Thursday, July 8, 2004

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Rational discourse 1, conspiracy-mongering 0

What happens when a sober policy analyst who lives on the planet Earth tries to debate a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist?

Slate has the answer. For the past week, Rachel Bronson (a senior fellow and director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Craig Unger (author of House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties and featured player in Fahrenheit 9/11) have been debating the U.S.-Saudi relationship in a Slate Dialogue. The specific question: "How Does the Saudi Relationship With the Bush Family Affect U.S. Foreign Policy?"

Although I doubt this was her intent, Bronson pretty much wipes the floor with Unger. While critical of the Bush administration, her comments, when paired next to Unger, makes the latter's theory and evidence collapse like a house of cards. It also clarifies the important distinction between conducting a serious critique of the administration's Middle East policy (particularly pre-9/11) and throwing as much mud as possible at the administration and hoping some of it will stick.

Go read the entire exchange here, here, and here -- excerpting it doesn't do the dialogue justice. I can, however, capture the tone of their exchange:

UNGER: A growing number of people are convinced that 2 + 2 = 5

BRONSON: No, 2 + 2 = 4

UNGER: Yes, but isn't it convenient that this so-called "4" happens to be so close to the number 5? Isn't is essentially true that 2 + 2 is within shouting distance of 5?

BRONSON: No, five is the number after four.

UNGER: Consider the words "four" and "five". They have the same number of letters, and both start with the letter "f". That can't be a coincidence.

BRONSON: I'm not sure I can understand your logic here.

UNGER: You can't understand or you refuse to understand?

[Full disclosure: I know Rachel and thought she was whip smart long before reading her clinical dissection of Unger's half-baked innuendo. I referenced her previous work in this post and in this TCS essay.]

UPDATE: Greg Djerejian concurs in my assessment.

posted by Dan on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM


It is a monster-sized smackdown.

Unger spends most of his space writing about things of which we haven't seen proof (negative evidence, like the fact that we don't have definitive proof that the Sept. 13th meeting between Bush and Bandar was harsh... and that such a lack of proof is "nefarious"), and Bronson responds with (mostly) facts. It hit a low-point with Unger's link to a photo, and his reading of "body language," as if that's relevant at all.

Bush has been (and continues to be) wrong about a great many things... but Unger's not a good one to make that argument.

posted by: arthegall on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

After working a million years in emergency mental health, let me assure you that there is no arguing with a conspiracy believer -- whether it's a patient or a provider. There seems to be some enormous attraction to the idea of conspiracy per se; a desire to see oneself as one of the wise who have "seen through all that." Conspiracy beliefs are held MORE firmly than ordinary opinions.

As to all the Bush conspiracy arguments -- there seems to be the convenient belief that there were good choices with little downside after 9/11. Apparently picking the best among bad choices is seen as endorsing the risks.

posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Dan, most supporters of the movie don't approve of Unger's theories anyway. At least thats the impression from Juan Cole, Krugman, Atrios, etc.. I'm not sure why this is interesting anymore.

However, if only this much attenetion to detail was paid to case for War before it started. Imagine where we would be today! It's good to know that a Moore film receives more scrutiny from the right than other things.

On a tangentially related note, it looks like Saddam gassing his own people, was accidentily incorrect.

Not that Saddam's a good guy, he's done a buhc of other terrible things. But its fitting that the one thing the administration chose to focus on the most, winds up being wrong, and known wrong for quite a while now.

posted by: Jor on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Frankly the entire exchange between the two invoked and image of what a debate between Rainman and Forrest Gump would be like.

Unger: The Saudis, ya, time for the Saudis. Uh-oh, ten minutes till the Saudis.

Bronson: Mama always said life was like a box of minutiae to formulate an opinion of why the Saudis are bad.

posted by: Robert McClelland on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

I stopped reading it several days ago, but the RSS just kept it coming.

God, what a beatdown. Unger is so weak.

posted by: praktike on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

I am glad someone else noticed. I also am thankful for Slate running the piece - I had been tempted to at least flip through Unger's book to see what the fuss was about.

A couple of other thoughts:

* Unger does a pretty good job of pointing out some rhetorical tics and devices that lose debates ("Again, . . . ," "I am well aware . . . ," "as I said in my book").

* I can't believe Slate invited Unger into one of its debates. He really is embarassing.

* I am saddened by what I see as a decline in Slate under its new masthead. Its pieces seem more screechy (as opposed to the old snarky) and much less thoughtful. I find about half of their regular features completely unreadable (not just the much-lampooned Bushisms and even-worse Kerryisms, but also bits like the never-give-up-the-ship "Kurd Sellout Watch").

posted by: bonden on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

God, what a beatdown.

How do you figure that was a beatdown. Granted Unger is a nutjob, but so is the other person. I mean, just examine this bit of stupidity from Bronson.

After all, Saudi Arabia is a country that doesn't let women drive, uses the Quran as its constitution, and beheads people. There's not a lot to keep us working together. Oil interests alone will not keep this relationship glued together.

This comes from the mind of a certified idiot. But I'll deconstruct it one bit at a time.

Saudi Arabia is a country that doesn't let women drive

Oh the humanity. Now see, this was written by someone who has declared their society to reign supreme and has simply set the bar for how other societies should now behave too high. It wasn't that long ago that America was forcing its Negros to the back of the bus, so to now condemn Saudi Arabia for not keeping pace with America's human rights achievements is ludicrous. Only elitist snobs behave in this manner.

uses the Quran as its constitution

And what of it. Americans devotion to the US constitution borders on religious faith itself. This is simply not a reason to hold contempt for that society.

and beheads people.

Is that worse than being given a lethel injection or 250,000 volts in Texas. Frankly, beheading is a rather efficient and humane way to be executed. Now hanging, that is a barbaric way to go about it.

There's not a lot to keep us working together.

There never was except for America wants their oil and they want America's money.

Oil interests alone will not keep this relationship glued together.

Why? Has America's thirst for oil been sated? Has their oil run out? The relationship has held together soley on that reason for years so unless Saudi Arabia or America is upsetting the applecart, there's no reason for it not to hold together.

I don't know what you're seeing in Bronson's writing, but the deconstructed example above is how I viewed it. So perhaps you could enlighten me as to why this can be considered a beatdown.

posted by: Robert McClelland on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

On a tangentially related note, it looks like Saddam gassing his own people, was accidentily incorrect.

Jor, I would advise against treating IPS as an objective news source. Let's take the primary claim:

Pelletiere write that these facts have "long been in the public domain but, extraordinarily, as often as the Halabja affair is cited, they are rarely mentioned."

Yes, Pelletiere's theory has long been in the public domain. It was discussed vigorously before the war. The trouble is, nobody believes him. Everyone is well aware that after Saddam gassed the Kurds, elements of the CIA (Pelletiere!) tried to blame it on the Iranians, in order to protect our relationship with our ally, Saddam.

Of course he's sticking with that story.

Timothy Noah in Slate has lots of links, and points out that Pelletiere's own book merely (and falsely) claims that Halabja was gassed by both Iran and Iraq.

Spencer Ackerman in the New Republic (you need a subscription)

Human Rights Watch

Physicians for Human Rights

Seriously, give us all a break, Jor.

posted by: MattJ on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

..bear with me here but haven`t the horses already left the barn.I know its pc lately to finger point and what conclusion..we can keep on this perceptual merry-go-round or stop this childish behavior and solve the situation at hand..the simple fact there are people trying to kill spin; no party fluff, just a simple fact..Most of this bs sounds like a bad Art Belle someone is going to have proof the "Bush" family is actually the "GREY`S" after plastic surgery.

posted by: Rob..NC on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

So the logic goes...

Michael Moore is against Bush.

Michael Moore is wrong about a bunch of stuff.

Therefore, Bush is good.

Seems like there are some big gaps in the reasoning. Even if you don't agree with what Moore has to say, you can still believe that America will be harmed by Bush running the show for the next four years (or four months for that matter).

posted by: Rich on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]


Problem is, most of the folks who believe that about Bush are citing Moore for evidence...

posted by: Cybrludite on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

“Uses the Quran as its constitution

And what of it. Americans devotion to the US constitution borders on religious faith itself. This is simply not a reason to hold contempt for that society.”

---Robert McClelland

“Readers are welcomed to try and sway my vote in either direction.”

---Dan Drezner

I definitely consider a society based on the Quran inferior to our own. It is doomed to be reactionary, poverty stricken, and likely to produce frustrated young people enraged and embittered by their lack of opportunities. Moreover, we should not hesitate to try and discourage the continuation of such a backward way of looking at life. This might be especially true if you are a woman.

This is perhaps the number one reason why John Kerry must not become president. Far too many individuals within the Democrat Party, are multiculturalists. It will be difficult to marginalize them if Kerry wins---even if he has the desire to do so---which is quite doubtful. One cannot even begin to fight terrorism effectively unless they believe in the superiority of Western values.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]


Which culture was right wasn't the point of what Bronson wrote. Whether or not the Saudi's should treat women equally or use lethal injection, these are enormous differences between our societies. Bronson was right to point them out.

Perhaps we should be pleased that we are able to discern that some conditions are inherently unjust. Was forcing blacks to ride in the back of the bus excusable because American's were not enlightened enough then to realize how unjust it was?

posted by: Thomas Harris on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

DT, have you read the quran? I don't think black people are considered 3/5 of a person. ignorance always warms my heart.

MattJ, I wasn't aware that the claim was disputed before, thanks for the links. However -- I'm not sure I'm completely sold, given that generally, dissenting voices at the CIA have apparently been more right than not on Iraq. Although, I will file it in my dubious bin.

posted by: Jor on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

“DT, have you read the quran? I don't think black people are considered 3/5 of a person. ignorance always warms my heart.”

Militant Muslims usually have complete contempt for black skinned people. Very recently Islamic fascists raped some black African women so that they might give birth to lighter skinned babies. Osama bin Ladin has been cited repeatedly for his racism. Please note the utter indifference to African Muslim lives when Al Quaeda bombed the two American embassies. But what the hell does your point have to do with the values of Western Civilization? There also is no such thing as a monolithic interpretation of the Koran (or quran, whatever floats your boat). Logically, we must take a serious look at how particular people interpret such religious documents. The Quaker, for instance, often reaches the exact opposite conclusion than the Catholic---but both claim loyalty to the Christian bible.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

" It hit a low-point with Unger's link to a photo, and his reading of "body language," as if that's relevant at all."

That was pretty bad, but I think it hit the low point right off when Unger said "After months on the talk show circuit, it's a rare pleasure to encounter someone who is not from the Jerry Springer school of politics. That said, I will try to stick to the facts."

"Try?" Don't strain yourself on our account!

Despite his backhanded, patronizing "compliment" to Bronson, Unger most certainly belongs back on the talk show circuit, where he can argue on his own level with folks like Hannity and O'Reilly.

I can't agree that Bronson really mops the floor with Unger, because the debate is conducted at two totally different and irreconcilable levels- it's as if Slate arranged a Nintendo kung fu match between a grownup black belt and a sedentary eleven-year-old.

posted by: Matt on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

I’m going get to off this topic for a moment and encourage everyone to visit Matt’s blog. He refers to “The Little Red Book,” a manual published by the Metropolitan Casualty Insurance, Co. in 1911, and it is truly fascinating. It lists the occupations commonly found during that era. Needless to add, many of them have today totally disappeared. We occasionally must be reminded that a healthy and growing economy will both create---and destroy jobs.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Robert McClelland,

Your arguments are nothing but non sequitours: (1) the fact that someone points out bad things in other countries doesn't mean that she thinks our should reign supreme. Does that mean we should never have criticized South Africa since we once had segregation? The fact is that TODAY Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive. That says something about Saudi Arabia TODAY regardless of whatever happened in the United States at one time. It doesn't mean we think the US is perfect. But I'm willing to say that, yes, I think a country that allows women's rights is better than a country that doesn't.

(2) the Quran is a religious document, the constitution is not. Saying that we treat the constitution as a religion is ridiculous. If that was true, we would never change it. In fact, the constitution provides its own mechanisms for changing it. And people criticize the constitution all the time. If the Saudis want to live by the Quran, that's their business, but don't tell me it's all the same.

(3) beheads people. Granted there is not much difference in how you die. Except in Texas there is some semblance of legal process. I know you are going to say its discriminatory, blah, blay but compare that to Saudi Arabia.

posted by: MWS on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]


Actually, the Constitution didn't consider blacks 3/5 of a person either.

The Constitutional Convention expected the federal government to have two tax sources: tariffs on imported goods, and direct taxes which would be imposed on states in proportion to their population. States with a lot of slaves did not want the slaves counted for purposes of levying taxes. However, they wanted the slaves to be counted in full when it came time to determine how many representatives in Congress a state would have.

Conversely, states with few slaves did not want slaves to be counted for purposes of representation (after all, they didn't vote) but did want them counted for purposes of paying taxes.

Finally, a compromise was worked out in which slaves would be counted 3/5 in both cases. It had nothing to do with moral worth. It was a purely political compromise.

posted by: Roger Sweeny on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]


I am coming in a little late. But I would like to comment about this.

"DT, have you read the Koran? I don't think black people are considered 3/5 of a person. Ignorance always warms my heart."

The Muslim slave trade, the Muslims where the actually the ones who when and got the slaves back in the day. That is all I know though, because I have not read they books I bought about Islamic history.

Additionally, the Koran has not changed any in the last 1000 years, though maybe the way it is interpreted has.

posted by: cubicle on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Robert, if you can't condemn Saudi Arabia, possibly the worst government on Earth, you can't condemn anything.

Really, now.

posted by: praktike on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

"Problem is, most of the folks who believe that about Bush are citing Moore for evidence..."

Not true. Some are, for sure, but most people who are against Bush have been so for far longer than Michael Moore's film has been out.

I have not seen the film, and I am quite convinced that George Bush is undermining the long-term strength of America.

On the question of the relative merits of different societies. I am totally sure that I would rather live in America than Saudi Arabia. I would also like to see parts of Saudi society become a lot more like America.

I think that George Bush's attitude towards the world, the policies he is advocated, his attention to diplomacy, his long-term relationship with the Saudis, and his lack of committment to making the world economy less dependent on Mid-East Petroleum are all contributing to making John Kerry a better President for seeing my vision a reality.

posted by: Rich on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

When it comes to politics, things rarely enjoy the clarity of 2+2=4, and this is just another example.

Let me focus on one simple point: should the bin Laden family have been allowed to fly out of the country immediately after 9/11?

Well, Bronson argues that we have no reason to believe it was not OK, because

1. The FBI cleared the list of people allowed to leave, and indeed interrogated a number of them before doing so
2. Richard Clarke, a frequent critic of the Bushes, approved the flights

But is it so simple? Can we really believe that it was appropriate for the FBI to "clear" these family members on the basis of obviously hurried interviews, in which very little time for any preparation, and followup investigation could possibly be had? Given that the Justice Dept has held others in captivity almost indefinitely when the evidence of connection to members of al Qaeda is far shakier, how can anyone really excuse the special treatment accorded the bin Laden family? And how can we possibly know that the FBI did NOT excuse the bin Ladens because of pressure from the administration? Do we really believe that, absent a clear call to allow them to leave, that the FBI would have said, sure, we never need to talk to these people again?

And what does it mean that Richard Clarke approved the flights? Are we to believe that he cannot make mistakes in his own assessment of the bin Laden family and other Saudis, and may not be subject to some of the same prejudices as other members of the administration? How can he possibly know what kind of useful material the FBI might have been able to extract from these Saudis, if they were given ample time and free rein to operate? Obviously, Richard Clarke made a very rushed decision. Isn't it pretty obvious that now he may be only defending a decision that may in fact have been overly hasty?

Now the overarching point I'm making here is that the fact that there is no DEMONSTRABLE connection between the decision to allow the bin Laden family to leave the country and the biases of the Bush administration does NOT mean that we should act as if the treatment they received was not seriously problematic. In politics, even the appearance of certain kinds of wrongdoing is regarded as a serious business, and for very good reason. In politics, unlike number theory, being within shouting distance of something is often plenty bad enough, precisely because politics will always lack the clarity of mathematics and numbers.

Yes, there is no PROOF that the bin Ladens possessed special information that might have helped in the investigation of 9/11. Yet the special treatment they received, particularly in contrast to the incarceration thousands of Muslims in the US have endured, is reason unto itself to see their handling by the Bush administration as inexcusable, and worthy of exposure.

posted by: frankly0 on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Given that the Justice Dept has held others in captivity almost indefinitely when the evidence of connection to members of al Qaeda is far shakier, how can anyone really excuse the special treatment accorded the bin Laden family?

This stick points both ways, does it not? How many of those who see some sort of sinister collaboration in the flights would have backed the administration had it decided to hold the Saudis without charges?

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

How many of those who see some sort of sinister collaboration in the flights would have backed the administration had it decided to hold the Saudis without charges?

You're just setting up a false dilemma. How about simply demanding they stay in the country for a couple of months or even a year so that they can be interviewed as investigations continue?

posted by: frankly0 on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Some people call these false dilemmas 'Strawmen'

posted by: mickslam on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

frankly0 --

The point you appear to be missing is that Clarke has stated that the decision to allow the bin Laden family members to leave was made by him without consulting his superiors. There is no evidence that George Bush even knew they were authorized to leave, and what evidence exists suggests that he did not know about the matter beforehand.

posted by: Ben on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]


The point you are missing is that Clarke was in fact a member of the Bush administration, and would be disinclined to do things that he felt would antagonize his superiors unnecessarily - witness his praise, qualified though it be, of Bush's efforts on counterterrorism while he was still working for them.

And God only knows how many ways Clarke may have been pressured to allow the bin Laden's to leave.

Now most likely Clarke truly thought that the bin Ladens would offer up little of value, and my own guess, for what it's worth, is that they do not. But he is NOT a person in law authority making this call, with the perspective such people would bring. I simply ask again, why imagine that the FBI, given its druthers, would NOT infinitely prefer to keep the bin Laden family in the country for followup questions? Would the FBI be likely to have more or less information if they had the bin Ladens around to interrogate? How can anyone pretend that they did NOT receive very special treatment, treatment NOT accorded to the thousands of poorly connected Muslims who have been detained for no known cause for an indefinite period of time?

And remember that Clarke is defending a decision he was crucially involved in (and in which he may have caved to pressure, for all we know) -- do you really believe that he will not marshall all evidence he can to defend its correctness, even if, or perhaps especially if, in hindsight, it looks to be deeply flawed?

posted by: frankly0 on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

We can take it as read, then, that preventing the Saudis from leaving, and hauling them in every so often for interrogation, would not have been viewed as "holding" them by fans of Unger's conspiracy theory? I'm assuming for the sake of simplicity that the government wouldn't have done anything really invasive, such as pry into their library records.

posted by: Paul Zrimsek on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Frankyo, To get a feeling for Clarke's decision, read his book. In it he states that for a couple of days, he was effectively running the countries anti-terror operations. He states that he made the majority of the decisions. I get the feeling both in his book and in his 911 commission statement that he was unrecognized for the "herculean" (at least in his own opinion) efforts exerted for the american people. He felt quite dissed in the days that followed.

posted by: capt joe on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

True, the Bush critics did not take their lead from Moore. He took his lead from them. The arguments have been essentially the same for years; Moore just packaged them well. So the fact that criticism predates F9/11 is not evidence that it is objective.

It has been a tiresome package of preconceived notions, one rolling off the other without much pause. The reasoning has been 1. The Republicans lied about Clinton. 2. Therefore Bush must have lied during his campaign. 3. Therefore he lied about Florida. 4. Therefore he lied about the economy. 5. Therefore he lied about Halliburton. 6. Therefore he lied about the oil. 7. Therefore he lied about WMD, etc, etc.

I am sorry to resort to such simplistic argumentation myself. Poor logic from the left does not prove good logic on the right. But I perceive no break in this long chain from the great majority of prominent Bush critics. They made up their minds before they knew him, and squeeze everything into that template regardless of evidence. The conventional wisdom (which may actually be true for once) is that people are not voting for Kerry but against Bush. Fine. There is a long and honorable tradition of negative voting -- it may be the foundation of our stability. But if so, then care should be taken to discover if any of the criticisms actually hold up under scrutiny.

By and large they do not. I will repeat that there is a large convenient body of discussion which assumes that there were costless other courses of action that were politically possible after 9-11. But after all the squirming and arguing, our choices were few. We could continue or intensify our non-military pressure on various Arab nations. We could sell out the only democracy and our only ally in the region, Israel. Or we could engage in some military action against any of a half-dozen nations who were assisting those working to kill us. All three choices would have enormous potential costs, dangers, and risks.

It's as if people went into a restaurant and complained at the end that what they really wanted was the calories of only the salad, the cost of only the water, but the food variety and service of the 3-course meal.

posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Assistant Village Idiot,

You say, "I will repeat that there is a large convenient body of discussion which assumes that there were costless other courses of action that were politically possible after 9-11. But after all the squirming and arguing, our choices were few."

How do you make the leap from 9-11 to the idea that containment of Iraq could not possibly work, as it had done nicely for a decade, so nicely in fact that Saddam had given up whatever WMD he ever had?

Suggestion: be sure to keep your day job.

posted by: frankly0 on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Containment falls under the "pressure" category and was indeed one of the choices we did have after 9-11. It is logically coherent to consider it an option. But it is not logically coherent to regard it as a riskless or costless option. I think you are implying the latter when you claim that containment worked "nicely."

As to whether it did work nicely, I would reply that no knowledeable authority maintains that the WMD never existed. After Gulf War I, Saddam was not given the option of accounting for them by saying "The dog ate my WMD." That they are now not accounted for I do not find comforting. Whether containment would have been safer than invasion for containing their spread may be debated. But containment provided no guarrantees and hence, contained risks. Risk 1: Continued rewards to Palestinian terrorists. Risk 2: Saddam does not feel enough pressure to Sarindar his WMD. Risk 3: Al Queda reasons that America has shot its bolt and attempts more terrorism on our shores. How likely were these and how damaging? We can only estimate.

Keeping sanctions involved risks. Lifting sanctions involved risks. Choosing Afghanistan first for military intervention involved risks. Choosing Iran or North Korea first would have involved risks.

I'm not sure how it is that conservatives got the reputation for black-and-white thinking. Seems the opposite to me.

posted by: Assistant Village Idiot on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

I note that a) the most serious charge is that Bush put a stop to previously live Clinton administration efforts to close down the banking arrangements by which rich Saudis funded al-Quaeda, and Bronson does not address this issue, b) Unger maintains a consistent story on the question of the Saudi flights, while Bronson does not (she seems to first quote a semi-attached section of the commission report which deals with international flights, and then change the subject), and c) when push comes to shove, Bronson starts referring to things which were said in "private meetings" that she has had, so what's the real difference between the two?

I realise that you have a somewhat lower standard of what constitutes a "nutty conspiracy theory" than I do, Dan, but you would probably agree that it would be a bad thing on the whole if the President of the USA were to have too close a financial and business relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, and so it is probably a good thing that there are people asking questions about this.

Finally, your attempt to "convey the tone" of the exchange is highly misleading in at least one regard; at no stage does Under accuse Bronson of being part of a cover-up. It would seem at least prudent to revise slightly.

posted by: dsquared on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

Re: Halabja and Pelletaire,
Questioning Halabja
Genocide and the Expedient Political Lie
by Leo Casey
On a late March morning fifteen years ago, as the war between Iran and Iraq was winding down, the Iraqi army began an artillery barrage on Halabja, a Kurdish city situated about fifteen miles from the border with Iran. The people of Halabja first took that attack, and the subsequent bombing by the Iraqi air force, as a routine matter, the everyday consequence of living in a stronghold of a Kurdish Peshmerga militia then allied with Iran. But as they gathered in their shelters, it quickly became apparent that there was something dreadfully different about this bombardment. Heavy, dark yellow clouds formed close to the ground, and overwhelming smells, a mixture of sweet apples and garlic, followed by an odor of rotten eggs, pervaded the air. Birds and animals began to expire, and as the clouds gradually permeated the shelters, people became ill, some vomiting, some finding it hard to breathe, others experiencing skin burns and sharp, stabbing pains as their eyes and noses began to bleed. In panic, with many already dying and others blinded or paralyzed, the people of Halabja fled their city. Behind them lay thousands of dead (estimates range from 3,200 to 5,000). Many who escaped bear grim physical injuries from that day: blindness and major respiratory and skin diseases, cancers, and, in the next generation, congenitally malformed infants.

The bombing of Halabja with chemical gas was the opening salvo in what the Baathist Iraqi regime called its Anfal campaign, a term taken from the title of the eighth sura of the Quran, which calls upon Muslims to "strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah." Human rights organizations have another name for that campaign: genocide. Although it is impossible to determine the exact number of Kurds who were annihilated in the two-year period during which the Anfal was waged, estimates range from a conservative low of 50,000 to Kurdish figures of 182,000. Kurds were forcibly removed from traditional villages, imprisoned in concentration camps, tortured, raped, and forced into exile. There was a total of forty known incidents involving the Iraqi use of chemical gas on the Kurds, including Halabja.

This essay is not an account of Halabja and the Anfal. Those events have been fully documented in the Human Rights Watch book Genocide In Iraq and told in painful detail in many other places. Rather, the story told here is about the efforts to deny the Baathist regime's use of poison gas on the Kurds, efforts that began as soon as the world first learned of Halabja and that have continued to this day. It is a tale of the politically expedient lie, in service of a denial of genocide.

The Evidence
I will begin with a brief summary of the volumes of evidence regarding what took place that day fifteen years ago in Halabja, as well as in other poison gas attacks on Kurdish civilians, and who was responsible for what happened. As soon as word of the gassing reached Iran with the fleeing residents of Halabja, the Iranian government brought international news media to the scene, and film of the devastation was soon aired on newscasts around the globe. Those horrifying scenes made Halabja into the Guernica of the Kurds, symbolizing the entire Anfal campaign of annihilation.

As powerful as the film of Halabja is, it is only a small portion of the evidence. In hundreds of eyewitness interviews conducted over the next few years, survivor after survivor identified the source of the gas at Halabja (and at other sites) as Iraqi military aircraft that flew low enough so that their markings were visible from the ground. Beginning in October of 1988, seven months after Halabja, a series of forensic investigations, some sponsored by Middle East Watch (now the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch) and Physicians for Human Rights and others organized by independent medical scientists, undertook medical examinations of survivors, conducted tests for trace chemicals on soil samples and bomb fragments, and performed autopsies of exhumed bodies. The results of a number of these studies were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Based on these studies, scientists concluded that the victims of Halabja and other sites had been exposed, in the words of medical geneticist Christine Gosden, "to the highest doses of the most potent cocktails of chemical and biological nerve and mustard agents ever used against civilians." The nerve gases sarin and tubin, as well as mustard gas, are known to have been used, and there is good reason to believe that the nerve agent VX and biological weapons such as anthrax and mycotoxins may also have been employed at different times.

The Origin of the Denials
During the Gulf War and the popular uprisings that followed it, significant stores of Iraqi Baathist government documents and tapes were seized, mostly by the Kurdish Peshmerga. Ample documentation of the plans and the implementation of the poison gas attacks was found, including a tape of a particularly damning speech by the chief architect and executioner of Anfal, Ali Hassan al-Majid. Hassan says of the Kurds, "I will kill them all with chemical weapons. Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck the international community and those who listen to them!"

Every group that has examined this question-the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others-has come to the same conclusion: that the Iraqi Baathist regime used poison gas on its Kurdish population during the Anfal campaign, in Halabja and at other sites. There simply is no reasonable doubt.

Yet no sooner had the pictures of the dead of Halabja appeared on television screens than the campaign to deny Iraqi responsibility began. The initial impetus for these efforts came from within the U.S. government. To understand how this came to pass, one must examine the Iraq policy of the United States during the 1980s.

Following the Iranian Islamist Revolution, the seizing of hostages from the American embassy, and the Iraqi invasion of Iran, Ronald Reagan's administration entered into "an enemy of my enemy" alliance with the Baathist state: it became an American proxy in its war with Iran. When Iran temporarily gained the upper hand in the war, the United States provided Iraq with "detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes, and bomb assessment damage," a New York Times investigative report concluded. German, British, and American corporations sold Iraq military hardware, arms technology, advanced computers, and key ingredients for the manufacture of missiles and chemical and biological weapons, with the active approval of the U.S. government, according to PBS Frontline, Washington Post, and Newsweek reports. Among the items purchased by Iraq, these reports determined, were American-built helicopters that were used, U.S. government officials concluded, in poison gas attacks on the Kurds. The Reagan State Department also approved, before being overruled by the Pentagon, the sale to Iraq of 1.5 million atropine injectors, a drug used to counter the effects of chemical weapons.

The first reports of the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis referred to battles against Iranian troops, and the U.S. government attempted to shift the blame onto the Iranians. As the evidence mounted, and especially after Halabja, the Reagan administration finally issued public condemnations of the use of poison gas. At first, the statements criticized both Iraq and Iran; eventually, they specifically cited and decried the Iraqi use of poison gas against the Kurds. But at no time, the New York Times reports, did the Reagan administration end the top-secret program through which more than sixty officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency provided the Iraqi government with intelligence information and battle plans that facilitated the use of chemical weapons. Instead, Reagan and then the first Bush administration officials fought back congressional efforts to place sanctions on Iraq for its use of poison gas at Halabja. The Pentagon "wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas," one of the veterans of the DIA program told the Times. "It was just one more way of killing people-whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't make any difference."

It was this context that produced the ur-text of Kurdish genocide denial-a 1988 DIA report suggesting that Iran, not Iraq, was responsible for the use of poison gas at Halabja. This report, and a subsequent Army War College study and book incorporating its argument, provide one single piece of evidentiary conjecture for placing responsibility on the Iranians: film and eyewitness reports of the dead at Halabja indicated that their mouths and extremities had turned blue, and such symptoms were consistent with exposure to blood agents using cyanide, which, it was argued, only the Iranians were known to use. None of the authors of these documents, the most notable of whom was Stephen Pelletiere, the senior CIA political analyst of Iraq during the Anfal campaign and later professor at the Army War College, had any expertise in medical and forensic sciences, and their speculation doesn't stand up to minimal scrutiny. To begin, it is not true that Iran alone used blood agent weapons. A 1991 DIA report concluded that "Iraq is known to have employed . . . a blood agent, hydrogen cyanide gas... against Iranian soldiers, civilians, and Iraqi Kurdish civilians."

Moreover, cyanide gas is not very effective in the open air, and could not have caused, by itself, the widespread devastation at Halabja. It is far more likely that, as forensic studies of the survivors and soil of Halabja indicate, the poison gas cocktail had as its main components a combination of mustard gas and the nerve gases sarin and tubin. The appearance of cyanide symptoms could have resulted either from the decomposition tubin undergoes when it is used or from the inclusion of hydrogen cyanide in the poison-gas cocktail.

Even if one were to ignore all the other evidence of Iraqi state responsibility for Halabja, as Pelletiere and his co-authors do, and even if one were to suspend disbelief regarding the plausibility of the claim that Iran would use poison gas on a city held by its Kurdish allies and then bring international news media to the scene to report on it, these documents are unconvincing. But in the fall of 1988, this most spurious of arguments served the purposes of a U.S. government alliance with Iraq against Iran, and so it was circulated with the authority of the intelligence apparatuses of the U.S. government behind it. And once this Pandora's box was opened, this expedient political lie gained a life of its own.

The Denials Spread
In August of 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Faced with the prospect of Saddam Hussein gaining strategic control of much of the Persian Gulf oil reserves, American policy toward Iraq literally changed overnight: the Baathist state was now a threat. The poison gassing of the Kurds, which had been the most inconvenient of facts, suddenly acquired major propaganda value in the battle against the Saddam's regime. The U.S. government became a major broadcaster of the genocidal horrors of Halabja, and remains so to this day.

There would be no mention of the support given to the Baathist regime, no formal retraction of the disinformation that had been generated to cover that regime's crimes. This self-generated amnesia had unfortunate side effects. For just as the U.S. government turned on a dime, so too did those who oppose everything the United States does: in their eyes, once the United States saw the Baathist regime as an implacable foe, that regime acquired anti-imperialist legitimacy; once the United States proclaimed the fiendishness of the gassing of the Kurds, there was reason to question its authenticity. Because the U.S. government never formally disavowed the DIA and War College reports, these documents could now be cited as grounds for challenging the truth of the Iraqi campaign of genocide against the Kurds.

The Gulf War and its aftermath set the stage on which a second wave of denials of the Kurdish genocide would play itself out. There were many valid objections to this war, the biggest one being that the decision to go to war was premature, taken before less violent and destructive measures, such as economic sanctions, had a chance to work. But many in the reflexive opposition school of thought did not recognize the legitimacy of any efforts by the United States and its allies to undo the Baathist regime's annexation of Kuwait. Their arguments disputed the notions that the people of Kuwait had a right of self-determination-for them, Kuwait as a national entity was simply an artifact of imperialism-and that the Baathist regime was as morally depraved as the United States and its allies claimed.

Edward Said, the Palestinian-American academic and political activist, was one of the more articulate exponents of this view. Writing in the London Review of Books at the very moment the Baathist regime was launching its brutal suppression of the post-Gulf War uprisings of the Kurds and Shiites, Said declared that "[t]he claim that Iraq gassed its own citizens has often been repeated. At best, this is uncertain. There is at least one War College report, done while Iraq was a U.S. ally, which claims that the gassings of the Kurds at Halabja was done by Iran. Few people mention such reports in the media today." On virtually any other question one could contemplate, Said would dispute the conclusions of the American intelligence and military apparatuses in the strongest possible terms, yet when it comes to the question of the use of poison gas on the Kurds, discredited and transparently false CIA and DIA claims suddenly become trustworthy.

The Gulf War denials were relatively few in number. (In addition to Said, the other prominent denier was New Yorker writer Milton Viorst, who, after a one-day helicopter tour of Kurdish Iraq provided courtesy of the Baathist regime, decided there was no gassing of Kurdish civilians; he also offered the DIA and CIA claims as confirmation of his judgment.) But they planted the seeds for a third wave of denials that exploded on the scene during the buildup to the Iraq War. Significant segments of the movement opposed to the invasion of Iraq seized upon the old DIA and War College reports to cast doubt upon the Bush administration's arguments for regime change. Among the liberal and left opponents of the war, these documents were recycled in a Roger Trilling Village Voice column; in a number of columns in the liberal Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Star, one of which was reproduced on the progressive Common Dreams Web site; and on a number of alternative Internet Indymedia sites. Most of the left, though, shared the dominant view-perhaps best expressed by Dilip Hiro in the Nation and elsewhere-which was unequivocal in its condemnation of the Baathist campaign of genocide against the Kurds, of the U.S. government's alliance with the Iraqi state during the period of the genocide, and of the 2003 invasion.

Not to be outdone, critics of the war from the right joined in the denials, often with a nastier edge. Speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives, the far-right libertarian Representative from Texas, Ron Paul, asked his colleagues, "Are you aware of a Pentagon report studying charges that thousands of Kurds in one village were gassed . . . which found no conclusive evidence that Iraq was responsible, that Iran occupied the very city involved, and that evidence indicated the type of gas used was more likely controlled by Iran than Iraq?" Jude Wanniski, best known as the conservative economist who founded the supply-side school, published a barrage of memoranda from his Polyconomics Web site, citing Pelletiere and the DIA and War College reports. Wanniski included in his memoranda several lengthy e-mails from an Iraqi whose family was highly placed in the Baathist regime, who offered fulsome assurances that poison gas was never used by that regime. At the same time, Wanniski managed to dismiss Jeffrey Goldberg's March 2002 New Yorker article on Halabja and the gassing of the Kurds, which includes a number of survivor testimonials, on the grounds that Goldberg is "seriously biased" because he is a dual U.S.-Israel citizen.

Denials of Halabja from both the extreme left and the extreme right gained undeserved credibility as a result of a decision of the editors of the New York Times that stunned the human rights community: on January 31 of this year, as the debate over the looming invasion of Iraq reached fever pitch, the Times published a lengthy op-ed piece by Pelletiere, in which he reasserted the claims of the DIA and War College reports that he had had a hand in writing. Why the Times editors would publish a piece that could not withstand fifteen minutes of Internet research only they can explain, but the consequences of their action are undeniable: from that point on, the authority and legitimacy of the Times was used, again and again, to support the denial of Iraqi genocide.

Political lies-and genocide denial is a political lie-are antidemocratic acts, rooted in the refusal to trust a citizenry to act appropriately on the truth. That simple observation can be lost these days, as we find ourselves caught in a debased political culture of spin, where the art of image control and deception often seems the most valued skill. Yet at a fundamental level, lies were told about Halabja and the Iraqi genocide of the Kurds because the authors of those lies, starting with agencies of the U.S. government, did not trust their audiences with the truth.

What is true of the U.S. government is also true, it must be said, of those in the movements against the Gulf War and the recent invasion of Iraq who denied Halabja and the genocidal campaign waged against the Kurds. The claim that one had to oppose every argument that the Bush I and Bush II administrations made for war against Iraq, regardless of its particular merit, went hand in hand with the contention that the American people could not grasp the full evil of the Baathist regime and still make an informed decision that war was not necessary to contain it. This is antidemocratic reasoning. The contempt for the political wisdom of the people revealed by such a posture made it that much more difficult for the meritorious arguments against the war to receive a full hearing.

But there is more at stake here than the failure or success of political arguments. Genocide denial leaves a stain of moral and political dishonor, for it is a political lie unlike other political lies. In a way, genocide denial reenacts the crime, seeking to erase the historical record of what was done-which is all that now remains of the murdered. The denier of genocide is, to use Pierre Vidal-Naquet's apt phrase, an assassin of memory.

For those who have studied the literature of Holocaust denial, the parallels with the denial of Halabja and the genocide of the Kurds are striking. The deliberate refusal to engage the evidence of what was done and who did it; the reliance upon conspiracy theories to dismiss such evidence en masse; the discounting of eyewitness, survivor testimony; the obsessive focus on a few minor details of the genocide and the fixation with the instrumentality of death, the gas; the changing of facts to fit the theory-this much and more mark both denials. But in one crucial respect, there is a difference: one cannot imagine finding the Holocaust denied in official U.S. government documents or on the editorial pages of the New York Times. Despite its powerful and lasting influence on our political culture, the experience of the Holocaust has apparently not immunized American discourse from genocide denial, any more than it kept the American government from establishing a strategic alliance with the authors of genocide.
Much remains to be done.

Leo Casey writes on politics, education, and international solidarity for Dissent and other journals.

The Human Rights Watch book Genocide In Iraq is available at Reports on a number of the forensic studies of gassing in Kurdish Iraq can be located at

The War College report containing the original disinformation on the use of poison gas at Halabja can be found at

Documentation of U.S. government support for the Baathist regime at the time of the gassing of Halabja appeared in the August 18, 2002 New York Times article, "Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas" (or purchase from the Times archives at, on the September 1990 Frontline program "The Long Road to War" (, and in the September 23, 2002 Newsweek article, "How Saddam Happened" (for purchase from the Newsweek archives at

posted by: Michael Pugliese on 07.08.04 at 04:55 PM [permalink]

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