The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Thursday, June 08, 2006

We get Zarqawi. Now what?

The man who's always been known as the top al Qaeda operative in Iraq has been killed in a joint US-Iraqi operation. That's good. What isn't good is that it will usher in another exhausting round of unproductive anti-debate about the Iraq war. White House boosters will be back on the offensive, claiming that the three year war has now been entirely justified. At the same time, the rest of us will face a fresh wave of accusations that we hate America for trying to talk real foreign policy.

The White House has already turned the event into a traveling roadshow, with multi-media displays and a return of the president who gets that twinkle in his eye as he talks about justice, victory, and bring 'em on-ism. (If you heard his briefing on the successful operation, I'm sure you recognized the tone of voice.)

What you probably won't hear are acknowledgments that the White House passed on multiple oppotunities to capture or kill Zarqawi prior to invading Iraq. Few reports will point out that for some time the real problem with Iraq has been sectarian violence. Which means that this good news is a blow against al Qaeda, but doesn't change anything on the ground in Iraq.

NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself -- but never pulled the trigger.

In June 2002, U.S. officials say intelligence had revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaida had set up a weapons lab at Kirma, in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide.

The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council.

"Here we had targets, we had opportunities, we had a country willing to support casualties, or risk casualties after 9/11 and we still didn't do it," said Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst with the Brookings Institution.

So this isn't any vindication of the Iraq invasion, but that's what we'll be hearing for the forseeable future. And the administration will have one more excuse to pursue business as usual.

UPDATE: The New Republic has an even more pessimistic assessment.

At every stage during the occupation of Iraq, the United States and the ruling Iraqi faction have portrayed each large-scale bombing, murder of civilians, and politically deleterious act of violence as the work of Zarqawi. The U.S. military put together a propaganda campaign to inflate Zarqawi's importance within the Iraqi insurgency. (This was complemented by a campaign of ridicule after the military discovered an outtakes reel of Zarqawi's most recent videotape.) Similarly, after most sectarian massacres, Shia or Kurdish officials frequently mention how "Zarqawi's strategy" of instigating a civil war is bound to fail. In general, such campaigns have a clear logic: to portray the widespread phenomenon of sectarian violence in Iraq as attributable to one person. And Zarqawi fit the caricature perfectly: His missives called for the extermination of the Shia, the Kurds, and those Sunnis who collaborated with the United States--defined, in effect, as any Sunni insufficiently loyal to Zarqawi.