad to join forces with murderous Iraqis.”
Miss Dowd has more than the usual share of the journalist’s lust for irony, so she couldn’t resist “sexing up” the sequence of events in order to prove her own point that “the Bush team has now created the very monster that it conjured up to alarm Americans into backing a war on Iraq.” But she offered no evidence that the Bush team had done any such conjuring, or claimed that there were al-Qaeda men blowing things up in Iraq. Similarly without examples, she went on to write that “the democracy dominoes are not falling as easily as Paul Wolfowitz and other neocons had predicted.” Really? When did the notoriously cautious Mr. Wolfowitz and those darned neocons predict that the dominoes would fall easily? Maureen isn’t telling.
By the way, the appearance of her column on the same page and the same day as another by a guest columnist saying the same thing might once have been considered an editorial slip-up. Even today, another paper might have told Miss Stern to take her piece elsewhere, since their in-house columnist was already doing it. Or else they might have asked Miss Dowd to pick another subject. But the New York Times op-ed page nowadays seems to take the view that it can never have too much Bush-bashing, and the punchier, cuter Maureen Dowd has apparently taken it upon herself to reinforce as many as possible of the stock of journalistic accusations of wrongdoing against Bush in her own inimitable style.
But that’s really the point, isn’t it? Once you’ve decided on accusation and wrongdoing everything — or almost everything — can be made to fit the pattern. Even the things that the other side thinks exonerates their man from charges of wrongdoing! Doubtless the Journal’s editorialists were equally quick to leap to conclusions partly because of the seriousness of the charges being brought by the other side. But why were we talking about wrongdoing in the first place? All political decisions are made on the basis of partial information and all have unforeseen consequences. It follows that if you take such things as evidence of wrongdoing your entire approach to politics will be founded on the assumption of continuous and never-ending scandal.
That seems to be the point at which we have arrived over the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It simply was not possible to know what the truth was, but there were lots of intelligence data suggesting both that Saddam had ‘em and that they were a real and imminent danger. Paul Wolfowitz has already admitted — if you consider it an admission — that the administration had lots of other reasons for wanting to go to war with Hussein, but it thought that this threat, based on the kind of “murky” intelligence data that nearly all intelligence data is, was the part of their reason most likely immediately and forcefully to appeal to the public.
Did that make them liars? Crooks? Incompetents? Only if you assume (a) that the other part of their reason for making war was discreditable — for example that they wanted to get their hands on Iraqi oil or to get some fat contracts for Halliburton — and (b) that they knew that the intelligence data was not just “murky” but false. Both of these conditions beggar belief if you have the slightest degree of trust in your government or your fellow man. It is therefore apparent that that trust is what the journalistic and academic Bush-bashers are asking us to abandon with the abandon of their own accusations against the President. Just so you know.