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fighting words    A wartime lexicon.

The Literal Left

Have opponents of the war been vindicated? Not so fast.

By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003, at 4:23 PM ET

The truly annoying thing that I find when I am arguing with opponents of the regime-change policy in Iraq is their dogged literal-mindedness. “Your side said that coalition troops would be greeted with ‘sweets and flowers!’ ” Well, I have seen them with my own eyes being ecstatically welcomed in several places. “But were there actual sweets and flowers?” Then again, “You said there was an alliance between Bin Laden and Saddam, and now people think that Saddam was behind 9/11.” Well, the administration hasn’t said there was a 9/11 connection, but there are reams of verifiable contact between al-Qaida and Baghdad. Bin Laden supported Saddam, and his supporters still do, and where do you think this lovely friendship was going? “But there’s no direct link between Saddam and 9/11.” Finally, “You said that weapons of mass destruction would be found, and they haven’t been.” Well, what I said in my Slate/Plume book was that the programs were latent—which is why we wouldn’t face WMD in case of an invasion, as the peace movement kept saying we would—but that I had been believably told of stuff hidden in a mosque and that I had every reason to think that Saddam Hussein was trying to make up for what he’d lost or illegally destroyed by buying it off the shelf from North Korea. Incidentally, if the Iraqis destroyed the stocks they had once declared, they were in serious breach of the U.N. resolutions, which stipulated that they be handed over and accounted for. “But they said they’d find actual stuff.”

This is not just tiresome in itself. It convinces me that, if the Bush and Blair administrations had not raised the overdue subject of Saddam’s hellish regime, nobody else was going to. Aided by occasional political ineptitude in Washington and London, the opponents of the policy have done no better than act as if Iraq had nothing to do with them and maintain that things were all right as they were, or at any rate could only be made worse by an intervention. The idea that Iraq’s state and society were headed for confrontation and implosion anyway just doesn’t occur to such minds.

I think that this is why the David Kay report has received such a grudging audience for its important findings. I pause to note, just for my own sake, that the report contains a photograph of laboratory equipment stacked in a mosque. Much more salient is the story of Saddam’s dealings with Kim Jong-il, which was written up at length by David Sanger and Thom Shanker in the New York Times on Dec. 1.

You may remember the secret and disguised shipload of North Korean Scuds, intercepted on its way to Yemen by the Spanish navy just before war began last March. Now downloaded hard drives from Iraqi government computers, plus interviews with Iraq officials and scientists, have established that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy Rodong missiles from Pyongyang and was hoping to purchase the rights to the North Korean production line. The significance of this is obvious enough: The Rodong missile has a range much greater than that prohibited to Iraq by the U.N. resolutions. It also makes sense: North Korea is bankrupt and starving and exports only weapons and drugs while Saddam’s Iraq had plenty of spare off-the-record cash in American dollars. The intended transshipment point and the site of the negotiations, Syria in both instances, also indicates that Syria has long been at least a passive profiteer from the sanctions imposed on its neighbor.

Even more interesting is the fashion in which the deal broke down. Having paid some $10 million dollars to North Korea, the Iraqi side found that foot-dragging was going on—this is the discussion revealed on one of the hard drives—and sought a meeting about where the money might be refunded. North Korea’s explanation for its slipped deadline was that things were getting a little ticklish. In the month before the coalition intervened in Iraq, Saddam’s envoys came back empty-handed from a meeting in Damascus. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (just for once I can use this expression without toppling into cliché) to deduce that the presence of a large force all along Iraq’s borders might have had something to do with North Korea’s cold feet.

So the “drumbeat” scared off the deal-makers, and Saddam Hussein never did get Rodong missiles, which might have been able to hit targets far away from Iraq. Elsewhere in the Kay report, there is convincing evidence that Iraqi scientists were working on missiles, and missile fuels, with ranges longer than those permitted by the United Nations. So there is an explanation for why the completed and readied material was never “found” by inspectors before or after the invasion: It hadn’t been acquired quite yet. Which meant that Saddam could not confront the international community in the way that North Korea has lately been doing, by brandishing weapons that do in fact have deterrent power. As in previous cases—the parts of a nuclear centrifuge found in the yard of Iraqi scientist Mehdi Obeidi, for example—the man in charge of these covert weapons programs was Saddam’s son Qusai. I find I can live with the idea that Qusai never got to succeed his father as Kim Jong-il did. Imagine a North Korea, with attitude, on the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf—and with “deniable” but undeniable ties to al-Qaida. That was in our future if action had not been taken.

There were predictions made by the peaceniks, too, that haven’t come literally true, or true at all. There has been no refugee exodus, for example, of the kind they promised. No humanitarian meltdown, either. No mass civilian casualties. All of these things would of course come to pass, and right away, if the Iraqi “resistance” succeeded in sabotaging the coalition presence. But I refuse to believe that any antiwar person is so keen on vindication as to wish for anything like that.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. His most recent collection of essays is titled Love, Poverty, and War.
Photograph of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on the Slate home page from Reuters/Xinhua.

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