Magazine article The New Yorker

CAMPAIGNS; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

CAMPAIGNS; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

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 counter-terrorism 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 counter-terrorism 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 O'Neill, 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. …

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