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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)
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Friday, March 17, 2006
Let the chips fall where they may. Stephen Hayes in the Weekly Standard reports on the vast backlog of captured documents from Saddam's Iraq now being released onto the web.
Released, it should be noted, untranslated, unanalysed, unauthenticated, unmediated.
There is something wonderfully anarchistic about all this. I'm rather thrilled by the thought of every amateur with a copy of Teach Yourself Arabic diving into the documents in the hope of striking gold. Er, pearls. You dive for pearls.
But is it a good way to fight terrorism? On balance, yes. (Brian Micklethwait wrote a pamphlet for the Libertarian Alliance about this) There is a risk that information will reach the public that would be more useful shared among six operatives prior to laying an ambush for an Al Qaeda leader - but the fact is that the CIA or whoever hadn't translated it. Too much paper, too little time. No one can lay an ambush based on information held in a crate for three years.
Simply in terms of getting public support for the War On Terror, the Bush administration should have done this long ago. Their credibility suffered a major blow when no WMD turned up. The anti-war side had every right to point out loudly and often that Blair and Bush got their facts wrong. "So did a lot of people, including Saddam's own generals" is a mitigating factor but it doesn't quite wipe the egg off the presidential and prime ministerial faces.
But then, at least in some cases - about two trillion - those who opposed the war went on to proclaim with a certainty way in excess of what the evidence or a reasonable cynicism about the ways of the world warranted that there could not possibly have been cooperation between the religious fanatics of Al Qaeda and the secular regime of Saddam Hussein.
That was always nonsense. It has always been risky to hitch your prestige to a negative assertion. For one thing, Saddam's regime wasn't so secular as all that. Saddam put images of himself taking part in the Haj on postage stamps. And for another, "My enemy's enemy is my friend" has been said in every tongue. I read somewhere about some Word War II British naval types delivering a batch of submachine guns to Communist Chinese guerillas fighting the Japanese. The writer had commented to the other man that the weapons seemed crudely manufactured. "Just as well," said the other, "They'll be using them to fight us in a few years." This would make a better anecdote if I could name the book, but stuff it, strange alliances are ten a penny. Pope Alexander VIII ordered lights to be lit in the Vatican in thanks for King William's victory over the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne.
Many of the miners digging into these documents will be motivated by a desire to score partisan political points. Nowt wrong with that; it makes sense to harness one of the most powerful motives known to man to the public good. The potential benefits, however, are wider. It will help Iraq to know more about its own tortured history. It will help the world to know more about how Saddam's rule functioned in order to better restrain future Saddams. And some of those amateurs may find information that may yet be of help in laying ambushes.