Baghdad nightmare

They're accused of being war-crazed fanatics. But the elite group calling for Saddam's destruction is driven by a deep sense of mission -- one now shared by President Bush.

Published December 5, 2001 11:33PM (EST)

In a 12th-floor office suite full of foreign policy luminaries and embassy representatives nibbling sandwiches at white-linen-covered tables, James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was standing behind a lectern arguing his case for taking the war on terrorism to Iraq.

"It's the regime, stupid," Woolsey told his audience at the Nixon Center, a national-security-focused Washington think tank affiliated with the Nixon Library. "We should start with the mission: remove the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein. Both of Saddam's sons kill people for fun. We need to get rid of the entire regime. Then we should go to our allies in the region and say, 'We're going to destroy Saddam's Baathist regime. Is there something you can do to help?'"

Woolsey, a former arms control negotiator who served unhappily in the first Clinton administration as CIA director until he resigned in 1995, has been making this case since he left public office, but suddenly he has new influence. With the election of President Bush, a half-dozen like-minded Iraq hard-liners who during Clinton's reign took to the op-ed pages, think tank panels and academia assumed key positions in the Pentagon, National Security Council and State Department, where they have managed to catapult Iraq to the top of the foreign policy agenda, in the midst of the war on terrorism.

Chief among them is Paul Wolfowitz, the brainy, Brooklyn-born deputy defense secretary who shortly after Sept. 11 established a special Pentagon commission that sent Woolsey to Britain to investigate claims of alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Also prominent in the Iraq hawks group are Richard Perle, former assistant defense secretary of defense during the Reagan administration who now chairs the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group; deputy National Security Council advisor Stephen Hadley, and Pentagon officials Doug Feith and Peter Rodman. Outside government are influential writers and intellectuals like Weekly Standard editor William Kristol; Tom Donnolly of the Project for the New American Century, a tiny but influential neo-conservative think tank; and Iraq expert Laurie Mylroie, whose book "Study of Revenge" made the case for Iraq's involvement in al-Qaida's 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Most agree with Woolsey's prescription for Iraq: Don't invade the country, but instead aggressively back the Iraqi National Congress and other opposition groups seeking to topple Saddam Hussein. Woolsey's law firm, Shea & Gardner, happens to be the INC's registered lobbyist with the Justice Department, and Woolsey is a staunch defender of using the "Afghan model" in Iraq, by providing financial support, arms and training for the INC and other opposition groups, and eventually using air power and special ground forces to help target precision guided bombs -- much the way the U.S. has helped the Northern Alliance and other opposition leaders drive the Taliban out of key strongholds in Afghanistan.

These ideas aren't new: Wolfowitz and Woolsey advocated supporting the Iraqi opposition during the Gulf War. But then the first Bush administration abandoned its goal of toppling Saddam, despite earlier promises to support opposition groups, and those groups were subsequently crushed by the ruthless Iraqi dictator. The Clinton administration actually paid lip service to some of the hawks' ideas about nurturing the Iraqi opposition, but the group got its most sympathetic hearing with the new Bush administration. And since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Iraq hawks have gone on the offensive.

With Wolfowitz, Hadley and other Iraq hard-liners inside government somewhat muzzled by their official roles in the administration -- which to date, despite sympathetic noises, is not committed to extending the war on terror to Iraq -- it's fallen to Woolsey and Perle, who serve as Pentagon consultants but are officially outside the administration, to lead the hawks' public relations blitz. They've mobilized an informal network of mostly Republican foreign policy hands, Iraqi opposition groups, neo-conservative international interventionists, and defenders of Israel, all of whom see in the destruction at ground zero and the subsequent U.S. war against terror a long-sought opportunity to put Iraq back at the top of the U.S. agenda.

"In many ways, [the confrontation with Saddam] is the first real conflict after the Cold War, and its resolution will set the tone for America's relations with the international community for a very long time," says Francis Brooke, an American advisor to the Iraqi National Congress. "A lot of people see it as a demonstration project for this very reason. If we don't show resolve this time with Saddam, it will cost us down the line. We should have resolved it. When you fight a war, you ought to finish it."

The Iraq hawks "are all obsessed with making America great," says Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly, and a former Clinton speech writer. "It's all about the reemergence of America as an imperial power -- in a good way."

That obsession with American greatness is reflected in the Manichaen language the hawks use to couch their arguments about the immorality of our failing to finish the job in Baghdad. They not only talk about the need to remove Saddam in order to protect U.S. national interests, but to liberate the Iraqi people. The policies the hawks advocate is not just strategically sound, they say, but moral. It's a jihad.

"The 'war on terrorism' is not merely a war on terrorists," wrote Robert Kagan and William Kristol in a Weekly Standard editorial in October. "It is also, and perhaps even more significantly, a war against the kinds of regimes that support and employ terrorism as a deadly weapon in their war against us. Saddam Hussein ... surely represents a more potent challenge to the United States and its interests and principles than the weak, isolated, and we trust, soon-to-be crushed Taliban ... Is it conceivable that the United States would destroy the Taliban but leave the Iraqi regime untouched?"

But many see the hawks' new jihad as a way to finish other old wars -- not only against the Clinton administration and its Iraq policies, but also against key figures in the first Bush administration.

Even some critics who agree that the U.S. should get tougher on Iraq say the hawks' idea that an "Afghan" model of air strikes plus opposition support would succeed in Iraq is seriously misguided.

"Iraq is not Afghanistan," says Ken Pollack, a former CIA military analyst on Iraq and NSC official during the Clinton administration now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It would be a much tougher problem. The Iraqi army is 10 times larger, it has much better weaponry, cohesion. Why is it that we believe that a military campaign weaker than Desert Storm would be able to accomplish what Desert Storm didn't?"

Others say that taking on Iraq now would instantly decimate the delicate consensus the U.S. has achieved for the war on terrorism.

"I do not understand the pathology that produces the attitude regarding bombing Saddam Hussein," complains a CIA analyst, speaking off the record. "The evidence of [Hussein's] involvement in the 1993 events and the attacks of last September seem to me very weak, if not entirely specious. Bombing Iraq would destroy our coalition, distract us from our focused goal of destroying terrorism, and create serious instability in Saudi Arabia and perhaps Egypt and Jordan."

Iraq hawks say those attitudes, pervasive at the CIA and the State Department, reflect bureaucratic cultures that prefer caution and consensus over changing the status quo -- a caution that's actually dangerous, given the international terror threat.

"This is typical CIA to reject a policy that was not invented there," says New American Century's Tom Donnelly. "Look at what happened to the administration's strategy in Afghanistan. Clearly in the opening phases they were content to follow State and CIA strategy of bombing just a little. But President Bush transitioned reasonably quickly to a more aggressive military campaign."

While the group enjoys a mostly sympathetic relationship with the Bush administration -- the president himself seemed to signal his support for its goals when he warned Saddam Hussein last week to let weapons inspectors return to the country or he would face severe consequences -- there have also been strains between some top officials and the hawks. Richard Perle has become such an omnipresent and authoritative voice on behalf of extending the war into Iraq that last weekend Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took the unusual step of reminding reporters that while Perle is the head of the Defense Advisory Board, he does not hold an official government position.

The most obvious tension, of course, is between the Iraq hawks and Secretary of State Colin Powell. When Wolfowitz dispatched Woolsey to the United Kingdom in early October -- in part to investigate Laurie Mylroie's claims that 1993 WTC bomber Ramzi Yousef was really a Kuwaiti-born Iraqi intelligence agent named Abdul Basit who had studied in Swansea, Wales -- he annoyed both the State Department and the CIA. According to British press reports, those agencies only discovered Woolsey's mission when the local Welsh police chief discovered that Woolsey was doing some freelance spying in town, and called the U.S. Embassy in London to inquire whether Woolsey was on official government business there. The Embassy knew nothing about it.

Tension between Wolfowitz and Powell should not be surprising. It began during the Gulf War, when both served in the first Bush administration. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated stopping the war after Iraqi troops had been driven from Kuwait, while Wolfowitz advocated toppling Saddam with a combination of military strikes and support for Iraqi Shi'ia and Kurdish groups.

"Wolfowitz was a guy at the end of the Gulf War who probably had the right answer," says a former Clinton official and Iraq expert who asked not to be named. "He's the one who said we should arm and equip the Iraqi opposition forces trying to rise up against Saddam, and we should use air power to prevent the Iraqis from suppressing the insurgents. I think that he was certainly right, that is what we should have done at the time. We should have gone a couple more days."

"I think that Paul became obsessed," the former official continued, who describes shouting matches between himself and Wolfowitz over disagreements on Iraq policy. "He felt he didn't push hard enough at the end of the Gulf War. He feels he didn't fight hard enough against what he knew was the wrong answer."

Examining the careers of the leading Iraq hawks, one finds several common threads. Most are staunchly pro-Israel, a possible coincidence that could also be explained by the threat Hussein poses to the Jewish state. (The Iraqi dictator fired SCUD missiles at Israel during the Gulf War and recently warned that if the U.S. attacked him, he would target Israel.) Many of them were also involved in U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations in the last decades of the Cold War. Perhaps the experience of having stared down a much more strategically threatening adversary as the Soviet Union and seen its demise has contributed to the hawks' sense of confidence in America's ability, even obligation, to take on global bullies armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Woolsey's career is illustrative. After studying as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford and earning a law degree at Yale, he went on to serve in a series of arms control negotiations with the Soviets, including as advisor on the U.S. delegation to the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT 1) in 1969-1970; delegate at large to the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and Nuclear and Space Arms Talks, 1983-1986, and ambassador to the negotiation on conventional armed forces in Europe, 1989 to 1991.

Wolfowitz too, before moving on to senior positions in the State and Defense Departments, and serving as ambassador to Indonesia, did a four-year stint in Soviet-era arms control. Perle, perhaps the most zealously pro-Israel of the Israel-friendly bunch, also was involved in arm-wrestling with the Soviets, drafting a 1969 amendment that linked Soviet trade concessions to allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate. Assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan era, Perle has also served as a director of the Jerusalem Post.

Many of the leading Iraq hawks are also devotees of the late hard-line conservative University of Chicago political scientist, Albert Wohlstetter. Credited with developing key Cold War nuclear policies, Wohlstetter served as a nuclear strategist at the Rand Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s. Wolfowitz came under his influence when he was studying for his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Chicago.

At a 1993 event to honor Wohlstetter attended by then CIA director Woolsey and Perle, Wohlstetter used the opportunity to bash Clinton's failure to intervene in the Bosnian war, in language that very much resembles the outraged tones used by Iraq hawks in 1998 to decry Clinton's failure to take on Saddam for kicking out the U.N. weapons inspectors.

"Wohlstetter accused the U.S. government and its European allies of engaging in 'surrealpolitik' -- wildly exaggerating the power of the Serbian aggressors in the former Yugoslavia, [and] ludicrously overestimating the risk of Western responses," summarized the press release from the event, held at the hard-line Center for Security Policy, the private think tank headed by Iraq hawk Frank Gaffney. In other words, Wohlstetter was outraged by the Clinton administration's failure to take on the Serbian aggressors out of fear of the risks -- in much the same way Wolfowitz, Woolsey and Perle are infuriated by the U.S.'s failure to take on Saddam, out of fear of the risks. But it is also interesting to note that all of these men deeply desire the use of American military power to stop aggression, not against Americans per se, but against those who are victims of tyrants. American power, they passionately argue, should be used to make the world better.

Yet some of the Iraq hawks also have personal axes to grind.

"Woolsey felt badly abused by the Clinton administration," says one former official from that era. "And I think he feels that Iraq is an issue that he can use to beat up on the Clinton administration."

Indeed, Woolsey freely admits his anti-Clinton animus at panel after panel, where he complains that he only was granted two meetings with Clinton during the two years he served as CIA director. He likes to joke about it: When a plane landed on the White House lawn, as Woolsey tells it, "Clinton's advisors said, that must be James Woolsey, trying to get a meeting with the president again."

No one is laughing at Woolsey any more, although many have raised eyebrows at the extent of his zeal for toppling Saddam. Even as consensus grows that deadly anthrax-laced letters to Democrats and the media have probably come from a domestic terror source, Woolsey continues to insist that it's highly likely the anthrax came from Iraq.

"Iraq has the third most substantial anthrax program in the world," Woolsey told a bipartisan congressional panel on nonproliferation last week. "Do you really think that some American Nazi, with a Ph.D. in biology and a well equipped lab to process weapons-grade spores with the right electromagnetic charge, was sitting in a cave under Trenton, N.J., on Sept. 11? And that just coincidentally he started sending out the anthrax letters a week later? It's too much of a coincidence."

His insistence that there is compelling circumstantial evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Ladin's al-Qaida also lacks detailed grounding. It's a claim perhaps best documented by Mylroie, whose views have clearly inspired Woolsey and the Pentagon commission Wolfowitz has set up.

Mylroie, who insists Iraq aided the 1993 WTC bombing, also believes that country will eventually be implicated in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. And like Woolsey, she blames the Clinton administration for ignoring the connections between Iraq and al-Qaida.

"A decade ago, the assumption after terrorist incidents was that they were state-sponsored," Mylroie says. "There was a debate after any Middle Eastern attack -- was it Iran, Iraq, Syria or Libya? And it was Clinton who changed our understanding of terrorism by saying, starting with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, that terrorism is no longer carried out by states, but by individuals and loose networks. That just wasn't true of the Trade Center bombing."

Iraqi opposition groups also insist Iraq is linked to al-Qaida. Woolsey's trip to the United Kingdom was in part devoted to hobnobbing with opposition leaders based there, to see if they had information linking bin Laden's forces and Iraqi intelligence. The INC obliged, offering up to Woolsey and the New York Times two Iraqi defectors who claimed to have seen Arabs being trained at a terrorist training camp, Salman Pak, south of Baghdad.

"In a nutshell, Iraq has been involved, and the Iraqi National Congress is able to prove that Iraq has trained terrorists," the INC's Washington office director Dr. Entifadh Qanbar told Salon. "There is evidence of meetings between Mohammad Atta and Iraqi intelligence officer Ahmed Samir al-Ahani in Prague, after which $100,000 was deposited in Atta's bank account. And two of the other Sept. 11 hijackers, Marwan Al Shehi and Ziad Aljarrah, are suspected of meeting with Iraqi intelligence in the United Arab Emirates."

The INC and Mylroie contend that links between Saddam and bin Laden began in the early 1990s in Sudan, when that country became the base for Iraqi intelligence after the Gulf War, and bin Laden was also based there.

But the issue of Iraq's ties to al-Qaida cause something of a split within the hawks group, with Mylroie, Woolsey and the INC insisting there is compelling evidence of a direct link, and the larger Iraq hawk network shying away from that claim, worried that the relatively shaky evidence to prove it could undermine their cause.

"Saddam is quite obviously our enemy and has been for 10 years. This is far broader than any link that he may or may not have to Sept. 11," says Tom Donnelly of the Project for the New American Century. "Our beef with him is far older than that."

"I personally think the evidence is clear-cut," the INC's Francis Brooke told Salon. "But most of this is circumstantial. If we had a clear-cut case, we would run with it, obviously."

Indeed, the Iraq hard-liners seem to have abandoned the argument that Iraq is directly tied to al-Qaida because they don't need it: They have succeeded in redefining the Bush administration's definition of terrorist states to include not only regimes like the Taliban that gave support and sanctuary to al-Qaida, but regimes like Saddam Hussein's that produce weapons of mass destruction and threaten to use them.

"If anybody harbors a terrorist, they're a terrorist," Bush said in a Nov. 26 press conference. "If they fund a terrorist, they're a terrorist. If they house terrorists, they're terrorists. If they develop weapons of mass destruction that will be used to terrorize nations, they will be held accountable. And as for Mr. Saddam Hussein, he needs to let inspectors back in his country, to show us that he is not developing weapons of mass destruction."

The Iraq hard-liners don't expect Saddam to let effective weapons inspectors back into Iraq any time soon. But such a demand is a way for the Bush administration to start rebuilding the legitimacy of the U.N. weapons inspections that eroded during the last Clinton administration and ended in 1998. And that's key for starting the process of getting international support for a future shift in U.S. policy towards Saddam.

"With someone like Saddam in power, it is impossible to rely on normal inter-state diplomacy," says Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration now at the Brookings Institution. "Even if Saddam is not proved to be part of Sept. 11, we now know that we can no longer tolerate the risk posed by him and his demonstrated willingness to use weapons of mass destruction. Our tolerance for the risk has changed."

While their critics call them zealots, and argue they're exaggerating the links between Iraq and al-Qaida -- especially with Woolsey's charges about anthrax -- the Iraq hard-liners have managed to build consensus in the White House and the foreign policy establishment that Iraq has to be put back on the agenda, sooner rather than later.

The hard-liners' half-decade worth of advocacy for a radically tougher Iraq policy, combined with Sept. 11, have produced the start of a genuine policy shift in an administration that, just six months ago, couldn't get consensus in the U.N. Security Council to modify the U.N. oil-for-food sanctions policy on Iraq. But despite their complaints about the Clinton administration, the hard-liners' jihad against Saddam is actually comparable to the work of Clinton administration hawks, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who helped persuade a wary president to take on Slobodan Milosevic and the cause of ending genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo.

It's still quite unclear whether the Iraq hawks' mission will be as successful. With new violence flaring in Israel, and the war in Afghanistan not by any means over, it's hard to imagine the Bush team voluntarily opening up a new front in the war just yet. But there's little doubt they've moved the agenda a long way in a short time.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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