Why did Bush spare Zarqawi?

Fred Kaplan backs NBC News: It looks as if Bush decided not to kill Abu Musab Zarqawi (whose forces just beheaded Nicholas Berg) when the chance presented itself in 2002, because it might have weakened the case for invading Iraq.

I had seen references to this before, and didn’t really believe it could be true. But Fred Kaplan, who knows his business, believes it.

Apparently, Bush had three opportunities, long before the war, to destroy a terrorist camp in northern Iraq run by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al-Qaida associate who recently cut off the head of Nicholas Berg. But the White House decided not to carry out the attack because, as the [NBC News] story puts it: “the administration feared [that] destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.”

The implications of this are more shocking, in their way, than the news from Abu Ghraib. Bush promoted the invasion of Iraq as a vital battle in the war on terrorism, a continuation of our response to 9/11. Here was a chance to wipe out a high-ranking terrorist. And Bush didn’t take advantage of it because doing so might also wipe out a rationale for invasion.

The story gets worse in its details. As far back as June 2002, U.S. intelligence reported that Zarqawi had set up a weapons lab at Kirma in northern Iraq that was capable of producing ricin and cyanide. The Pentagon drew up an attack plan involving cruise missiles and smart bombs. The White House turned it down. In October 2002, intelligence reported that Zarqawi was preparing to use his bio-weapons in Europe. The Pentagon drew up another attack plan. The White House again demurred. In January 2003, police in London arrested terrorist suspects connected to the camp. The Pentagon devised another attack plan. Again, the White House killed the plan, not Zarqawi.

When the war finally started in March, the camp was attacked early on. But by that time, Zarqawi and his followers had departed.

This camp was in the Kurdish enclave of Iraq. The U.S. military had been mounting airstrikes against various targets throughout Iraq—mainly air-defense sites—for the previous few years. It would not have been a major escalation to destroy this camp, especially after the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The Kurds, whose autonomy had been shielded by U.S. air power since the end of the 1991 war, wouldn’t have minded and could even have helped.

But the problem, from Bush’s perspective, was that this was the only tangible evidence of terrorists in Iraq. Colin Powell even showed the location of the camp on a map during his famous Feb. 5 briefing at the U.N. Security Council. The camp was in an area of Iraq that Saddam didn’t control. But never mind, it was something. To wipe it out ahead of time might lead some people—in Congress, the United Nations, and the American public—to conclude that Saddam’s links to terrorists were finished, that maybe the war wasn’t necessary. So Bush let it be.

In the two years since the Pentagon’s first attack plan, Zarqawi has been linked not just to Berg’s execution but, according to NBC, 700 other killings in Iraq. If Bush had carried out that attack back in June 2002, the killings might not have happened. More: The case for war (as the White House feared) might not have seemed so compelling. Indeed, the war itself might not have happened.

One ambiguity does remain. The NBC story reported that “the White House” declined to carry out the airstrikes. Who was “the White House”? If it wasn’t George W. Bush—if it was, say, Dick Cheney—then we crash into a very different conclusion: not that Bush was directly culpable, but that he was more out of touch than his most cynical critics have imagined. It’s a tossup which is more disturbing: a president who passes up the chance to kill a top-level enemy in the war on terrorism for the sake of pursuing a reckless diversion in Iraq—or a president who leaves a government’s most profound decision, the choice of war or peace, to his aides.

The charge that the President deliberately spared a major terrorist in order to maintain public support for war ought to be politically devastating, given that the one issue where Bush has a marked advantage over Kerry in the polls is as a leader in the war against terror. But this may well be a case where the truth is too appalling for most voters to believe.

Still, if I were running one of the 527 committees, I’d be looking at this very, very hard. Would Berg’s relatives go on TV with this?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “Why did Bush spare Zarqawi?”

  1. George W.: soft on terror? (Only when it suits)

    Mark Kleiman posts a story that ought to end any chance George Bush has of being re-election, if we are truly serious about fighting the war on terror rather than

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