I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Letting Zarqawi go -- a pathological refusal to accept responsibility

by Glenn Greenwald

(updated below -- updated again with response from one of the Weekly Standard authors)

The most significant political success of the Bush administration over the last several months was the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which triggered a two-week deja vu tidal wave (and counting) of media adoration for the brave, heroic warrior-president hunting down the terrorists and (said with chest-puffing self-satisfaction) "bringing them to justice." As the dramatic media narrative goes, through the resolute perseverence of our Commander-in-Chief, we finally "got" the evil one. And it will not only single-handedly turn the war around, but is also going to save the Bush presidency as well.

The only problem with this moving storyline was that Zarqawi was able to spend the last three years terrorizing, exploding and beheading people only because the Bush administration indefensibly decided, back in 2002, that it would refrain from "bringing him to justice" when it indisputably had the chance to do so. It has been reported that the motive for the administration's decision to allow Zarqawi to remain free was that his presence in Iraq bolstered their pre-war claim of an Iraq-terrorist connection.

This rather grim and unflattering picture of the administration's conduct in letting Zarqawi remain free -- one which obviously ought to undercut, if not destroy, the recycled heroic Bush mythology -- has prompted Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Adam Whitehas, in yesterday's online Weekly Standard, to write this amazingly blame-shifting justification for the administration's refusal to get Zarqawi three years ago when they could have.

According to Gartenstein-Ross and Whitehas, the administration's timidity is all the fault of Senate Democrats, France and The New York Times, among others. It seems the administration knew that they would be criticized by this all-powerful confederation if they acted against Zarqawi, and therefore decided to accommodate the viewpoints of these political opponents rather than kill Zarqawi. The Weekly Standard assigns blame for the Commander-in-Chief's decision to let Zarqawi remain free as follows (the Truly Guilty Parties are highlighted, by me, in bold):

BUT TO SUGGEST that it was a no-brainer for the U.S. to attack northern Iraq in 2002 ignores a couple of key considerations. If the administration had struck Zarqawi then, it would have met a torrent of criticism for allegedly violating international law--criticism that could have interfered with its diplomatic efforts preceding the 2003 invasion. . . .

The lack of specific authorization for a NFZ [no-fly zone in Northern Iraq, where Zarqawi was located] resulted in critics on both the left (such as the New York Times editorial page) and the right (such as conservative national security law scholar Scott Silliman). . . . Thus, in 2002, as the Bush administration was attempting to amass support in Congress and the U.N. Security Council for an invasion of Iraq, broader rules of engagement in the NFZ would have undermined diplomatic efforts. Secretary General Kofi Annan made clear that America's claim to authority for the NFZs was not a popular position. . .

At a joint press Rumsfeld-Myers press conference in September 2002, reporters peppered the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with
challenges to the decision to enforce the NFZs so fiercely amidst the diplomatic process. To begin bombing installations that were not associated with Saddam's force projection in the region would have made the coalition's unpopular program even more problematic.

Previous expansions of the NFZ program had been met with fierce criticism. In 1996, when President Clinton expanded the southern NFZ, international allies (such as France) refused to cooperate with the new bombing operations. And that expansion targeted the machinery of the Hussein government; further expansion targeting Iraqi inhabitants whose connection to the government was a subject of dispute would have been more difficult to justify.

The summer before the Iraq invasion was one replete with Democrats calling for a slow debate of the Iraq issue. Rapid escalation of military operations under new rules of engagement would not have pleased those calling for restraint, including Senators Feinstein and Leahy, who introduced a resolution "expressing the sense of Congress that the United States should not use force against Iraq, outside of the existing Rules of Engagement, without specific statutory authorization or a declaration of war."

This reads like a fear-crazed 10-year-old child who got caught doing something very wrong and then desperately and frantically tries to blame someone else -- anyone else -- in order to avoid having to accept blame himself. To excuse the President's failures, they even cite criticisms made by international "legal scholars" in a 2002 Boston Globe Op-Ed claiming that the administration violated international law -- allegations that the Bush administration always took so very seriously. In one short article, The Weekly Standard literally blames everyone they can find -- Democrats, the U.N., France, The New York Times, everyone -- for the Bush administration's decision to purposely let Zarqawi live and continue to engage in terrorism. As always, with everything this administration does, it's everyone's fault other than the President who ordered it.

These excuses are so self-evidently frivolous that they are literally laughable. Of course, everyone knows that the Bush administration -- especially in 2002 with presidential approval ratings at 65% or more -- never did anything that Senate Democrats might not like. And nothing impeded the administration in doing what it wanted to do more than a critical editorial in The New York Times. And nothing upset them more than when "reporters peppered" Don Rumsfeld with questions about their actions.

And few things were more horrifying to the administration than "criticism for allegedly violating international law." And France's view of U.S. military action received the greatest weight. And in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, nothing was more important to the administration -- nothing -- than diplomatic efforts at resolving the problem, and they would not have done anything, including "bringing to justice" an international terrorist, if it meant that it might rub other countries the wrong way. As a result, as much as The President so desperately wanted to, these critical pro-terrorist voices simply prevented The President from getting Zarqawi.

What is going on here is as transparent as it is important. There is no political faction which played a greater role in leading this country to invade Iraq than the neoconservatives at The Weekly Standard and its 9/11-exploiting allies and affiliates, exemplified by the Gerard Group, of which Gartenstein-Ross is a "senior consultant." Along with the ideologues in the administration, these are the individuals responsible for leading the U.S. to invade Iraq. The failures and disasters it has spawned are their doing. And when all is said and done, it will be time to assign guilt and blame to those responsible, and The Weekly Standard and their neoconservative allies and supporters are petrified -- rightfully so -- that responsibility for this war will be pinned to their foreheads forever.

As I have documented before, these most vocal war supporters are pursuing the only course of option open to them (other than accepting responsibility for their grave errors and deceits, which is far too honorable and forthright to make it a real option for them). They are desperately searching around for others to blame. It is the media's fault. It is Democrats' fault. Or it's all the fault of France, Kofi Annan, international law scholars, and all of those other uber-powerful forces who undermined the United States and prevented our glorious war plans from succeeding. It's often even the fault of the timid and cowardly Generals who run our military. Even when our Commander-in-Chief expressly decided not to take action against Zarqawi when he could have, it's still everyone's fault except for his.

As I wrote back in February when the President's followers rolled out their campaign in earnest to blame the media and "liberals" for the failure of their war fantasies:

Virtually every prediction the President and his followers made about this war has proven to be false, while virtually every prediction made by war opponents has proven to be true. The President and his followers controlled every part of this war with an iron fist, ignoring anything which their political opponents said and insisting on the right to exert full-scale, undiluted control over it. And now it has failed. And it’s everyone’s fault except theirs.

The Weekly Standard obviously recognizes that the real story in the Zarqawi killing is not that the Bush administration heroically killed him in 2006 but that it could have, but chose not to, eliminate him in 2002. And it made that decision for the basest and most corrupt of reasons. It was hell-bent on invading Iraq no matter the circumstances, and it needed Zarqawi's presence in Iraq to help "prove" the extremely precarious if not non-existent connection between Iraq and international terrorism.

The Bush veneration in the media over the Zarqawi killing is akin to revering a prison warden who purposely allows a violent prisoner to escape (in order to, say, bring more public attention to the violence of prisoners), thereby enabling the prisoner to go on a three-year killing binge, and then finally re-captures him and puts him back in prison. One could plausibly argue that the killings are as much the fault of the warden for deliberately allowing the prisoner to escape as it is the prisoner himself. In all events, praising the warden for re-capturing the prisoner whom he purposely allowed to escape would be perverse, to put it mildly. And yet that is exactly what our media, led by war proponents, have been doing over the past two celebratory weeks.

As a result of all of this, we are again subjected to the war proponents' favorite tactic of blaming everyone else -- especially those who opposed the war from the beginning -- for the war's profound failures and the administration's corruption and unfathomable lack of judgment. The Left and France and the U.N. are powerless and weak and irrelevant -- except when things go wrong with the Administration's war and its decisions, and then it is all their doing. Regardless of what else is true, the failures of this war are never, ever the fault of those who planned the war, advocated it, executed it and managed it.

UPDATE: The pure falsity of the Weekly Standard's excuses is further illustrated by the fact that the U.S. repeatedly bombed targets inside Iraq throughout 2002 and 2003 prior to the invasion (h/t Andy):

THE American general who commanded allied air forces during the Iraq war appears to have admitted in a briefing to American and British officers that coalition aircraft waged a secret air war against Iraq from the middle of 2002, nine months before the invasion began.

Addressing a briefing on lessons learnt from the Iraq war Lieutenant-General Michael Moseley said that in 2002 and early 2003 allied aircraft flew 21,736 sorties, dropping more than 600 bombs on 391 “carefully selected targets” before the war officially started.

We were undertaking an intense air campaign inside Iraq for almost a full year prior to the invasion. What possible excuse is there for not having one of those bombs land on Zarqawi?

UPDATE II: One of the two co-authors of the Weekly Standard article, Adam White, courteously e-mailed me to let me know that he had posted a response to this post on his personal blog (see UPDATE II). In his response, White argues:

Attorney Glenn Greenwald also seems to miss the point of our article. (He doesn't miss an opportunity to call us "pathological," though.) He seems to think we're "blaming" people for the decision not to attack Zarqawi. Quite obviously that's not the case -- our point is that the Bush Administration's decision was justified. We'd never suggest that anyone be "blamed" for a justifiable decision.

Really, that response makes the Weekly Standard argument more, not less, indefensible. After all, we just spent the last two weeks being subjected to all sorts of melodramatic speeches about how the death of Zarqawi was a momentous blow for civilized humanity because is one of the most psychopathic, evil, murderous terrorists on the planet.

But courtesy of George Bush's decision, Zarqawi was able to spend the last three years alive and well, terrorizing the Iraqi population, murdering our troops, and uploading beheading videos onto the Internet. We could have put a stop to it but didn't, and White thinks that was the right decision all because France and Gail Collins would have objected had we killed Zarqawi? It was better to allow Zarqawi to engage in widespread terrorism than provoke some international objections? Is that really supposed to be a serious argument? Aside from being incredible on its face (who would possibly believe that the Bush administration thinks that way?), to defend the decision to allow Zarqawi to engage in terorrism against Americans and other innocent people all in order to avoid some criticism actually sounds morally monstrous.

And what makes this "let-Zarqawi-live" defense even more confounding is that it comes from the same people who insisted that we invade Iraq despite almost universal world anger over that invasion. So apparently, we should refrain from killing a homicidal, evil terrorist if other countries might object. But it's perfectly fine to start a war and invade another country, international opinion be damned. Does White really defend that as being a rational view, let alone a persuasive one?

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