The Washington Post carries a retrospective analysis of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus that argues hindsight may not be 20-20 after all. They put it on page A15 this morning. The money quote:
In addition to his indisputably prominent role in the Iraqi insurgency, Zarqawi was always a useful source of propaganda for the administration.
That sentence captures the thrust of their argument. Yes, Zarqawi played a prominent role, but his real importance turned out to be his value as propaganda fodder, useful to the Bush Administration for justification of what the Post is continually bent on implying was the unnecessary invasion of Iraq.
Pincus and DeYoung make a strange claim that the Bush Administration played up or played down Zarqawi's importance according to public relations demands of the moment. By way of example they offer the widely publicized capture of Zarqawi's letter to the al Qaeda leadership in which he offers a pessimistic assessment of his situation in Iraq. In this telling of it, the letter's capture is not an intelligence victory, nor its contents proof that the war had turned our way, but instead, evidence of Administration efforts to downplay Zarqawi's influence.
But the administration also occasionally found it useful to play down Zarqawi's importance and influence. In early 2004, the then-governing Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad triumphantly displayed an intercepted letter from Zarqawi to the al-Qaeda leadership that it said illustrated the terrorist's despair in the face of an increasingly competent U.S.-trained Iraqi security force.
A stretch. While the Post acknowledges that Zarqawi did actually bolster the case for the invasion of Iraq, they would like to pass it all off as just so much propaganda. But it's propaganda that the Post is unable to refute. Notice what's missing from today's reporting:
After the U.S.-led multinational attack that overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Zarqawi appeared on a U.S. list of most-wanted al-Qaeda terrorists still at large in early 2002. Intelligence officials said that at some time during the summer of that year, Zarqawi spent two months in Baghdad, where he received medical treatment for an undisclosed problem with his leg.
By then, administration attention was locked on Iraq. In a speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002, Bush outlined the "grave threat" Hussein posed to the United States. Citing "high-level contacts" between Iraq and al-Qaeda "that go back a decade," he said that "some al-Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."
Bush never mentioned Zarqawi's name, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a speech to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, described him as the head of a "deadly terrorist network" tied to al-Qaeda and harbored by Hussein.
Where are the offsetting phrases like "now discredited claims" to suggest that maybe Hussein did not harbor terrorists? Where are the quotes from the usual collection of former officials or intelligence operators who would dispute that Zarqawi received medical treatment in Iraq? Where is the disclaimer that none of this proves a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda?
With the facts clearly on the side of the Administration, the Post counters by describing them as propaganda. Still, it surprises me. I wonder why.