Entry from May 15, 2003

“War does not eradicate terrorism,” announced the headline of an article by Simon Jenkins in The Times of London — as if anyone had ever supposed that it did! Having with remarkable lack of foresight prophesied gloom and doom before the outbreak of the Iraq war and then again when it looked (for about 24 hours) as if the war might not go quite smoothly, Jenkins was only too ready to leap at the imagined opportunity afforded him by the Riyadh bombing to say, in effect, “See? I told you so. Though terrorism has been around for the whole of human history, and the particular sort of terrorism we see in the Middle East has been around for over half a century, your three-week war could not have been the triumph you supposed if it failed to eliminate it.”

Had he really taken so little trouble to understand the arguments of those who saw the war in Iraq as a reasonable — even if perhaps less than the best advisable — response to terrorism? The point never was, or could have been, to “eradicate” terrorism. It was rather to show its main perpetrators and, above all, their protectors and subsidizers in Arab and other Muslim countries, that terrorism was no longer to be the relatively cost-free exercise for them that it had become in the Clinton years.

Mr. Jenkins also joins other anti-warriors and/or anti-Americans in citing the paucity of discoverable “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq as evidence of duplicity or worse on the part of Blair or Bush. “I must have read a million words over the past year about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair believed this threat so awesome and so urgent that last month he sent the British Army to war. The casus belli was bogus and was all but abandoned within days of the “war” ending.”

Though he stops short of accusing the prime minister of lying, left wing American columnists such as Joe Conason and Paul Krugman have been less reticent in pronouncing such a judgment on the Bush administration. The weapons of mass destruction were, as they see it, nothing but a pretext for the war. So deeply has the habit of mistrust become ingrained in American political life that no one thinks anything of making such a sensational charge. Nor is there any evidence for it save for the fact that no such weapons have yet been discovered.

Surely the simpler as well as the more charitable and large-spirited explanation must be that both the President and Tony Blair really believed that there were such weapons when they made the decision to invade? The intelligence on which they were relying might have been faulty with no fault of their own. Moreover, we know that Saddam Hussein was stonewalling about the alleged weapons, and falsifying reports to the inspectors. Why should he have done this if he had nothing to hide?

As it happens, there may be an answer to this question. It lies, as I have argued elsewhere (see “Honor Among Thieves” among my Recent Articles), in the nature of the Arab honor-culture, about which the Egyptian scholar Mansour Khalid once said, “an Arab considers it an affront to his honour to suffer loss of face. This ‘tyranny of the face’ leads an Arab to do everything possible not to show his troubles to those close to him, let alone his enemies.” What if Saddam’s concern in being evasive about the weapons was not to hide them but to save face by refusing to acknowledge that he had bowed to the demands of his enemies by disembarrassing himself of them?

If this seems improbable, consider his curious behaviour in the course of his interview with Dan Rather just before the invasion that was to destroy his régime. Rather asked him about the al-Samoud missiles which he was forbidden to have. Saddam pointedly denied that he had any such missiles, or that, if he had them, he would destroy them. Yet he did have them and was already on the point of destroying them! How can we make sense of this reverse hypocrisy — pretending to be more bad and intransigent than he really was?

The answer is that, to Saddam Hussein, admitting that he (a) had the missiles and (b) was willing to destroy them would have made him look weak and craven on both points. And looking strong is all that the strict honour culture really cares about. He may well have cared enough about power, and life itself, to destroy the missiles but not enough to say that was going to destroy them.

In the course of that interview, Mr Hussein used the word “honor” seven times, most notably when he told Mr Rather: “We will die in this country, and we will maintain our honor.” Could we go one step further and guess that he did die — and high administration officials are privately saying “we think we got him” on the opening night of the war, partly because his armies behaved thereafter like those of an autocratic régime which has been suddenly and unexpectedly “decapitated” — and that no one would admit it as a matter of honor?

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