Monday, October 25, 2004

Tough On Terror? [Redux]

In Part III of a three-part series on the comparative foreign policy outlook of each presidential candidate, I made the case that the image of John Kerry as "weak" on national security is a case built more on propaganda than on fact, especially when viewed in comparison to president Bush's dubious record in this arena. Yes, Bush did choose to launch a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, but this should not be confused with "strength" nor should its opposition be viewed as "weakness," although it should be noted that Kerry did not oppose the invasion per se, just the time and manner under which it was carried out.

That is a common flaw in our own human nature: the perception that violence is the equivalent of strength, while diplomatic and measured solutions are weaker - for example, in foreign policy jargon, the former is called "hard power" while the latter is termed "soft." What is more important than "hardness" or "softness" is effectiveness. Strong or not, the invasion of Iraq has been anything but effective vis a vis the effort to stave off the appeal and support for radical anti-American jihadist ideology - not to mention recent revelations
that nuclear facilities and dangerous explosives were left unguarded to looters after the invasion. In another sense, President Reagan was not "weak" because he never invaded the Soviet Union - and, similarly, such a military action should not have been considered "strong" had he or any of his predecessors decided on that foolish course of action. That is because wars are messy things, with myriad unintended, and often deliterious, consequences. They destabilize regions, breed more violence, and often sow the seeds for future conflicts. What's so right about that kind of might?

Bush supporters persist in their contention that Kerry does not understand the post-9/11 world (whatever that is supposed to mean), that he is too weak to wage an effective war on terror, and that his instincts are too frequently in opposition to the use of military force. His votes authorizing such force in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq do nothing to assuage those fears because military force is "strong" (apparently Afghanistan wasn't "strong" enough).

In that context, I wonder what Bush's supporters would say about a leader who nixed three different Pentagon plans to launch strikes on known terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the invasion of Iraq. Would that be considered "strong" or "weak?" Would such a decision indicate a firm grasp of the new post-9/11 world or a weak caving to political concerns?

A story which
first broke in March, that I first covered in May, has been given new life by a recent article appearing in, of all sources, the not-so-liberal Wall Street Journal.

Fred Kaplan, writing for, provided the following synopsis of the three missed opportunities, and what were the immediate motivations for drafting the plans:

As far back as June 2002, U.S. intelligence reported that Zarqawi had set up a weapons lab at Kirma in northern Iraq that was capable of producing ricin and cyanide. The Pentagon drew up an attack plan involving cruise missiles and smart bombs. The White House turned it down. In October 2002, intelligence reported that Zarqawi was preparing to use his bio-weapons in Europe. The Pentagon drew up another attack plan. The White House again demurred. In January 2003, police in London arrested terrorist suspects connected to the camp. The Pentagon devised another attack plan. Again, the White House killed the plan, not Zarqawi.
Journalist and blogger Laura Rozen ponders why this story has resurfaced, quoting from the Wall Street Journal article:
Why is this story coming out now? Because the fearmongerer in chief Cheney ordered a review of Zarqawi that points out how criminally incompetent his White House has been:

Questions about whether the U.S. missed an opportunity to take out Mr. Zarqawi have been enhanced recently by a CIA report on Mr. Zarqawi, commissioned by Vice President Dick Cheney. Individuals who have been briefed on the report's contents say it specifically cites evidence that Mr. Zarqawi was in the camp during those prewar months. They said the CIA's conclusion was based in part on a review of electronic intercepts, which show that Mr. Zarqawi was using a satellite telephone to discuss matters relating to the camp, and that the intercepts indicated the probability that the calls were being made from inside the camp.
Another reason this story appears to be re-emerging is the fact that the Wall Street Journal has received acknowledgement of its veracity from Pentagon officials and Bush administration insiders. Tim Dunlop, of The Road To Surfdom, excerpts some key paragraphs of the story:

As the toll of mayhem inspired by terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi mounts in Iraq, some former officials and military officers increasingly wonder whether the Bush administration made a mistake months before the start of the war by stopping the military from attacking his camp in the northeastern part of that country.

The Pentagon drew up detailed plans in June 2002, giving the administration a series of options for a military strike on the camp Mr. Zarqawi was running then in remote northeastern Iraq, according to generals who were involved directly in planning the attack and several former White House staffers...

Senior Pentagon officials who were involved in planning the attack said that even by spring 2002 Mr. Zarqawi had been identified as a significant terrorist target, based in part on intelligence that the camp he earlier ran in Afghanistan had been attempting to make chemical weapons, and because he was known as the head of a group that was plotting, and training for, attacks against the West. He already was identified as the ringleader in several failed terrorist plots against Israeli and European targets. In addition, by late 2002, while the White House still was deliberating over attacking the camp, Mr. Zarqawi was known to have been behind the October 2002 assassination of a senior American diplomat in Amman, Jordan.

But the raid on Mr. Zarqawi didn't take place. Months passed with no approval of the plan from the White House, until word came down just weeks before the March 19, 2003, start of the Iraq war that Mr. Bush had rejected any strike on the camp until after an official outbreak of hostilities with Iraq. Ultimately, the camp was hit just after the invasion of Iraq began.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who was in the White House as the National Security Council's director for combating terrorism at the time, said an NSC working group, led by the Defense Department, had been in charge of reviewing the plans to target the camp. She said the camp was "definitely a stronghold, and we knew that certain individuals were there including Zarqawi." Ms. Gordon-Hagerty said she wasn't part of the working group and never learned the reason why the camp wasn't hit. But she said that much later, when reports surfaced that Mr. Zarqawi was behind a series of bloody attacks in Iraq, she said "I remember my response," adding, "I said why didn't we get that ['son of a b-'] when we could." [emphasis added throughout]
The reasons for rejecting all three of the Pentagon's plans of attack are contested by members of the Bush administration, but many close to the operation offer their own insights. As reported by

"People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists," according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey.

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi's operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.
Fred Kaplan offers the following observations regarding the rationale for postponing the strikes until after the invasion:

But the problem, from Bush's perspective, was that this was the only tangible evidence of terrorists in Iraq. Colin Powell even showed the location of the camp on a map during his famous Feb. 5 briefing at the U.N. Security Council. The camp was in an area of Iraq that Saddam didn't control. But never mind, it was something. To wipe it out ahead of time might lead some people - in Congress, the United Nations, and the American public - to conclude that Saddam's links to terrorists were finished, that maybe the war wasn't necessary. So Bush let it be.
The logic of the Bush administration's response to these charges is thin at best:

Administration officials say the attack was set aside for a variety of reasons, including uncertain intelligence reports on Mr. Zarqawi's whereabouts and the difficulties of hitting him within a large complex.
Another reason cited was a fear of collateral damage. Several high ranking military personnel take issue with certain elements of the Bush team's version of the risks and prospects for success:

Some former officials said the intelligence on Mr. Zarqawi's whereabouts was sound. In addition, retired Gen. John M. Keane, the U.S. Army's vice chief of staff when the strike was considered, said that because the camp was isolated in the thinly populated, mountainous borderlands of northeastern Iraq, the risk of collateral damage was minimal. Former military officials said that adding to the target's allure was intelligence indicating that Mr. Zarqawi himself was in the camp at the time. A strike at the camp, they believed, meant at least a chance of killing or incapacitating him.

Gen. Keane characterized the camp "as one of the best targets we ever had," and questioned the decision not to attack it. When the U.S. did strike the camp a day after the war started, Mr. Zarqawi, many of his followers and Kurdish extremists belonging to his organization already had fled, people involved with intelligence say. [emphasis added]
Fred Kaplan backs up General Keane's account with other factors that favored action:

This camp was in the Kurdish enclave of Iraq. The U.S. military had been mounting airstrikes against various targets throughout Iraq - mainly air-defense sites - for the previous few years. It would not have been a major escalation to destroy this camp, especially after the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The Kurds, whose autonomy had been shielded by U.S. air power since the end of the 1991 war, wouldn't have minded and could even have helped.
How can the Bush administration's version of events be trusted? What exactly changed after the invasion that made a strike on the Zarqawi's camp more palatable? Was the intelligence of his whereabouts suddenly more trustworthy - even though he wasn't there by the time they got around to attacking? Was the risk of collateral damage magically mitigated? I find these arguments implausible, especially considering our willingness to launch so many poorly informed "decapitation strikes" against Saddam Hussein and his underlings immediately after the invasion. As the New York Times reported in June of this year:

The United States launched many more failed airstrikes on a far broader array of senior Iraqi leaders during the early days of the war last year than has previously been acknowledged, and some caused significant civilian casualties, according to senior military and intelligence officials...

An unclassified Air Force report issued in April 2003 categorized 50 attacks from March 19 to April 18 as having been time-sensitive strikes on Iraqi leaders. An up-to-date accounting posted on the Web site of the United States Central Command shows that 43 of the top 55 Iraqi leaders on the most-wanted list have now been taken into custody or killed, but that none were taken into custody until April 13, 2003, and that none were killed by airstrikes.[emphasis added]

If the Bush team was willing to move on shaky intelligence to launch airstrikes in heavily populated urban areas, causing significant civilian casualties, in order to take out senior Baathist leaders, why were they so reluctant to target Zarqawi in a sparsely populated area? The answer appears to be that the man who is supposedly "tough on terror" was so preoccupied with the impending invasion of Iraq that, in addition to drawing away valuable resources from the hunt against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and abroad, he let known terrorists remain at large for fear of undermining his case for war. That's not tough, that's distracted. I am more than confident that John Kerry would have listened to the military personnel in his Pentagon, if for no other reason than most presidents do. It is the the Bush administration that has shown a near unprecedented pattern of hostility and confrontation with the military leadership in the Pentagon. How, exactly, is that a position of strength?

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