During his recent trip to Iraq, Republican presidential candidate John McCain proclaimed,
“Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”
According to the New York Times, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who was traveling with McCain, whispered in his ear that such was highly unlikely since Iran is a Shiite country and al-Qaeda is a Sunni group.
That caused McCain to issue an embarrassing apology and correction: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda.”
Why would McCain be eager to bring up al-Qaeda in the context of Iraq, a country that the U.S. government invaded in a war of aggression, as well as Iran, a country that U.S. officials are still contemplating attacking?
The reason is that McCain is not a dumb politician. Like both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney, he knows the visceral and emotional reaction he is able to arouse within many Americans the minute they hear the words “Al-Qaeda,” words that McCain knows immediately tend to short-circuit any reasonable and rationale thinking.
We witnessed this phenomenon with respect to two other words soon after 9/11. What were those two words? “The terrorists.” U.S. officials soon discovered that whenever they emitted those two words–“the terrorists”–the knees of many American men (and women) would immediately begin quivering and quaking, ending any chance of reasoned, rational thinking. Hearing any mention of “the terrorists,” people’s minds would immediately be filled with catastrophic thoughts in which the terrorists were going to invade and conquer America, taking over the IRS and the public schools.
This is, of course, how we got such things as the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the NSA spying, Gitmo, torture, kidnapping, rendition, cancellation of habeas corpus, and all the rest of the infringements on privacy and civil liberties. U.S. officials had been trying for years to achieve expanded powers, usually under the guise of the war on drugs, but had had difficulty doing so. Periodic usage of those two words–“the terrorists”–after 9/11 disintegrated potential opposition to the assumption and exercise of such powers.
This phenomenon is not significantly different with respect to the term “al Qaeda,” which is why U.S. officials have come to adopting it when referring to the death, destruction, and suffering in Iraq. In order to salve the consciences of Americans who might be struggling with the fact that their government has killed and maimed countless Iraqis in a war of aggresssion, U.S. officials have learned that the best thing to do is simply use the term “al Qaeda” in response to reports of deaths or suffering in Iraq.
The idea is that by employing the term “al Qaeda,” the minds of Americans will immediately be shifted to the 9/11 attacks and will subconsciously associate those attacks with killings in Iraq, enabling people to convince themselves that the death and destruction in Iraq is all because of “al Qaeda.”
That’s undoubtedly why Vice President Cheney has been doing everything he can to cause people to think that there was a partnership between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. By convincing Americans that such a connection existed, Americans wouldn’t have to feel bad about all the Iraqis killed and maimed during the invasion and occupation. As CNN reported on June 18, 2004, Cheney claimed that the evidence is “overwhelming” that al-Qaeda had a relationship with Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. “There clearly was a relationship. It’s been testified to. The evidence is overwhelming,” Cheney said.
Alas, along comes an exhaustive Pentagon study released last week that involved a careful review of 600,000 Iraqi documents captured after the invasion. And guess what! The Pentagon study found no link between Saddam Hussein, Iraq, and al Qaeda.
Of course, even that report is unlikely to discourage U.S. officials from employing “al Qaeda” whenever new deaths are reported in Iraq. They know how powerful the term is within the minds of the American people. For example, just last March, in response to the deaths of 23 people from bombs and shootings, a U.S. military official exclaimed, “Coalition forces believe Al-Qaeda is responsible for these murders.”
Are there, in fact, members of Al Qaeda in Iraq? Undoubtedly, along with many other foreigners who have come to the defense and aid of the Iraqi insurgents, just as U.S. officials, Osama bin Laden, and other foreigners came to the defense of Afghani insurgents after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In fact, one of the groups of Iraqi insurgents that has arisen after the U.S. invasion of Iraq is entitled “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” which U.S. officials use to maximum propaganda effect in the hopes that their invasion of a country that never attacked the United States could become justified in the minds of the American people.
So, in applying the term “Al Qaeda” to Iran, McCain was doing nothing more than what U.S. officials have been doing for years with respect to Iraq. He just got caught in a flagrant misuse of the term, causing him to have to apologize and retract what he had said.
JACOB HORNBERGER is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.