Dialogues: Iraq and Al-Qaida

An e-mail debate with Warren Bass.

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Slate, March 25, 2002
[Read this article at Slate’s website]

Iraq and Al-Qaida
By Warren Bass and Jeffrey Goldberg
Updated Monday, March 25, 2002, at 1:08 PM ET

From: Jeffrey Goldberg
To: Warren Bass
Subject: Reason Enough?
Posted Thursday, March 21, 2002, at 10:24 AM ET

Dear Warren,

I must say, I’m looking forward to this exchange; it’s not every day that I get to have a discussion with a genuine, AAA-approved, USDA-certified foreign-policy establishment pooh-bah, which is what you are, yes?

You’ve been doing great work, even if you’ve been doing it for the Man.

I know that we could spend the entire time talking about West Bank politics—and I do want to hear you out on the subject of misbegotten cease-fires and Palestinian nihilism and Ariel Sharon’s failure to keep his campaign promises—but we’re actually supposed to be talking about Iraq, specifically about the topics raised in an article I wrote this week in The New Yorker. (In other words, enough about me, let’s talk about my article.)

The piece in question ran about 18,000 words (give or take a thousand), so I’ll try to summarize the main points in only 10,000 or so.

There has been a certain amount of discussion this week in Washington about one particular point I raised, which concerns allegations that Saddam is more closely tied to al-Qaida than we had previously thought. I had actually gone to Iraqi Kurdistan in late January not expecting to learn anything new about terrorism (post-Sept. 11 terrorism, that is, not state terror against the Kurds). But when I was in Kurdistan, I started to hear stories about an al-Qaida-style terror group formerly known as the Jund al-Islam, or Soldiers of Islam, which recently changed its name (for the most naked of PR reasons, I believe) to the Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam. This group controls about 10 villages near the Iranian border, and its membership consists of typical Islamist mayhem-makers; these people kill in various nasty ways and want to impose sharia, Islamic law, on Free Kurdistan (the parts of Kurdistan under the American no-fly zone), which is problematic because the Kurds are, in the main, secular, progressive, and pro-American.

It’s not much of a surprise that this group would be run by so-called Afghan Arabs—Arabs who cycled through Afghanistan over the past 20 years to fight against the Soviets or for Osama. But what I learned—and I’m not going to give away the whole story here—is that Saddam’s intelligence agency may jointly control this group with al-Qaida. If this is true, well, the implications are quite serious, which is why people in Washington who don’t want the United States to do anything about Iraq have been (unsuccessfully) trying to discredit this aspect of my article. I will tell you, in a later round, about a ridiculous attempt by CNN’s Aaron Brown to shoot down the story.

Let me move quickly to another main point of the piece. In 1988, Saddam used, as you know, chemical weapons against the Kurds of the north. He killed thousands with these weapons (and killed thousands more with conventional tools), and today the survivors of these attacks are suffering in terrible ways. Despite the fact that the people of northern Iraq make up the largest single population of chemical-attack survivors in the world, our government has never bothered to study this population and its problems in a systematic way. This is obviously a humanitarian issue, but it is also a national security issue for the United States. The Kurdish doctors I spoke to thought we had lost our heads over the anthrax scare of last fall, in which a handful of people died. We obviously weren’t ready for even a small-scale attack, so the question arises: Why hasn’t our government ever bothered to explore the long-term medical implications of Saddam’s chemical attacks on the Kurds?

I will end what could quickly devolve into a rant by posing this question to you: Does it in fact even matter if Saddam is connected to al-Qaida? In other words, why look for a smoking gun when a dozen already exist? This is a man who has attacked, unprovoked, four of his country’s neighbors; a man who has committed genocide and used chemical weapons on civilians; a man who is clearly obsessed with the development of weapons of mass destruction; and a man who uses homicide and rape as a tool of governance. Isn’t he worthy, by these deeds alone, of removal?

Or am I just naive?


From: Warren Bass
To: Jeffrey Goldberg
Subject: Iraqnophobia
Posted Thursday, March 21, 2002, at 12:30 PM ET

Dear Jeff:

Couldn’t have just written a nice fluffy “Talk of the Town,” could you?

Looking forward to this, too. It’s not every day I get to talk to a genuine WWF wrestler. (And if you’re not that Goldberg, then, man, what are you doing hanging out with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine?)

And yes, I need to take heat about working for the Man from that bastion of counterculture subversiveness at The New Yorker.

Sure, let’s get to the total train-wreck in the Israeli-Palestinian theater in a later round. But unlike Dick Cheney, let’s at least try to get to the intifada via Iraq rather than Iraq via the intifada.

First and foremost, it’s a knockout piece: intrepid, tough, vivid, and historically grounded. And hell no, you’re not naive; sometimes, what passes for foreign-policy sophistication is actually callowness or callousness. Moral reproach doth not a policy make, of course, but there are worse places to start.

I’m intrigued by your end point because that’s sort of where I’d start. In some ways, the reasons to worry about Iraq don’t have much to do with 9/11. Whatever you’ve found about Ansar al-Islam (more on those charmers in a bit) probably doesn’t amount to a smoking gun—except perhaps to some of the harder-line folks cheering on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who’ve long since been sold on the need to get Saddam anyway. Even if everything said by the Kurdish prisoners with whom you spoke was true, there still would be very little to tie Saddam to the World Trade Center attacks. If someone’s looking for casus belli with Iraq, for now at least, 9/11 isn’t it.

I thought the most useful part of your piece had little to do with al-Qaida and everything to do with the Kurds. Granted, Americans haven’t ever been the world’s most history-obsessed people, but even amid the current Iraq debate, startlingly little attention is ever paid to the Anfal—the cold-blooded Iraqi campaign of mass slaughter against its own Kurdish minority in the late 1980s, complete with the repeated use of nerve and mustard gas. Human Rights Watch, whose judgments are all the more scalding because their reporting is so relentlessly sober, called the Anfal a case of genocide. Saddam isn’t just some run-of-the-mill strongman; he’s an all-out war criminal.

But is Saddam a major state sponsor of terrorism? Well, worse than some, better than others. He harbors Abu Nidal, but that’s at least partially about keeping him on a tight leash—for now, more of a wild card to be held than an ace to be played, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor. He also provides more than a dozen bases to Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a weird group of quasi-Marxist Iranian dissidents who started as militant Islamists out to topple the shah. But Saddam’s ties to MEK are more about him semi-casually poking a finger in the eye of Iran’s government than about really trying to export global terror à la Osama Bin Laden.

And I wonder whether that’s not what’s going on with Ansar al-Islam, the group you profile in your piece. As my colleague Ken Pollack (who handled Iraq on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council) points out, if Saddam and al-Qaida want to talk, hey, they can talk. Why go through this band of disreputable, penetrable, and unreliable Kurds? On the notion of Ansar al-Islam as a major nexus of Iraqi-al-Qaida cooperation, I guess I’m convincible but skeptical. The Kurds are only too eager to find something to trigger a U.S. invasion of Iraq; as you point out in the piece, there’s no way to know what the PUK had done to its prisoners before you showed up with a tape recorder; and the vehicle feels implausible.

What I find easier to buy is that Saddam is using Ansar al-Islam against his Kurdish foes the same way he uses MEK against Iran—not as a major strategic partner, but as a modestly useful way to put some tactical sand in his enemies’ gears. Could both Saddam’s Mukhabarat spy service and al-Qaida be casually using or supporting Ansar al-Islam? Sure. Does that mean that Saddam and al-Qaida are cooperating in a major way over this one small-beer group of Kurds and Afghan Arabs? Well, maybe, and it’s certainly worth checking out, but I’m not sure we hang a QED sign on this one just yet.

But what is demonstrated—and reiterated in harrowing terms in the piece –is the current Iraqi regime’s overpowering drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction and its appalling willingness to use them. So, I might give more points to background over buzz, as it were. Even after reading your piece (and yes, I did read the whole damn thing), I’m still not convinced that Saddam’s ties to global terrorism are so unendurably close that he simply has to go, without fail or hesitation. But I am reinforced in my longstanding assessment that this regime simply cannot be permitted to get nukes. Period.

Or am I being cynical?


From: Jeffrey Goldberg
To: Warren Bass
Subject: Will Saddam Go Samson on Us?
Posted Friday, March 22, 2002, at 9:48 AM ET

Dear Warren,

Cynical? You? Not at all. Of course Saddam Hussein cannot be permitted to get nukes. If he gets them, he’ll use them to murder large numbers of people, among them American soldiers (think of the nightmare of force concentration in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear-capable Saddam); Kurds (he’s already gassed them; I wouldn’t put it past him to nuke them as well); Saudis; and, of course, Jews, his ticket to immortality.

But here’s the question: How do you deny him nuclear weapons without denying him power? Jessica Matthews, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, argued against regime change, saying that the problem isn’t Saddam himself, but simply his desire to acquire nuclear weapons. I know, it made no sense to me either. (It was in this column that she argued, in defiance of crushing evidence to the contrary, that Saddam is a typical tin-pot dictator, no better and no worse than any of the world’s vulgar despots.).

Here’s my challenge to you: I’ll pay you 25 dinars if you can explain to me a sure-fire way to deny Saddam weapons of mass destruction while leaving his regime in place.

Let’s got back to the subject of the Ansar al-Islam and my article, for a moment. I think you have (unintentionally, I’m sure) mischaracterized my story, inflating its claims in order to deflate the underlying message. I have never claimed that the Ansar al-Islam, the terror group operating in a small slice of Iraqi Kurdistan, is the primary point of connection between Saddam and Osama; nor do I claim that Ansar has global terrorist ambitions. You write, “As my colleague Ken Pollack (who handled Iraq on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council) points out, if Saddam and al-Qaida want to talk, hey, they can talk. Why go through this band of disreputable, penetrable, and unreliable Kurds?”

I never said they did go through this band of disreputable Kurds. If this is Pollack’s position, then it’s obvious he didn’t read my story. In the story, I report the allegation made by an imprisoned Iraqi intelligence agent that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ex-Egyptian Islamic Jihadist who now serves as Osama’s deputy, visited Baghdad as early as 1992, but this visit is unconnected to Ansar al-Islam. Ansar al-Islam is a group dedicated to the overthrow of the secular Kurdish government in the free zone of northern Iraq. Both Osama and Saddam want to see the Kurdish experiment in self-governance and civil society ended, which is why they would work together. Of course, the Ansar al-Islam is alleged to run an underground railroad for fugitive al-Qaida members, and Ansar members may have served as smugglers for Osama, bringing Iraqi weapons to Afghanistan, but I don’t make the kind of grandiose claims ascribed to me. All I do in The New Yorker is suggest a couple of points of possible overlap between Baghdad and al-Qaida.

Speaking of people who talk about New Yorker stories without reading them (believe me, I appreciate the fact that you did—it’s not the shortest thing I’ve ever written), let me tell you about my absurd encounter on CNN with Aaron Brown, who let himself be used by the CIA. As I was led onto the set one night earlier this week, I noticed that David Ensor, one of CNN’s on-air reporters, was looking smugly in my direction. I knew that he is often used by people in the national security establishment as their mouthpiece, so I guessed that I was in trouble. On-air, Brown asked me to summarize my story (in about 20 seconds, of course), and then said—I’m paraphrasing—”Jeff, I have to tell you, CNN has just spoken to a senior government official who says that while he respects your work, your story isn’t credible.” I caught a glimpse of Ensor, who couldn’t contain his smirk.

I happen to know the “senior government official” in question; he’s a friend of mine (and a great writer to boot), and I knew that his bosses were eager for him to shoot down the idea that the vast American intelligence apparatus somehow overlooked the al-Qaida members I found in Kurdistan. I held my tongue, mostly, even when Brown asked me if I felt I was being used by the Kurds to get their message across, as if I had not dealt with this question in the story.

Bureaucratic resistance in Washington to helping the Kurds is understandable; the State Department is not known for its love of small peoples (just ask a Tutsi). What is astonishing is that journalists, who, I’ve always been told, side instinctively with the oppressed, quite regularly line up against the Iraqi dissident community (and I don’t mean just the Iraqi National Congress) in its fight against the fascist regime in Baghdad.

OK. Here’s a question. What would Saddam do if he knew he was done for? My friend Jacob Weisberg, of this magazine, brings up this point, and it’s an important one. If we keep signaling to Saddam our interest in finishing him off, won’t he go Samson on us, killing as many of his enemies as he can before dying himself? This is the most effective argument I’ve seen against an all-out invasion. The Kurds understand this. One peshmerga general (the peshmerga—”those who face death”—are Kurdish guerrillas) pleaded with me to tell people in Washington to “knock out Saddam” with a single punch. Otherwise, he said, the Kurds are in terrible trouble. What think you?


From: Warren Bass
To: Jeffrey Goldberg
Subject: For the Neighbors’ Sake
Posted Friday, March 22, 2002, at 3:33 PM ET

Dear Jeff,

25 dinars? Sold.

Actually, not sold—which is no tragedy since 25 Iraqi dinars and a plate of hummus will get you, well, a plate of hummus. (I actually used to have some Iraqi dinars that I picked up in Jordan stuffed absent-mindedly into my travel wallet; after 9/11, I wisely decided to take ‘em out.) No, there’s no way to leave Saddam in power and guarantee he doesn’t get the bomb.

Which brings us, of course, to the reason your piece made such waves around D.C. this week: the raging Beltway debate about what to do with Saddam. Before 9/11, the range of policy options were mostly about various forms of containment—ways to keep Saddam boxed in—or about rollback—toppling Saddam, probably using the Iraqi opposition. Some favored sanctions without arms inspections, others preferred arms inspections without sanctions, others backed a tweaked new regime of “smart sanctions,” and another group (including a Bush I adviser turned grad school dean, Paul Wolfowitz) pushed rollback.

Now, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz, as well as Richard Perle and many other neocons, are close to the seat of power, and the policy debate increasingly centers not around whether to topple Saddam but about when and how. Within the administration, the split can be not inaccurately caricatured as being between Wolfowitz and his Pentagon allies (arguing for yesterday, if not sooner) and Colin Powell’s State Department (arguing for tomorrow, if not later). And plenty of Democrats have also urged mopping up al-Qaida more thoroughly first—including Leon Fuerth, who’d be running the NSC today if a few things had gone differently in the closer-to-home rogue state of Florida.

So tell me if you buy this: Some of the people most prone to inflate the claims you make in the piece are actually from the neocon, get-Saddam-now crowd. For my part, I’m pretty sure I’ve got your piece right, in all its glory (hell, the thing’s long enough for us to have run at my old job at Foreign Affairs), and you and your exquisitely careful editors haven’t oversold the new stuff. I’ve just popped ahead to policy implications—simply because you know the way the piece has been received by some folks around D.C.: as the smoking gun tying Saddam to al-Qaida and thence to 9/11.

What interests me is that neither of us sound sure you need that particular smoking gun to favor interventionism in Iraq. No, Saddam isn’t the mastermind of global terror. Yes, he is a dedicated pursuer of doomsday weapons, a serial aggressor, and a human rights abuser on a scale that should get liberals muttering about humanitarian intervention. On the basis of current evidence, the case for getting Saddam is less about terrorism than it is about weapons of mass destruction. Hence the importance of reminding people of the Anfal.

(By the by, I can assure you that the redoubtable Ken Pollack read the piece—both because it’s a blockbuster and because, well, Ken reads everything. The rest of us here have signed a petition asking him to stop making the rest of us look like slackers. And to the best of my knowledge, Ken has no position on this one: He’s just mulling it all through. Aaron Brown, however, is on his own.)

(Also tangentially, in an impressive display of meekness, we haven’t abandoned our brief yet to say a few insubordinate words about Yasser and Arik.)

A weird sidelight: Some of the snarkiest things I’ve ever heard about the Iraqi National Congress—a rickety alliance of Kurdish peshmerga, Hashimite monarchists, Parisian exiles, and Shiites of various degrees of fundamentalist nuttery—came from Israelis who don’t think the INC can fight its way out of a paper bag. That may be because the Israelis worry that if America does Iraq the slow way—à la Afghanistan, casting the Iraqi opposition in the role of the Northern Alliance—it leaves more time for Israel to sit and get pegged by Saddam’s Scuds, which could be carrying gas or germs this time. (Then again, the snarkiest thing ever said about the Iraqi opposition came from the long-suffering Anthony Zinni, the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace envoy, who back in his days as head of Centcom said that relying on the Iraqi opposition would lead to a Bay of Goats.)

Like you, I’m persuaded that Saddam has to go, and I’m just sorry that Powell, Cheney, and Bush père didn’t hammer away at the Republican Guard for a few more hours in February 1991. It might not have collapsed the regime, but I wish Washington had hung in a bit longer—not least because, given the law of unintended consequences, the unfinished business of Desert Storm left 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to deter the still-standing Saddam, which turned Osama Bin Laden definitively against the House of Saud, which led to 9/11.

So what would Saddam do if he were on the brink? Well, think of the way he behaves when he’s not in extremis. He was deterred from launching chemical and biological Scuds in 1991; he might not be if he were truly about to buy it. But for the sake of all of Saddam’s neighbors, better to get it over with, no? The Kurds are in terrible trouble anyway. If it’s anthrax and sarin we’re worried about today, it’ll be nukes tomorrow. That points toward a sharp, short intervention, and that points toward an anti-Saddam campaign spearheaded by U.S. troops, not the Iraqi opposition. Maybe, for the sake of the Kurds, America shouldn’t rely on the Kurds.

What think you?


From: Jeffrey Goldberg
To: Warren Bass
Subject: New Business Cards
Posted Monday, March 25, 2002, at 5:54 AM ET

Dear Warren,

I’m going to make this short, since we both agree on a point of paramount importance, which is that there’s no sure way to leave Saddam Hussein in power and keep him from getting the Bomb. Everything else is commentary. And we’re not commentators, though we both play commentators on television from time to time (and, in my case at least, feel dirty afterward).

By the way—and I realize that there’s no room (or, presumably, inclination on Slate’s part) for us to dilate on the Palestinian-Israeli mess (even though it is our actual true obsession)—did you make a cursory study of the front page of the New York Times yesterday? (Of course you did; I can’t imagine Warren Bass ever not.) The one-column lead story’s headline: “Cheney Is Poised for Arafat Talks at Envoy’s Signal.” Bumping up against this headline was the following, spread over two columns: “A Secret Iran-Arafat Connection Is Seen Fueling the Mideast Fire.” I will not point out the meaning of these two stories in combination, on grounds that the meaning is too obvious to bother pointing out. I will only say that the upcoming Netanyahu prime ministership will be most interesting to watch.

May I make a slightly philosophical point about your political analysis? I’m not disagreeing with you that the men who are leading the campaign to see the United States oust Saddam are, in other spheres, conservative in bent (even though there are democrats, such as James Woolsey, President Clinton’s first CIA director, among them). But I’ve become distressed by the accusation that this cause is fundamentally conservative. Let me explain.

Kanan Makiya, the great Iraqi writer and dissident, argues that the Baghdad regime is similar in ideology and practice to the European fascist dictatorships of the 1930s. This makes it fundamentally different from every other ridiculous Third World dictatorship currently holding a seat in the U.N. General Assembly. Saddam’s Iraq is the quintessence of a security state, built on paranoia and homicide and Big Brother surveillance; its charismatic and megalomaniacal Great Leader thinks of himself as father of his people; his regime engages in racialist thought; it commits genocide; it seeks Lebensraum; and on and on and on.

So, what is conservative, or neoconservative, about Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle (or Dick Cheney) standing in the front line against fascism? I didn’t realize that the fight against fascism is solely the province of the neoconservative movement. Isn’t the real story here not the muscular unilateralism of the neocons, but the moral abdication of the moderate left, which is missing a chance to defeat a genocidal fascist?

I’m just not sure, in other words, that Cold War-era labels mean anything in this fight. In fact, they are used as weapons by people who would rather obscure the facts about Saddam’s true nature. But maybe you have a different understanding.

People are asking me how it feels to be used by Dick Cheney and company. In their struggle. In case you missed it, Bush and Cheney have been talking up The New Yorker (!) over the past couple of days. I am gratified, of course, that someone is paying attention (it certainly beats traveling to dangerous places, with all the angst and gastrointestinal drama that such travel entails, and then being ignored), but I am especially and quite sincerely pleased that the our country’s top leaders are talking about the plight of the Kurds—by name. I was told that Cheney yesterday specifically mentioned the terrible medical legacy of Saddam’s chemical bombardment of the Kurds. I hope that this sort of attention leads to actual help for these Kurds, who have been suffering in silence for 14 years and deserve an enormous break.

By the way, I don’t know if you saw the president’s mention of the story: He brought it up during a press conference in Monterrey a couple of days ago, with President Fox of Mexico at his side. The transcript reads like this:

Q: President Bush, good evening. During his recent trip to the Middle East, the vice president made it very clear that at each stop he told our Arab allies that no military action against Iraq was imminent. Isn’t it also true that this administration is telling our allies, Arab allies and others around the world, that this government is, however, committed—as committed to removing Saddam Hussein from power as the administration was for removing the Taliban?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Let me put it to you this way, David—what we’re telling our friends is that Saddam Hussein is a man who is willing to gas his own people, willing to use weapons of mass destruction again Iraq citizens. Evidently, there’s a new article in the New York magazine or New Yorker magazine—some East Coast magazine—and it details about his barbaric behavior toward his own people. And not only did he do it to his own people, he did it to people in his neighborhood. And this is a man who refuses to allow us to determine whether or not he still has weapons of mass destruction, which leads me to believe he does.

I’m going to have the words “some East Coast magazine” printed on my business cards.

See you in Baghdad.


From: Warren Bass
To: Jeffrey Goldberg
Subject: They Can Bill Me
Posted Monday, March 25, 2002, at 1:07 PM ET

Dear Jeff,

Hey, we already have “some East Coast think tank” printed on ours.

And I think we can safely stipulate that the commander in chief did not make it all the way through your piece. I’ve consulted the Book of Revelations, though, and having Dick Cheney plugging The New Yorker is specifically mentioned as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse.

We’re agreed (perhaps to the dismay of our Slate minders) that Saddam’s regime is an extraordinarily vicious one and one that can’t be permitted nukes. But just a minor tweak: I’d say that all the rest is policy. As we’ve discussed, there are real questions about how to move against Iraq (U.S. invasion? Afghan-style rollback?), even if the question of “whether” has been laid to rest. And the sequencing really is tricky. How thoroughly does al-Qaida need to be ripped up before the administration should start focusing firepower and political capital elsewhere? How bad can the Israeli-Palestinian mayhem be for the Arab political traffic to also bear movement on Iraq? Does the administration need to call Saddam’s bluff on renewed U.N. arms inspections before moving, or does that just risk him stringing everyone along?

Pleased as I am to see the administration taking nonproliferation seriously with Iraq, I also fervently hope they’ll have a policy on doomsday weapons that extends far further than Baghdad. Surely Job 1 in the era of catastrophic terrorism isn’t just keeping nukes, germs, and gases out of the hands of state sponsors of terrorism but also out of the hands of terrorists themselves. Russia is rife with poorly guarded nuclear facilities and poorly paid nuclear scientists, and Pakistan’s no prize either. I can’t think of a higher strategic priority for the Bush administration than doing whatever it takes to make sure that “loose nukes” don’t fall into the wrong hands—because if they do, we could see catastrophic terrorism on a scale that makes 9/11 look puny. And unlike Iraq, the sequencing here is the very opposite of complex. It doesn’t have to wait. Indeed, it can’t.

If that means higher taxes, they can bill me.

I’ll see your philosophical point and raise you an internecine political one. The reason it’s interesting that neocons like Wolfowitz, Perle, and Bill Kristol have led the charge on Saddam has more to do with internal Republican struggle over the foreign policy direction of the party than it does to do with old Cold War labels (even though I can’t quite resist hearing a John Foster Dulles echo in charges that containment is a sellout and only rollback will do). At least some of the tension between State and the Pentagon over Iraq echoes the grand old rift in the GOP, between Kissingerian balance-of-power realists and Reaganite value-driven idealists. Wolfowitz—who demands respect both for being seriously smart and for having been turned into a fictional character in a Saul Bellow novel (Ravelstein, for the record)—left power in 1992 genuinely distraught about the feckless decision to let Saddam decimate the postwar Kurdish and Shiite rebellions that the first Bush administration encouraged and then abandoned. The reason I mention the neocon label isn’t to rehash Cold War name-calling, it’s to suggest that the most intellectually vigorous force within the GOP is working hard to make sure that Bush II looks significantly more Reaganite than Bush I. As these guys see it, all the rest is Commentary.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that abhorrence of Baathist totalitarianism is the exclusive preserve of the neocons. (For one thing, that’s hard to square with the fact that the beatified Reagan administration pursued “constructive engagement” with Saddam both before and—worse—after he gassed Halabja.) Some liberals have missed the boat in taking humanitarianism out of the case for moving against Saddam. The death of about 100,000 Kurds in the Anfal should still offend the collective conscience of humanity, as did the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars, which goaded the reluctant Clinton administration into a humanitarian war. There’s a fine liberal case for getting Saddam as well.

But there’s another reason to go after Saddam, and that has to do with drying up the swamp. It’s one thing for bin Laden to exist; hideous as he is, everyone has their villains. But it’s a sign of how badly Arab politics have gone wrong that there’s such a thing as “bin Ladenism”—that this monster has resonance. If the polls are remotely to be believed, most people in the Arab world don’t believe that Arabs staged 9/11, and bin Laden is rather widely seen as incorruptible, ascetic, visionary, and principled, rather than as a murderous conspiracy theorist. A lot of what’s wrong in Arab politics is epitomized in Saddam. That’s not to say that getting rid of him is a panacea. But thinking about reform in Arab politics remains an important part of the leap that’s getting made between a catastrophic terrorist attack perpetrated by Islamists and a major subsequent intervention targeted at a secular Arab tyrant.

As for Arafat, who also bespeaks a great deal wrong in Arab politics—well, maybe next time. For now, let me just note that when you say “see you in Baghdad,” you’re just brave (crazy?) enough to mean it. In an era where American journalism ran pell-mell after trivia, slashed foreign budgets to fatten celebrity salaries, and fled from serious foreign coverage, more power to you for running some heart-stopping risks to get these stories. It matters, and it’s a standing reproach to much of the rest of the industry. (Anyone from Disney reading?)

So let’s grab a beer sometime to commiserate over the intifada and much else. But not in Baghdad. Let’s try Manhattan. You know, where it’s safe.