How can the United States sell a war against Iraq to skeptical Arabs and Europeans? A good start would be to level with them and admit there is no solid evidence linking Baghdad to Osama bin Laden's terrorist attacks against America.
In the first months after Sept. 11, some prominent U.S. commentators pushed the idea that al Qaeda terrorist Mohamed Atta had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani. The key meeting supposedly took place in April 2001, as Atta was plotting the deadly operation that was to destroy the World Trade Center five months later.
New York Times columnist William Safire, for example, wrote last November that the alleged Atta-al Ani meeting was "the undisputed fact connecting Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the Sept. 11 attacks." Similarly, former CIA director James Woolsey wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last October headlined "The Iraq Connection," which cited the reputed Prague meetings.
The problem, according to senior European officials, is that the hard intelligence to support the Baghdad-bin Laden connection is somewhere between "slim" and "none." A senior European official said that Atta did visit Prague once, in 2000, but there is no solid evidence he met with Iraqi intelligence.
What's more, according to these European officials, there is strong evidence to the contrary -- directly undermining the theory of an "Iraq connection." The officials said intelligence reports indicate that Saddam personally decided against allowing bin Laden and al Qaeda to use Iraq as a base because he feared they might destabilize his regime.
According to the European officials, the CIA now shares their skepticism about the Atta-al Ani connection -- although they said some Pentagon officials continued to believe it's true.
Even the Czechs, who initially put out the reports about Atta's meeting with al-Ani, have gradually backed away. The Czech interior minister, Stanislav Gross, said in October that the two had met in April 2001. That version was altered slightly by Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman when he told CNN in November: "Atta contacted some Iraqi agent, not to prepare the terrorist attack on [the twin towners] but to prepare [a] terrorist attack on just the building of Radio Free Europe" in Prague. Then, in December, Czech President Vaclav Havel retreated further, saying there was only "a 70 percent" chance Atta met with al-Ani.
The European officials discounting the Iraq connection, it should be noted, are no friends of Hussein. They recognize that he has been involved in many terrorist operations in the past. The case for taking action against his regime, they contend, must be built on solid evidence of his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction -- not on dubious reports of links to al Qaeda.
The Bush administration began to make that switch in January -- basing its case against Iraq on the weapons threat rather than any putative links to bin Laden. That was the underlying theme of the "axis of evil" speech -- that the world should mobilize against countries that can mount devastating attacks in the future, rather than continue to focus on links to Sept. 11. But the global public hasn't yet fallen in step with Bush, to put it mildly.
The hideous irony is that the most likely state sponsor for what's left of al Qaeda's networks is actually Iraq's historical nemesis, Iran. There, too, lies an intriguing story, recounted by the European officials. They say the mullahs, after initially supporting the U.S. war in Afghanistan, got nervous that they were becoming too cozy with the Great Satan. They then began allowing key al Qaeda operatives to escape across their border from Afghanistan. Among the al Qaeda leaders who may now be in Iran is the group's chief of operations, the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri. He has visited Iran in the past, and Iranian newspapers recently have carried stories speculating that he's in the country.
The Bush administration might win more support for its anti-terrorism effort if it offered less rhetoric and more straight talk about the dangers ahead. There has been a kind of bunker mentality in the administration's actions the past few months.
When you realize that U.S. officials go to sleep at night worrying about nuclear or biological attacks on Washington, you begin to understand their odd decisions: why they planned what amounted to an office of strategic deception in the Pentagon, why they began rewriting U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine, why they created a secret "shadow" government to carry on if the capital were obliterated. Most of these are bad ideas, but at least they become more comprehensible.
The best thing about Vice President Cheney's trip to Europe and the Middle East this week is that he got out of the bunker -- and began talking to the people America will need as allies. Let's hope his trip is just the beginning.