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Jason Holliston
Wednesday, July 14, 2004  
Could We Have Gotten Zarqawi in 2002?

This story has been popping up during the past few months, here and there, and so far, as refused to die. Essentially, the story goes like this: during the run up to the Iraq War, we knew that Zarqawi (the terrorist behind many of the attacks in Iraq lately, and behind many of the problems in Fallujah starting this past spring) and his group, Ansar al-Islam, were operating in northern Iraq. We knew they had chemical weapons that posed a danger to our people, forces, and friends. We had the capability to take them out. The kicker goes like this, though: the Administration decided not to destroy the terrorist camp and kill Zarqawi because the camp's existence was one of the prime points in our case to overthrow Saddam's regime. Sounds awfully dark, huh?

This is the theme of Jacob T. Levy's new column today on the New Republic Online. He doesn't make a judgment on the validity of this claim, since there is conflicting reports of what actually happened with this decision, but does say that if it did happen as reported, it would be right in line with the Administration's continuing confusion of the strategic versus the tactic, and the misplaced priorities given these goals:

To think that Bush officials were capable of delaying an attack on Al-Qaeda-allied terrorists equipped with chemical weapons in order to build support for invading Iraq, you don't have to believe that they're unserious about the war on terrorism. You just have to believe what they've shown with depressing frequency: that they confuse tactical with strategic objectives, and short-term means with long-term ends. That doesn't prove we left Zarqawi alone in order to focus on Saddam. But it makes the charge all too believable.

His point assumes that it's obvious that we should have taken out the camp. I respectfully disagree with his analysis. Let's take a step back and look at why, I believe, the Bush Administration pushed so hard for the Iraq War in the first place. It wasn't WMD's or terrorist connections, at least as a priority. I believe that their true intention was to force the implantation of a democracy right smack dab in the middle of the Arab world -- a world that has zero liberal democracies. The Administration saw that they could keep playing whack-a-mole (I mean, terrorist), killing these murderers and destroying their camps whenever they came up on the radar screen forever, and know that a certain amount of American lives would be forfeit, since we can't stop all the attacks. Instead, reform the Arab world from within. Show them how much better their lives can be if they throw the tyrants out and institute Western ideology. Eventually, the thinking goes, the root reasons for so many of them hating America so much that they're willing to die to kill us will melt away, as they begin to feel pride in their own accomplishments and don't suffer from misplaced jealousy. No more whack-a-mole, since the moles wouldn't exists any longer.

So, assume that I'm right that this was the Administration's ultimate reason for going to war. Iraq is the perfect state to start this revolution. For various reasons, Saudi Arabia and Syria would be much more difficult and costly to defeat, occupy, and implant a democracy forcefully. The decision to invade was made, and they were in progress of making their case before the American people and the world. Everything is going to plan, and then the CIA tells the Administration (in this case, the National Security Council) that there's a camp in Iraq that poses a danger and should be destroyed. The Administration knows that the existence of this camp would bolster their case for war. They also know that destroying the camp, while helpful, would be more of the whack-a-mole game America had been playing for two decades. So they decide not to destroy it, instead leaving it to help make their case before the world.

I don't see how this scenario is so horrible. In fact, I believe that Mr. Levy has it backwards -- if this charge is indeed true, they made the correct call to sacrifice the tactical for strategic goals. Put another way, killing Zaraqwi and destroying the Ansar al-Islam camp wouldn't have destroyed the Islamo-fascist threat, and had no chance to, but implanting democracy in Iraq does, indeed, have a chance at just that.

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