WHEN CHIDED for a sharp or acerbic remark, Pat Moynihan used to invoke an old aphorism: "This animal is vicious; when he's attacked, he bites back." Moynihan would quote the French verse, which made the point seem more elegant (cet animal est très méchant; quand on l'attaque, il se défend). We quote it in English, so the Bush administration will not be deterred from acting on its wisdom.
In other words: Mr. President, fight back.
Last week, news from the prosecution of Scooter Libby put the debate over the justification for the Iraq war back on the front pages. The president, through Vice President Dick Cheney, apparently authorized Libby to share with reporters key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq--evidence that disproved accusations from Joseph Wilson and others that Bush had manipulated or distorted the judgments of the intelligence community.
There was nothing unlawful or improper about what Libby claims the president did. News reports, however, darkly implied that Bush had been caught doing something disreputable; Democrats accused the president of duplicity, hypocrisy, and possible illegality; and the White House went into its characteristic defensive crouch: "We're not commenting on an ongoing legal proceeding," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Nor, apparently, is the White House commenting on ongoing public proceedings--i.e., the new evidence gathered in Iraq of Saddam's terror connections. The Joint Forces Command in Norfolk has published a report called the "Iraqi Perspectives Project." In congressional testimony April 6, General Anthony Cucolo said the study drew upon "dozens of interviews with senior Iraqi military and regime leaders and thousands of official Iraqi documents."
Beginning in 1994, the Fedayeen Saddam opened its own paramilitary training camps for volunteers, graduating more than 7,200 "good men racing full with courage and enthusiasm" in the first year. Beginning in 1998, these camps began hosting "Arab volunteers from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, 'the Gulf,' and Syria." It is not clear from available evidence where all of these non-Iraqi volunteers who were "sacrificing for the cause" went to ply their newfound skills. Before the summer of 2002, most volunteers went home upon the completion of training. But these camps were humming with frenzied activity in the months immediately prior to the war. As late as January 2003, the volunteers participated in a special training event called the "Heroes Attack." This training event was designed in part to prepare regional Fedayeen Saddam commands to "obstruct the enemy from achieving his goal and to support keeping peace and stability in the province."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher asked Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Woods, the chief author of the study, if Saddam had been "getting out of the terrorism business." Woods, a retired Apache helicopter pilot and military historian, replied, "In the context of the documents--and it is possible that other documents show different things--the activity was increasing from 1995 on." Woods and his coauthors elaborate in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs:
The Saddam Fedayeen also took part in the regime's domestic terrorism operations and planned for attacks throughout Europe and the Middle East. In a document dated May 1999, Saddam's older son, Uday, ordered preparations for "special operations, assassinations, and bombings, for the centers and traitor symbols in London, Iran and the self-ruled areas [Kurdistan]." Preparations for "Blessed July," a regime-directed wave of "martyrdom" operations against targets in the West, were well under way at the time of the coalition invasion.
The Bush administration has argued that Iraq was and is a central front in the war on terror. Here is evidence that they were right. And yet no one from the administration has noted these findings--to say nothing of commenting on other documents from Saddam's regime that are being made public. Apparently, the administration believes there is little to be gained from "re-litigating" the case for war. But unless Bush's critics stand down, it is foolish to try to stand aloof from this debate. We are engaged in a difficult war. It matters a great deal to the country how the Iraq war relates to the broader war on terror--just as it matters whether President Bush was honest in making the case for the war. The administration's timidity in taking on its critics, openly and publicly, is self-defeating. It's awfully hard to win a political struggle without fighting.