Who was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi? Well, he was a really bad guy, no doubt, who beheaded innocent victims on videotape and did his damnedest to foment a kind of holy hell in Iraq through the promotion of sectarian violence. Beyond that, however, the issue gets a bit more complicated.
For instance, in the President’s now-infamous October 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati, Bush did not mention Zarqawi’s name but said that “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.” When Colin Powell spoke at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, he did say that Zarqawi’s group, Ansar al-Islam, operated “in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein-controlled Iraq” before mentioning the medical treatment. Based on this flimsy premise, Powell spun out roughly 1,000 words detailing the dangers Zarqawi posed.
Soon enough, however, the distinction between Saddam-controlled Iraq and Kurdish-controlled Iraq, where Zarqawi did his dastardly deeds, began to disappear. On one Sunday in November 2003, Donald Rumsfeld used Ansar’s prewar activities in Iraq to help justify the invasion on three separate Sunday shows; none of his tough-minded questioners–including Tony Snow, George Will, George Stephanopoulos and Tim Russert–thought to correct him.
Having served its polemical purpose, as Matthew Yglesias pointed out in a “Think Again” column for the Center for American Progress, Zarqawi’s group largely disappeared from the Administration’s propaganda campaign until a March 2003 raid produced another surge of media coverage, which focused heavily on the group’s work on chemical weapons and its ties to Al Qaeda, while neglecting to note its lack of connection to Saddam’s Iraq. Again Americans were treated to discussions of Ansar’s prewar existence in Iraq without the key qualification–with Paul Bremer and Condoleezza Rice on different installments of Fox News Sunday and ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos–with no challenges from the hosts. Dick Cheney took the offensive further with Tim Russert on September 14 of that year, stating that “we also knew Al Qaeda was there, and Ansar al-Islam, up in northeastern Iraq.” Bush, too, complained of “a man who is still running loose, involved with the poisons network, involved with Ansar al-Islam,” adding, “There’s no question that Saddam Hussein had Al Qaeda ties.” No question, but not much evidence, either.
In March 2004 we learned the shocking news from NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski that Bush & Co. never really took Zarqawi all that seriously. On several occasions before the invasion began, Bush chose to ignore opportunities to kill Zarqawi and wipe out his operations. The Administration apparently preferred to leave him in place, as he was serving a useful purpose in their propaganda campaigns.
This fundamental contradiction–some might say criminal negligence–did make its way into some of the coverage of the Administration’s capture and killing of Zarqawi, but almost always as a sidebar or an aside to the less complicated story of good triumphing over evil. The Washington Post‘s Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus noted continually contradictory messages in the Administration’s claims regarding Zarqawi. One day he was a murderous mastermind; the next, a pathetic poseur. Christopher Dickey in Newsweek noted some of these same difficulties and raised the possibility that Zarqawi’s death will allow Iraqi rebels to “grow in political power and military strength.” Also in Newsweek, Rod Nordland and Michael Hirsh pointed out the “cutting irony that the Bush Administration once thrust Zarqawi forward as a prewar link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. It was never clear that he ever had any ties to Saddam–and yet after the war, the terror leader became what he was once trumped up to be: Al Qaeda’s man in Iraq. He made Iraq far more deadly for US soldiers and played a greater role than anyone else in turning the country into what George W. Bush called the ‘central front’ in the war on terror.” Finally, Mary Anne Weaver’s precipitously published profile in The Atlantic Monthly, based on reporting from Zarqawi’s home country of Jordan among the people who knew him best–its intelligence services–exploded one myth after another. Weaver quoted one spy who explained, “‘The Americans have been patently stupid in all of this. They’ve blown Zarqawi so out of proportion that, of course, his prestige has grown. And as a result, sleeper cells from all over Europe are coming to join him now.’ He paused for a moment, then said, ‘Your government is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.'”
Unfortunately, none of these details mattered on talk radio, cable TV or in most print stories devoted to Zarqawi’s death. The belated capture by US troops was viewed in most debate as one part of a winning week for the White House, together with Karl Rove escaping indictment in the Plame affair.
A special place in pundit purgatory might be reserved for armchair warriors Christopher Hitchens and William Kristol, who took the opportunity to attempt to score a rhetorical victory over the war’s opponents. Hitchens crowed, “If we had withdrawn from Iraq already, as the ‘peace’ movement has been demanding, then one of the most revolting criminals of all time would have been able to claim that he forced us to do it”; while Kristol wrote, “One might also pause to point out that if we had followed the advice of those who want to pull out from Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi would today be alive and well, and triumphant.”
In fact, had it been up to most of us who had the good sense to oppose the war, Zarqawi would have been taken out long before the Administration was able to use him as a tool for its campaign for war; and tens of thousands of innocent people, including 2,500 American soldiers, would still be alive to tell Bush, Cheney, Hitchens, Kristol and their comrades just how they felt about being asked to die for a lie.