Joe Conason's Journal

Al-Qaida's origins in fantasy, and Safire's unconvincing argument for attacking Iraq.

Published August 22, 2002 4:19PM (EDT)

Their Fantasies and ours
The role of collective fantasy in national and world politics is an underrated phenomenon. For more than a millennium, religious fantasy has been the most common motivator, but varieties of secular and quasi-religious ideology have also had hellish consequences for humanity over the past century or two. In this original essay, Lee Harris argues that al-Qaida's version of radical Islam is just such a fantasy ideology, thus reducing our ability to predict or even comprehend its actions according to normal categories of realpolitik. There is much to be said for this argument, even if Harris carries the conclusions too far (and stretches credulity with praise of Bush's "canny" reference to "evildoers.") Appearing as it does in the conservative periodical Policy Review, the essay doesn't assess the other fantasy ideologies of the postmodern world, such as Protestant fundamentalism, radical libertarianism, millennial Naderism or the "Pax Americana" cult of unilateral world domination that mesmerizes some ranking civilian officials in the Pentagon. Nor does it adequately address the attraction of fantasy ideologies for people whose real conditions are miserable -- in other words, that "root causes" really do matter. Unlike so much that passes for conservative thought these days, on the bestseller lists and elsewhere, this piece is worth reading.

Spooky Safire speaks
The oracle of spookdom has spoken again. William Safire tells us that there is more proof of a connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein than the CIA has previously admitted, although he omits the sourcing for his allegations. When Safire delivers these highly detailed descriptions of alleged intelligence materials, I often wonder why this stuff never turns up on the news pages of his paper. His latest effort insists that, as Secretary Rumsfeld asserted Wednesday, those Kurdish Islamists in northern Iraq are simply operatives of the Baghdad regime. This contradicts many news accounts, but so what? If Saddam can be linked to bin Laden, regardless of their deep ideological enmity and the available evidence, mobilizing the American public for war will be far easier.
[9:15 a.m. PDT, August 22, 2002]

DeLay vs. Armey
Those who denigrate the patriotism of anyone who questions the wisdom of immedate war on Iraq ought to consider the interesting contrast between two otherwise twinned members of the Republican Congressional leadership: House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Wednesday, DeLay delivered a speech in Houston urging that the United States oust Saddam Hussein by force "and the sooner, the better." It was typical belligerent rhetoric from the former exterminator, who went on to warn Colin Powell against thinking that he should take orders from Brussels instead of the White House. DeLay vowed to lead the perilous charge into the Capitol as the invasion begins. (He once explained his absence from Vietnam service by blaming the excessive number of ethnic minority soldiers who had taken his place on the field of battle. DeLay's Democratic opponent has posted a few of the more comical accounts of that controversy.)

When DeLay rips the "apologists for idleness" such as Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., he is also talking about Armey, his longtime comrade in ultra-conservatism. The retiring Majority Leader has deserted the GOP reservation on several important issues, from the Cuban embargo to the TIPS program. Now he wonders what justification we have for invading Iraq. Maybe Powell is a secret pinko, despite his Vietnam service. Maybe Scowcroft is secretly in the pay of the Saudis. Maybe Buchanan is a covert member of the Ba'athist Party. But it's hard to imagine Armey, a conservative Christian who recently urged Israel to expel the Palestinians, as an "appeaser."

The problem for Armey and others with no love for Saddam is that the case for invasion -- rather than negotiation -- has yet to be made convincingly. There are, in fact, too many reasons offered for military action, as if none of them could be examined closely without evaporating. He has biological and chemical weapons that he is about to use. He may have nuclear weapons someday. He may have had some tangential contact with al-Qaida. He once gassed the Kurds. He has to go because American credibility is at stake. He has to go so Bush can win the next presidential election (sorry, they haven't mentioned that one yet).

Ridding the world of Saddam is a fine idea, but at what cost and for what immediate reason? There is still no satisfactory answer, and impugning the character of those who are asking the questions is no substitute.
[9:15 a.m. PDT, August 22, 2002]

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