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This article appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine (Germany), Toronto Star (Canada), De Standaard (Belgium) and The Age (Australia)

Hawks and doves circle Washington
February, 2002

The Bush administration’s recent aggressive saber-rattling against Saddam Hussein may have come as a surprise to some, but in fact it reflects a nod in the direction of one administration faction that has been trying for months to persuade the president to move against Baghdad. The combatants fall into two camps: the now-ascendant Saddam Hawks and the at-least-temporarily sidelined Saddam Doves. On the outcome of their struggle may hang the prospects for peace or war in the first decade of the 21st century.

Everyone in both camps agrees that there will be other battlefields in the international effort to ensure that nothing like the events of September 11 happens again. Of all the likely targets for preventive or retaliatory action, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is the most obvious.  A brutal tyrant who has used chemical weapons against his own people and invaded a neighboring Arab country, he maintains power by instilling fear at home and abroad. This includes the on-going development of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and nuclear –despite pressure from the US and the international community.

The Saddam Hawks believe that the only path to international security is to remove him. The Saddam Doves,  who represent  a once-dominant viewpoint in the State Department, worry about upsetting the “balance of power” in the Middle  East.  Get rid of the tyrant, they reason, and who knows what Islamic extremists might emerge? The Doves also question what the Hawks take for granted: that Saddam, like the Taliban, can be overthrown by a coalition of internal resistance fighters and outside forces-- without hefty Allied casualties and unacceptable risks to nearby countries, Israel in particular.

The Hawks point to September 11 as proof that the world cannot allow Saddam to remain in power. They argue that such an ambitious, carefully-orchestrated, and perfectly executed plan could not be pulled off by a group of volunteers coordinated by a man like Bin Laden without the sponsorship of guess-which rogue state. They cite bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence that suggest a Baghdad connection. Saddam Doves look at the same evidence and find it thin and inconsequential, grounds for caution rather than action. The stakes are high for both groups, especially the Hawks, who see  a window of opportunity for a move they’ve long advocated. To remove Saddam, they know, will take international agreement, and, in particular, the neutralization of the Arab world. Proof that Saddam’s people were in some way complicit in the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington would surely jump-start the Second Iraqi War.

The case against Saddam draws strength from two strands of intelligence reports: one supports the existence of  military camps in Iraq where foreign Arabs were purportedly being trained in how to hijack planes; the second suggests that meetings were held prior to September 11 between the man considered the ringleader of Bin Laden’s suicide squads and agents of Iraqi intelligence. Some details have emerged regarding both strands that are worthy of exploration, but, unfortunately, neither faction seems interested in checking out the material to see where it leads unless they can be sure that the answer will support their position.

The Iraqi military camps, at a place called Salman Pak, about 40 miles southeast of Baghdad, clearly exist. UN weapons inspectors identified them. Now, defectors from Iraq offer insights into what was going on there. They say that men who were clearly religious, non-Iraqi Muslims trained at the camps at various times over the past five years. They say that a lot of effort went into learning how to seize control of a jet airliner in flight, practicing on a Boeing –  the same make as the planes seized on September 11 – that was parked at the camp. [A caveat about the lack of certainty: a UN weapons inspector tells me the Salman Pak plane was of a different  manufacture]  Exercises ranged from storming the plane with weapons drawn to taking it over from the inside with the aid of unnamed but apparently innocuous domestic implements.

The meetings between Iraqi intelligence operatives and Mohammed Atta,, who is now seen as the dominant figure among the hijackers, are believed to have taken place in Prague. Czech authorities at first denied having any information on this matter, then confirmed they were aware of one or more such meetings in the two years preceding the September attacks.

Doubts have been raised about the quality of both strands of evidence. The sources on the Iraqi camps are former military officials who escaped from Iraq, and who have been vouched for by exile groups with a strong interest in persuading Washington to take action against Saddam. In the Czech Republic, the government and the media are still struggling to emerge from the country’s totalitarian past; neither has shown the will or the skill to pursue investigatory channels to nail down specifics. The result has been a circus atmosphere, with government officials contradicting each other on details of the Iraqi-Al Qaeda meetings, and the media trumpeting scoops of dubious veracity. 

In the US, the Saddam Hawks, aided by influential friends in the media like New York Times columnist William Safire, were quick to put forward the “proof” in both Baghdad and Prague to justify their call to action. This faction includes a number of people close to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was himself outspoken on the need to remove Saddam when his party was out of power. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is the chief advocate for the group’s position inside the government; he even sent the maverick James Woolsey (who’d served briefly as CIA director, without much clout, under Clinton) to London in September to meet with the London-based Iraqi opposition. Woolsey apparently made another trip to London to research Iraqi terror-related activities back in February, seven months before the September attacks. It is likely no coincidence that the defectors have been made available to media outlets by the anti-Saddam forces since Woolsey’s visit, which was apparently paid for by the Defense Department without concurrence or even knowledge on the part of the State Department or the CIA, where top officials were said to be furious about the out-of-channels maneuver. 

The elements within the administration that favor caution have, until recently, been led by Colin Powell, the man who urged President Bush’s father to halt the 1991 Gulf War without removing Saddam Hussein. In recent days, Powell has taken a lead role in the administration’s aggressive remarks about Iraq, but many observers believe that he is doing so only because he has to, not because it is his personal preference. Some wonder if the new tact is not meant as a diversion from political damage the Bush administration may be suffering from its role in the exploding Enron financial scandal. The Dove group, which, with or without Powell  includes powerful elements within the CIA and the greater intelligence community,  has grudgingly  acknowledged the information out of Prague but has been less communicative about the Salman Pak reports. 

In general, the Saddam Doves have emphasized the unreliable nature of any evidence linking Iraq to September 11. Their basic position was summed up by Anthony Cordesman, a former State and Defense Department official now working as a Middle East expert in a think tank. When news of the Prague meetings first surfaced, he cautioned the Reuters  news agency that Iraqi intelligence was a very complex structure, with multiple branches, and even if it could be proved that Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi spy, it did not necessarily mean anything in terms of September 11. “The fact that in this sort of loose coalition there is a constant exchange does not in any sense mean that there was common planning," Cordesman said. “It is not evidence of a conspiracy," he said. And he warned that news of the meeting might be used by those in Washington who are looking for any excuse to strike against the Iraqi government. "The set of hidden agendas in Washington is such, that it makes speculation particularly dangerous," he told Reuters.

The two contending groups do not divide along partisan lines. The Hawks, for example, include the moderate Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for Vice President. Lieberman, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that it would soon be time to focus on Iraq as a suspected supporter and protector of terrorists. “As long as Saddam is there, Iraq is not just going to be a thorn in our side, but a threat to our lives,'' he declared.

Meanwhile, the Dove camp embraces some prominent right-wingers, including the customarily bomb-happy syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who wanted to see absolute, hard proof before he’d back any move against Iraq. Meanwhile, progressives were also split, with some supporting efforts to de-fang Saddam , and others expressing deep reservations about a potential broadening of the conflict. 

Until recently, Rumsfeld has walked a fine line between championing his old buddies and trying to prevent further fissures in the administration. He has declared Iraq a supporter of and haven for terrorism, and said that the US would pursue terrorists wherever they were. Asked about the Prague Connection, Rumsfeld said that while more investigation was needed,  “Clearly, the meeting is not nothing, it is something notable."

The present situation, a stalemate of overly-interested parties, is clearly a bad deal for everyone concerned.  It has resulted in a failure of the relevant authorities to systematically examine the evidence itself. Iraqi defectors complain that, although US intelligence agents met with them, the Americans showed little interest in their claims, and there was no follow-up. Tellingly, nearly four months later Washington has made no move to dispatch experienced investigators to Prague to help the Czechs sort out the truth from the chaff.

Georges Clemenceau said that war is too important to be left to the generals. Deciding whether or not to attack Saddam Hussein is an issue that should be resolved dispassionately on purely factual grounds, not on the basis of which side in the debate gains the President’s ear by political posturing or media manipulation.


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