By DAN K. THOMASSON
Ever wonder what the state of the world would be if Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq with an iron fist? A few late-night comedians have braved potential patriotic wrath by suggesting perhaps he should be brought back, a shuddering thought given his propensity for mass graves.
Now for the first time a prominent U.S. senator has publicly stated just such an opinion — that the United States, if not Iraq, would be better off if Saddam Hussein had not been toppled from power. It is a position privately held by many but expressed by very few, at least not in those exact words. In reality, however, that is exactly what those in opposition to the war are really saying.
West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV made his views clear as the Senate released a heretofore classified document that reported, among other things, that the CIA had repudiated claims that there were ties between Saddam’s government and al-Qaeda, one of the key justifications for the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. In fact, the report quotes CIA testimony that Saddam regarded al-Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as his enemy and tried in vain to find him. Rockefeller serves as ranking minority member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which declassified the report.
The veteran Democratic senator’s statement was stunning even in the politically charged atmosphere of the coming congressional elections because it reveals the growing depth of unease among leading Democrats and Republicans about the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rockefeller voted for the Iraq invasion and like others has been careful not to leave the impression that he does not support American troops.
But using words like "manipulation" and "contained," Rockefeller said there was no evidence that Saddam had connections with the international terrorist movement, one of the White House’s arguments for a preemptive strike on Iraq. When asked on television whether he now believed that Saddam should have been left in power, the veteran Democrat said that is exactly what he meant, that Saddam considered the terrorists a threat to his own government and that the Iraqi dictator was sufficiently contained as to be no real danger to the United States. Said Rockefeller, "He wasn’t going to attack us."
In contrast, the Intelligence committee’s Republican chairman, Pat Roberts, headed home to Kansas grumbling about nothing really new in the report, just bits and pieces already known to the public. He is correct. But the document is another log on the growing fire of discontent about the war and its drain on national assets, most specifically the human kind. It merely prompts more Americans to ask why this course was necessary if Saddam was not connected to terrorists nor had any of the weapons of mass destruction he was alleged to have been readying for use against his neighbors or the United States.
The impact of the report was intensified by the fact the committee is controlled by Republicans, only one of whom dissented. On the other hand several GOP members disavowed another report released at the same time criticizing the administration’s reliance on intelligence supplied by Saddam’s political enemies outside Iraq, namely the Iraqi National Congress, which had its own interests, leading up the invasion. Roberts issued a dissenting statement challenging the conclusions in that report.
It has become dramatically less clear where the Iraq invasion falls in the war on terrorism. Here are a few questions we may need to ask ourselves. Has this exercise actually raised more potential terrorists than it has eliminated? Has the terrorist movement gained stature in the susceptible culture of the Middle East by our obvious inability to bring stability to Iraq? Do moderate Muslims now regard this war as an attack on their religion generally? Has the fact that 140,000 U.S. troops are bogged down in what might now be a civil war damaged U.S. efforts to deal with resurgent Taliban forces in Afghanistan, which certainly do have ties to terrorism? Has the preoccupation with Iraq hindered our efforts to capture Osama bin Laden?
Finally, we should consider whether we at home are any safer because of this conflict which has cost so many American lives and so much money? Or would we, at least, be better off with a despotic killer who was really no threat to us still running that nation, leaving us free to deal with real terrorism? It is a moral dilemma around which debate is only going to intensify.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)