Published on Friday, June 25, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Paradigm Lost: Iraq, 9/11, and the Protection of Belief
by Andrew Christie
In the good old days, whenever end-of-the-world cults gathered around their messianic leaders to await the predicted finale - say, a Tuesday in 1959 at 12:30 p.m. - and the end did not come at the appointed hour, they would praise the power of their prayers in staving off destruction, their guru would then reveal the revised date and time as divinely revealed unto him -- a safe decade or so hence -- and on they would go, their community of belief intact.
Nowadays, they are just as likely to drink poison so their souls will be free to join with the comet when it comes to escort them to their celestial paradise.
The various mechanisms devised by the human mind to protect its systems of belief -- the paradigms that frame the world one prefers to see -- have been in evidence throughout the run-up to the Iraq war and its aftermath, but never more so than in the whine of over-stressed turbines and screaming of stripped gears that greeted the 9/11 Commission's discrediting and dismissal of the crucial Iraq-Osama link. Painfully writhing conservative pundits are providing a wealth of case studies in paradigm protection, with William Safire serving as an exemplary specimen.
On September 24, 2001, Safire wrote "The clear link between the terrorist in hiding (Osama) and the terrorist in power (Saddam) can be found in Kurdistan, that northern portion of Iraq protected by U.S. and British aircraft. . Kurdish sources tell me (and anyone else who will listen) that the Iraqi dictator has armed and financed a fifth column of Al Qaeda mullahs and terrorists."
On January 29, 2003 -- shortly before it became painfully obvious that "anyone who would listen" was among those who were being told exactly what they wanted to hear -- Safire was still plugging away, pointing out that "last summer, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared publicly, 'There are Al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq.'" Safire scolded that this news was "met with a derisive 'no one's got proof" headline." Even more impudently, "the CIA resisted a proposal to send a covert force into Iraqi Kurdistan to destroy the secret chemical weapons lab."
One week later, on the day that Colin Powell hiked over to the UN with his artist's conceptions, a vial of powdered sugar, and his soon-to-be-vanished credibility and testified that Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdistan fifth column in question, was a "sinister nexus between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network," ABC News rained on both Powell and Safire's parade by asking the bemused leader of that "fifth column of Al Qaeda mullahs and terrorists" about that linkage. Sorry, no. No links. And no nexus. Not much of a connection to Osama -- a few of his fighters had trained in Al Qaeda camps -- and none whatsoever to Saddam, other than the fact that Saddam's secret police once tried to kill him, and Ansar al-Islam's aim was to "to bring down the Iraqi regime and replace it with an Islamic regime."
Safire's inevitable, furious take on the 9/11 Commission's interim report: "All wrong." The work of "runaway staff." It's only an interim report. "Set the record straight, in evidentiary detail, on every contact known between Iraq and terrorist groups." And he demanded to know why George Tenet, before the good soldier fell on his sword once too often, had delicately said the imaginary Prague meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi agent was "not proven or disproven." That means is could still be true, right?! Let's see all that evidence!
No evidentiary detail appears to be forthcoming from Safire on his Saddam-loving "fifth column of Al Qaeda mullahs and terrorists" in Kurdistan, or the chemical weapons factory there, or the pre-war stats on "Al Qaeda in a number of locations in Iraq."
In a now darkly hilarious Washington Post column by Jim Hoagland ("CIA's New Old Iraq File," October 20, 2002), the pundit lit into the CIA for spurning all the abundant evidence of the Saddam/Osama connection. "Imagine that Saddam Hussein has been offering terrorist training and other lethal support to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda for years. You can't imagine that? Sign up over there," sneered Hoagland, "you can be a Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency."
Yet a ray of hope beamed down for the uncooperative analysts. "As President Bush's determination to overthrow the Iraqi dictator has become evident to all," Hoagland enthused, "some analysts out at Langley are now willing to evaluate incriminating evidence against the Iraqis and call it just that." Bright young agents were "challenging the agency's long-standing and deeply flawed analysis of Iraq," held by "analysts who do not want, any more than the rest of us, to acknowledge that they have been profoundly and damagingly mistaken." Except for the occasional bright spot -- here Hoagland admiringly cites the mythical Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles that might pop over to New York at any minute and spray the populace with nerve gas or bubonic plague -- "it is no surprise that Bush has until now relied little on the Langley agency for his information on Iraq."
Hoagland's stern conclusion: "There is simply no way to reconcile what the CIA has said on the record and in leaks with the positions Bush has taken on Iraq."
True enough. Likewise, there was no way for 17th-century bishops to reconcile what could be seen through Galileo's telescope with Church doctrine. Reconciliation was achieved through the threatened torture, forced recanting and exile of Galileo, and a belief system was preserved. That Hoagland was not alone in seeking such reconciliation between what the CIA was finding and what the president wanted to be found became clear when CIA analysts started complaining to colleagues and Congressmen of official pressure to find more than there was to be had in the ephemeral "links" between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
In the Orwellian twilight where Safire, Hoagland et al are now forced to dwell, truth is lies, freedom is slavery, and any re-evaluation of their previous beliefs and tale-spinning is double-plus ungood. Safire notes approvingly the rapid back-pedaling and down-playing by the Commission chairmen of their staff report in the face of "Dick Cheney's outraged objection" -- just like those CIA analysts who had "become willing to evaluate incriminating evidence" due to Bush's "determination." As with the president-is-above-the-law torture advisories from the Justice and Defense Departments that have now been officially retracted as "over-broad," to be replaced with what we really meant to say, the truth is what is to be found after the authorities slap it down, pummel it about the head, rework it, and let us know when it's okay to look.
A single, innocent sentence from the September 27, 2002, edition of the New York Times (under the headline "Rumsfeld Says U.S. Has 'Bulletproof' Evidence of Iraq's Links to Al Qaeda") underlines the psychological desolation that awaits those who believed in the war and the urgent causes they were given for it; a single sentence now heavily freighted with unintended poignancy:
"The administration had set aside serious efforts to prove this link in favor of a strategy that focused on what it contends is the threat from Iraq posed by weapons of mass destruction."
The believers have watched as all the truths they were told and in which they were fully invested have cracked and crumbled. For the true believer, the pain is too great, and the implications -- what we have done, and why we really did it -- cannot be endured. They must either wait to have their leaders re-frame their reality for them yet again, or drink the Kool-Aid.
Andrew Christie (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an environmental activist in San Luis Obispo, CA