As it becomes increasingly clear that al-Qaida was responsible for the horrific attacks in Madrid, one question keeps popping up: If there's no link between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, why did al-Qaida blow up those trains?
Critics of the Iraq war have been saying for more than two years that there was never any al-Qaida-Saddam link. After all, they'd say, Saddam is secular and bin Laden is a religious fanatic. When Howard Dean was trotted out for last Sunday's "Meet the Press" to square off against Condoleezza Rice, the former Vermont governor rehashed the familiar complaint.
"It turned out that there was no relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida .even though the administration tried to lead us in an opposite direction," Dean asserted. "The administration simply did not tell the truth about Iraq. The debate is not about whether we should fight terrorism. I supported the war in Afghanistan. . But fighting Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism."
Now, I should help Dean here. He surely means Iraq had "nothing to do with terrorism" aimed at us by al-Qaida in recent years. After all, nobody disputes that Iraq has been a huge sponsor of terrorism.
A new study from the Hudson Institute details how Saddam provided money, support and shelter to a league of extraordinary terrorists. Abdul Rahman Yasin, the chemist for the first World Trade Center bombing, was given sanctuary in Baghdad after his U.S. indictment. Abu Nidal, the terrorist mastermind who killed hundreds including 10 Americans, lived in Baghdad from 1999 until he was murdered in 2002. Abu Abbas, the architect of the Achille Lauro hijacking that resulted in the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, was captured in Baghdad by U.S. forces.
The list goes on and on. Never mind the fact that Saddam funded suicide bombings in Israel, the gassing of Kurds, the attempted murder of George H.W. Bush and other acts that at least some of us consider "terrorism."
Regardless, let's interpret Dean as charitably as possible. If Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaida, why did al-Qaida feel the need to attack Spain, one of America's coalition partners? I mean why not blow up 200 people in Minsk? Or Bogata?
Supporters of the war say the reason al-Qaida is trying - and, alas, succeeding - to tear apart the coalition is that they cannot afford to see democracy win in Iraq. A stable and prospering Iraq will transform the Middle East, over time, into a region where the bloody fanaticism of bin Laden has no appeal.
The anti-war critics have an answer, too. They say al-Qaida is merely taking advantage of the moment. It's opportunistically using Iraq as a recruiting ground and the backlash against the war as a recruiting tool. Dean summed it up by saying, "We know al-Qaida is in Iraq now, even though they were not in Iraq before we went in."
Fine. I fail to see why both of these explanations cannot both be true. But in wars, at some point, speculation about motives needs to take a back seat to sober appraisal of fact. For example, there were plenty of plausible, interconnected reasons for Hitler's alliance with Japan. Hitler wanted to see the U.S. bogged down in the Pacific; he wanted to cut off the British from their colonies; he liked the way the Japanese cooked vegetables, whatever. Ultimately, who cares?
Right now - not last year or 10 years ago - the connection between al-Qaida and Iraq is obvious for anybody willing to see it. Al-Qaida benefits if Iraq descends into chaos; it benefits if the Western world bickers with itself and dickers with terrorists; it benefits if America is isolated. Conversely, al-Qaida suffers if Iraq prospers, if the West stands together, if America leads.
The tragedy is that many people and nations refuse to see it that way. They want to pretend that Iraq is America's problem and that it has nothing to do with the war on terrorism. The incoming Spanish prime minister - a man with a thoroughly anti-American record - has declared the war in Iraq a "disaster" and will pull all of Spain's troops out of Iraq.
Meanwhile, in a statement that is surely the Chamberlainesque "peace in our time" of our generation, European Commission President Romano Prodi declared: "It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists." Prodi's evidence is the increased terrorism since the Iraq war. By this logic, shooting bears is not the best way to kill them, since a wounded animal is the most dangerous kind.
The champions of "nuance" would have us believe the Spanish vote and Prodi's preference for taking a prone position toward terrorism are more sophisticated and complicated than they seem. Fine. Bully for them.
But again, who cares? Certainly not al-Qaida. They're too busy basking in their victory and planning their next attack on complicated Europe.