Mark Danner


As the war in Iraq enters its second year, Americans find themselves trapped in an epistemological black hole: the war's end recedes into an indefinite future while its beginning grows daily more contentious and obscure.

As the war in Iraq enters its second year, Americans find themselves trapped in an epistemological black hole: the war’s end recedes into an indefinite future while its beginning grows daily more contentious and obscure. Before the war, the sight of United Nations arms inspectors emerging empty-handed from Iraqi arms depots suspected of harboring large stocks of biological and chemical weapons brought a typically oracular pronouncement from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “Absence of evidence,” he said, “is not evidence of absence.” The inspectors’ inability to turn up weapons of mass destruction cast doubt not on their existence but on the proposition that inspections — or anything short of an invasion and occupation of Iraq-could ever find them. War was imperative.

Then, on January 28th of this year, absence of evidence became, precisely, evidence of absence. That day, David Kay, who headed the Iraq Survey Group, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the arsenals President Bush had depicted as the heart of a “gathering threat” that compelled the country to go to war did not exist. Into the vacuum left by the missing weapons have swirled all the demons of political combat unleashed by what promises to be an extraordinarily bitter election campaign driven by powerful undercurrents of mistrust and fear. Americans go on dying in Iraq, and the war remains central to American politics, but the major reason that the Administration offered for fighting it has disappeared. Now Richard A. Clarke, the former chief of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, has come forward to argue that the Iraq war, far from being “the central front in the war on terror,” as the President contends, is, rather, a diversion from it. Last week, Clarke told the commission investigating the attacks of September 11, 2001, “By invading Iraq, the President of the United States has greatly undermined the war on terrorism.” Clarke, who was a registered Republican in the last election, has held senior national-security positions in four Administrations and probably knows more about counterterrorism policy than any other government official, has described how President Bush, the day after the attacks, ordered him, “in a very intimidating way,” to “see if Saddam did this, see if he’s linked in any way.” In Clarke’s telling, from the first hours after the attacks the President and other Administration officials pressed strongly for a connection to Iraq. “I think they wanted to believe there was a connection, but the C.I.A. was sitting there, the F.B.I. was sitting there, and I was sitting there saying, ‘We’ve looked at this issue for years. For years we’ve looked for a connection, and there’s just no connection,”‘ Clarke said. His version of events strongly supports other eyewitness accounts, including that of former Treasury Secretary Paul ONeill, that the Administration’s determination to invade Iraq long predated September 11th — implying that the reasons for the war were arrived at after the fact.

Last May, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz explained in an interview with a reporter from Vanity Fair that, in deciding how to persuade Americans to go to war, “we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.”As we now know, Administration officials took the widely held assumption that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons and, using dubious evidence, twisted it into a claim that Iraq would soon have nuclear weapons, making the threat, in Dean Acheson’s Cold War phrase, “clearer than truth.” Until, that is, as Hans Blix put it, the occupation revealed that “the U.N. and the world had succeeded in disarming Iraq without knowing it.”

For the Administration’s credibility, both at home and abroad, the result has been catastrophic. President Bush, finding himself on the defensive, fell back first on what Wolfowitz had termed the “criminal treatment of the Iraqi people” argument. Bush asked audiences, “Who would prefer that Saddams torture chambers still be open? Who would wish that more mass graves were still being filled?” His answer, unspoken but plain, seems to be: Anyone who questions the wisdom of the war. Yet Wolfowitz himself contended last May that in Iraq the “criminal treatment” argument is “not a reason to put American kids’ lives at risk.” In the past few weeks, since Senator Kerry has emerged as the Democratic nominee, the President has begun resorting to more extreme rhetoric, implying that a vote for Kerry would be a vote for the terrorists. Kerry, in turn, can be expected to assert that the President left the country vulnerable to attack by doing little to combat terror before September 11th and, since then, by insisting on fighting, in Clarke’s words, “an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq.” The “evidence of absence” of the weapons of mass destruction has thus put the war, and its tenuous connection to terrorism — the issue on which, as Wolfowitz said in May “there is the most disagreement” within the goverriment — at the heart of the election campaign. It is not surprising that Clarke, by ridiculing that connection and by stating bluntly that the war made Americans less safe, drew from the highest Administration officials the ugliest personal attacks yet seen in the campaign.

America has endured fierce electoral struggles over war and peace before, most recently over Vietnam in 1968. This “war on terror” campaign, however, in its focus on the critical question of “Who can make us safer?,” may come to more closely resemble the Red-baiting campaigns of the fifties or the elections after the Civil War in which rivals “waved the bloody shirt.” But this campaign includes a shadow player the others lacked. For nearly a decade, Al Qaeda has attempted not to defeat the United States militarily but to gain adherents by building its image among Muslims as the only effective counter to America and to the moderate regimes that American power sustains. To this political program the Bush Administration sought to offer what it thought of as a political response: to “transform the Middle East,” by way of war in Iraq. So far, the occupation has done much to diminish American prestige among the moderate Muslims it was meant to persuade — and has helped increase the prestige of those who make the claim, while they go on killing the occupiers, that they are the only effective opposition to American power.

In the United States, the debate over Iraq has encouraged a kind of corrosive, brutal politics that has at its center an appeal to personal fear. That leaves a powerful weapon in the hands of the terrorists, who gained enormously after the attacks in Madrid by appearing to swing Spain’s election against a major ally of President Bush. No one can say what effect a terrorist attack would have on the American election. But the tone and the terms of the evolving struggle for political dominance here present the possibility that such an attack could similarly strengthen those whom both candidates have pledged to destroy.