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Jewish World Review Sept. 19, 2002 /13 Tishrei 5763

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Joe Biden was Right |
Like most great writers, I dislike the act of writing, but nothing I've ever written has cost me such pain as the four words that serve as my title.

But I have to say it. L'honneur oblige. Senator Joe Biden was profoundly right about Scott Ritter during Ritter's September, 1998 testimony to the Senate's Foreign Relations and Armed Services subcommittees - and Biden's outburst at Ritter provides the best clue to the depths of the Ritterian character.

At the time, I found what Senator Biden said outrageous. Here was a brave man who had been there in Iraq, his hands dirty and his patience exhausted by years of dealing with Iraq's flagrant deceptions and brazen flouting of the UN arms inspection regime. He warned our Senators in blunt, truthful language that "Iraq has not been disarmed."

At the newspaper section I edited at the time, we were so impressed by Ritter's bravery and honor that we gave him an award and a dinner at Elaine's - than which there is no greater tribute - and were proud to do so and to shake his hand.

After all (as Stephen Hayes wrote in the Weekly Standard last November) Ritter demonstrated how the Clinton administration "had deliberately thwarted the U.N. inspections for fear of a confrontation with Iraq. He ripped the administration for its refusal to back up the inspections process with a legitimate use of force, including, but not limited to, removing Saddam Hussein's regime.

Senator Biden, in his haste to defend the Clinton administration's inaction in the face of a gathering danger even then, scolded Ritter in the most insulting and demeaning terms. Addressing him as "Scotty-boy," he mocked Ritter's criticism of administration officials. These men, Biden told Ritter, "have responsibilities above your pay grade-[sneeringly] slightly above your pay grade--to decide whether or not to take the nation to war alone or to take the nation to war part-way, or to take the nation to war half-way. That's a real tough decision. That's why they get paid the big bucks. That's why they get the limos and you don't."

How dare he, I thought then. Biden was trying to protect his political party from danger (just 6 weeks before the 1998 mid-term elections. Ritter was trying to protect the world and its people from the threats of a heavily armed, bitter and monstrous dictator, whose arms cache Ritter outlined very clearly to The New Republic in December 1998:

Even today, Iraq is not nearly disarmed. . . . Based on highly credible intelligence, UNSCOM suspects that Iraq still has biological agents like anthrax, botulinum toxin, and clostridium perfringens in sufficient quantity to fill several dozen bombs and ballistic missile warheads, as well as the means to continue manufacturing these deadly agents. Iraq probably retains several tons of the highly toxic VX substance, as well as sarin nerve gas and mustard gas. This agent is stored in artillery shells, bombs, and ballistic missile warheads. And Iraq retains significant dual-use industrial infrastructure that can be used to rapidly reconstitute large-scale chemical weapons production."

Hayes does a brilliant job of chronicling Ritter's deceptions, denials, self-contradictions and u-turns since 1998. But, unfortunately, what Biden so cruelly said in 1998 has turned out to be the best explanation that anyone has offered of Ritter's turn from accuser to apologist, from brave purveyor of uncomfortable truths to the powerful, to creepy supplier of emollient bull to the credulous and wishful.

I don't think that Ritter has been outright bought, or has lost his mind - even though Stephen Hayes has traced significant payments to Ritter from sinister figures, which he details in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. I do think that Biden turned out to offer the right diagnosis - that what changed Ritter was his own vanity and aspirations to be taken as more than a government functionary - even though many of us regarded him at the time as one of the more noble figures to emerge in the vat of corruption and dishonesty that was the Clinton administration.

One can trace this turn rather exactly. In 1999, Ritter published his book about the Iraq experience, Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem Once and for All. The key comes in Ritter's response to a generally favorable review in Commentary by Bret Stephens, now of the Jerusalem Post. Stephens had praised most of the book - most of all two of its three sections, which deal with Ritter's experience as a UNSCOM inspector, and Ritter's "tersely written and thoroughly frightening appendix listing Iraq's current weapons of mass destruction" - weapons which Ritter now describes as non-existent or not a problem.

Stephens did criticize the third section, which detailed Ritter's policy ideas, on the basis that its conclusions did not follow from a reasoned examination of his own evidence, but to a large extent contradicted it. In Stephens' words, "though he tells a riveting story, and paints throughout a grim picture of the Iraqi menace, the prescriptions Ritter draws from his observations and experiences are disappointing and ultimately unconvincing. - better off cutting a deal." A calm enough criticism - and devastating. As Stephens wrote, "Mr. Ritter's 'deal' would enable Saddam to rebuild Iraq's once-fearsome military machine, rehabilitate him as a legitimate actor in the region, betray Arab allies of ours who have steadfastly opposed him, and send a signal of weakness to other would-be regional hegemons around the world."

But Ritter was furious - but not furious enough to bother to refute Stephens' analysis of his position. In a long letter to the editor which fails to engage any of Stephen's criticisms, Ritter concludes by deciding that Stephens was attacking Ritter personally: "Mr. Stephens has seen fit to denigrate my abilities as a formulator of policy without any appreciation of the depth of knowledge and understanding of these issues I bring to the table. However, rather than attacking the messenger, Mr. Stephens and others should spend more time evaluating the message."

And here is the key - Scott Ritter felt unappreciated. He believed himself to be the victim of intellectual and perhaps social snobbery. From this sense stems the increasingly bizarre defenses of Saddam and denial of what he said so clearly in 1998 and 1999. Like most of the very few people who truly suffer from a "lack of self-esteem," he in fact has a sense of self-esteem that rushes the heavens - and is completely at odds with reality. When I taught college, I would occasionally come across a student who was mediocre, but who could not be moved by criticism or demonstrations of how he or she could do better. When I encountered them, I used to think of Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost, who fell away from Heaven not because of corruption, not because of a lust for power, not because of envy - but out of a sense of "injured merit."

Senator Biden, alas, diagnosed what ails Ritter accurately. Ritter must always have felt that other men, no better than he, had "responsibilities above his pay grade-sneeringly slightly above your pay grade--to decide whether or not to take the nation to war alone or to take the nation to war part-way, or to take the nation to war half-way. That's a real tough decision. That's why they get paid the big bucks. That's why they get the limos and you don't."

What Biden said was vulgar, self-interested, too-obviously calculated, callous about the sufferings of millions of Iraqis, ignoring the danger into which the world has been cast - but accurate. The noble Scott Ritter of 1998 has turned into Senator Biden's "Scotty-boy" after all.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is a New York writer whose work appears in New York Press, the Spectator (London), and elsewhere, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University.You may contact him by clicking here.


© 2000 by Sam Schulman