Monsters of the Moment

From Saddam to Osama, America Creates Its Own Nightmares

In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally, largely because he was at war with Iran, a U.S. enemy. Washington chose to see Hussein then as a potential force for good in the Middle East. Ronald Reagan thus took Iraq off the terrorism list. That made it possible for Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, to authorize American corporations to sell Hussein materials for his early chemical and biological weapons, such as the anthrax virus. Bush's son, George W. Bush, now says these weapons are among the prime reasons our armed forces must besiege and occupy Iraq.

Is it any wonder that so many Americans are confused about the second President Bush's call to war? Confusion, in fact, has become the dominant subtext of the campaign to convince Americans and the world of the war's necessity. Clarity and truth have been kept out of sight. It's a murky world, they whisper in the corridors of power, and sometimes we have to do business with dictators and madmen. But it wouldn't be wise to tell the people about it; that would only spread insomnia. Well, you didn't tell them and yet their anxiety is palpable. Let them eat duct tape, one patriot remarked.

We know that this man Hussein is an international outlaw, a certified bad guy, but wasn't he a bad guy back in the '80s, when President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad as special Middle East envoy to tell Hussein we would do our darnedest to make sure that his country did not fall to Iran? And that's the way it stood until Hussein overran Kuwait in late 1990 and the first President Bush went to war to drive him out of that autocratic oil kingdom, purportedly to preserve its so-called democracy.

Next came Osama bin Laden and his followers, who have sworn themselves to lay waste to the United States of America and other "infidel" societies in the name of an Islam that many Muslims find unrecognizable and abhorrent. For a while, America thought that bin Laden, with his global terrorist network, was the primary enemy.

Washington retaliated appropriately for the terrorists' murder of 3000 souls on 9-11 by attacking bin Laden's Al Qaeda training camps and hideouts in Afghanistan and sweeping aside the fundamentalist Taliban government that had given bin Laden sanctuary. The American assault sent these legions into the country's mountainous regionsand also across the border into remote areas of Pakistan, a longtime backer of the Taliban with its own large and powerful bloc of Islamic extremists.

In Afghanistan, too, there is troubling history for those trying to understand Bush's call to war against Iraq. Back in the 1980s, the Russian army had invaded Afghanistan, and a guerrilla army, with mujahideen recruits from all corners of the globe, was fighting the occupation. The United States took the side of the Islamic guerrilla army, with the CIA supplying money and weapons. In the end, the bloodied Russians pulled out, and the Taliban emerged from the resistance as a new forceas did bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement. Washington, still frozen in its Cold War mind-fix and willing to help almost anyone who opposed the Russians, wasn't paying attention to the long-term aims of these nascent groups.

Maybe all this is just the ebb and flow of historyor maybe, instead, it has something to do with partnering up with nations and groups we have nothing fundamental in common with. First we get behind somebody because they're hostile to somebody we're also at odds with, eventually lifting our "brave new allies" into power. Later, when it all turns sour, we pretend the marriage never happened and brand them as hoodlums. The real hobgoblin of our fears and conflicted thoughts these days is the awareness that too many of our monsters of the moment were created in our own laboratories.

Meanwhile, bin Laden and his top lieutenants managed to escape the U.S. bombing and ground assaults. That was a huge disappointment in Washington because Bush and his people had made such a big thing about their determination to capture or kill him. In Bush's religious-sounding pantheon of "evildoers," bin Laden was Evildoer Number One. But with this Attila-Stalin-Hitler figure having slipped away, the White House needed a more at-hand enemy to bring to account. And behold, there was Saddam Hussein, still standing despite his defeat in the 1991 Kuwait adventure and the subsequent economic embargoes and resolutions calling for elimination of all his WMDweapons of mass destruction. Thus did Saddam replace Osama as the first-in-line evildoer.

Even here, there was another dose of contradictory "facts." The president said there was nothing inconsistent about focusing on Saddam Hussein. He insisted that all the pieces were connected. There was evidence, he said, that Hussein was linked to bin Laden and the terrorist threat to American security. He provided no details. The Central Intelligence Agency, however, said that while some Al Qaeda types were taking refuge in Iraq's hinterlands, it could find no clear connection between the Iraqi dictator and September 11. No fresh evidence backing the White House position has surfaced since.

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