The Washington Times

In American politics, sometimes questions emerge as Rorschach tests of what people think about big political events. What makes for a political Rorschach test is that the answer to the question posed is unknowable but not recognized as such: Like the random image presented by the inkblot, the scenario posed by the question actually signifies nothing. The only thing “there” is what people bring to it themselves. They may think their assessment is a product of the facts – what the inkblot portrays – but in truth the “facts” constitute a tabula rasa on which people inscribe their preexisting prejudices, preferences and hopes.

The leading Rorschach tests on the subject of Iraq are two. First, was there a connection between the Saddam Hussein regime and al Qaeda prior to September 11? And second, has U.S. policy toward Iraq, including the invasion and the aftermath, perversely served to recruit more young Muslim men to the ranks of al Qaeda and like-minded terror organizations? Did I mention that one of the characteristics of a political Rorschach test is that so many people adamantly deny that there is no true and knowable answer to the question? Upon reading the previous paragraph, I have no doubt that many people, at least metaphorically, spluttered in their coffee as a result of the obviousness to them of the answer to the question in both cases.

There are four possible combinations of answers to the questions: yes to both, no to both, yes to the first but no to the second, and no to the first but yes to the second. But I would submit that the universe of respondents includes roughly zero percent who answered yes to both and zero percent more who answered no to both. And, of course, the yes-no pattern of reply – yes, a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda; no, no breeding ground – correlates roughly 100 percent with support of the war, and the no-yes reply correlates about 100 percent with opposition.

It is rather obvious that a “yes” answer to the first question would provide support for the case for going to war to remove Saddam in the post-September 11 environment and a “no” answer would call such a decision into question. Likewise, a “yes” answer on the breeding-ground question would argue that the net effect of the Iraq war was negative with regard to suppressing terrorism, whereas a “no” answer would support a more benevolent interpretation of the effect of removing Saddam. So it is, I think, that answers to the questions aren’t really “answers” at all; rather, the questions provide the occasion for people to summon the conclusions about the Iraq they already reached.

Now, I’m already on the hook in today’s column for the proposition that the answers to the questions are unknowable – which is to say, wildly speculative because based on very limited public access to vanishingly few known facts. So we must tread carefully here. But may I point out that the speculative logic of the questions themselves suggests that either the yes-yes combination or the no-no combination is more plausible than either the yes-no or no-yes? If there was a non-trivial connection between the Saddam regime and al Qaeda – a sort of meeting of the minds, at the tactical level at least, of different strains of radically anti-American thought in the Arab Muslim world – then it might be reasonable to suppose that the U.S. invasion to throw out the Saddam regime did indeed serve as an al Qaeda (or similar jihadist) rallying cry. After all, if Saddam’s secular Baathist regime was a subject of Islamist sympathy at least insofar as it was opposed to the United States and vice versa, then it would make a certain sense that those who entertained such sympathies, but did not act on them before the invasion and occupation, might do so afterward, their outrage having grown greater in the interim.

Similarly, if Saddam meant nothing to the Islamists beforehand and vice versa – if indeed his secular regime was, in the Islamist view, exactly the sort of Arab government that needed to fall – then what, precisely, in Sunni Iraq greased the skids for the arrival of “foreign fighters” in Iraq in the thousands? It’s not so much that Islamists from all over might wish to come: To fight the Americans, from this point of view, is self-evidently a good thing. But it’s not necessarily practical unless you are welcomed, which they were. The Baathist holdouts do not appear to have shunned them (though there has been much additional speculation recently about Baathist vs. Islamist divisions within the insurgency).

As for me, I am of the yes-yes view. The Saddam-al Qaeda connection (which is not the same as a Saddam-September 11 connection) was there, at least as a matter of affinity of the sort that continues to recruit foreign fighters to jihad against the Americans in Iraq, where they find (some, limited, but serious) local support.

I also think we’re better off in the long run for drawing them out now. But that’s a question for next week.