Jewish World Review August 18, 2004 / 1 Elul 5764

Paul Greenberg

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More light, less heat: This debate grows tedious | When the vice president of the United States touched down here in Arkansas the other day, he went down his list of talking points with accustomed dispatch. Nobody ever accused Dick Cheney of being some kind of touchy-feely romantic. Which may be one of the more assuring things about him in these dangerous times. Say what you like about the guy, he's not cute. (Unlike, say, John Edwards.) The essence of his stump speech was, "Sometimes the other team is stuck in a pre-9/11 mentality."

Whereupon, the senior senator from Arkansas, Blanche Lincoln, rose to the defense of her party. In particular, she challenged the vice president's claim that one reason Saddam Hussein needed to be locked up (among others) was his regime's connection with the Al-Qaida network. Senator Lincoln was quick to say there really wasn't much of a connection between the two, and "if Vice President Cheney has all this proof he's been talking about, maybe he should share it with folks."

Nice jab, but the senator needn't go to Dick Cheney for documentation. She could just read the recently released report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which records a number of contacts between Al-Qaida and Saddam's Iraq.

In a revealing sidelight, the report quotes Richard C. Clarke - yes, the same former counter-terrorism chief who's been claiming that Osama bin Laden had no connection with Saddam's regime. Yet Mr. Clarke opposed a U-2 flight to track down Osama in Afghanistan because the Pakistanis would need to be apprised of it-and they, in turn, might let Osama know that the Americans were about to bomb him.

"Armed with that knowledge," Mr. Clarke warned, "old wily Usama will likely boogie to Baghdad." And once there, warned Richard Clarke, he would put his terrorist network at Saddam's service, and it would be "virtually impossible" to track him down.

It's all there on Page 134 of the commission's report. (Osama's actual meeting with one of Saddam Hussein's senior intelligence officers in late 1994 or early 1995 is mentioned earlier, on Page 61.)

If that's not enough to establish a Saddam-Osama connection, Senator Lincoln could take up the matter with Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission.

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When the usual suspects in the media (the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, et al.) tried to give the commission's report the same spin Senator Lincoln did, Mr. Hamilton noted that "there were contacts between Al-Qaida and Iraq going back clear to the early 1990s, when Osama bin Laden was in Sudan, then when he was in Afghanistan. I don't think there's any dispute about that."

If still doubtful, Senator Lincoln could just read the papers. Even the New York Times, not exactly a Republican organ, eventually caught on. ("Iraqis, Seeking Foes of Saudis, Contacted bin Laden, File Says"-New York Times, June 25, 2004.)

Senator Lincoln is an impressive lady-when she knows what she's talking about. On this subject, the senator is, yes, stuck in that pre-9/11 mentality the vice president mentioned. She's still not connecting the dots.

Exactly how strong or continuous was the connection between Saddam's regime and Osama's outfit? That question could be debated indefinitely without ever reaching a clear conclusion. But that's not to say the connection was weak or non-existent. How weak could it have been if Richard Clarke's first reaction to a scheme to hit Osama's camp from the air was that Al-Qaida's leader would probably "boogie to Baghdad"?

Osama bin Laden's pattern was to establish a close working relationship only with the rogue regime whose hospitality he was enjoying at the moment-whether the Sudan's or the Taliban's in Afghanistan. But as Richard Clarke instinctively recognized, that wouldn't have kept wily old Osama from moving to Iraq and linking up with Saddam Hussein's operation in a Baghdad minute.

This debate over the Saddam-Osama connection grows tedious. Americans are a forward-looking people, much more interested in where we go from here than in debating different views of the past. But this much is beyond dispute:

There no longer is a connection between these outlaws. And there's not likely to be one in the future. That's one thing the world needn't worry about just now. Osama is on the run and Saddam is no longer lobbing missiles at American jets on an almost daily basis.

Thanks to the Bush administration and, to give credit where it's really due, the armed forces of the United States and those of our allies, Saddam's realm now has been reduced to one jail cell.

Surely even the vice president's critics would agree that's an improvement.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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