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October 28, 2004

Stepping Over the Major Storyline While Russia Plots

One problem that arises when those whom a society allocates as professional watchers become relentlessly partisan is that entire storylines can be missed. Crucially important storylines pop up as incidents, here and there, and are allowed to slip away; without sustained attention, and not having the resources to become international reporters themselves, regular folks just lose the thread.

Well, by now you've surely heard about this:

Russian special forces troops moved many of Saddam Hussein's weapons and related goods out of Iraq and into Syria in the weeks before the March 2003 U.S. military operation, The Washington Times has learned.

The idea of Russia's having a hand in cleansing Iraq before the war brought to mind my musing — at about the same time that Russian boots were quietly collecting sand in Iraq — that it would make for a good fiction plot to imagine the end of the Cold War as a ruse, to allow the Communists to work behind the scenes to undermine the capitalist West. In looking for that post, however, I also came across another, from April 2003, wherein I quoted a Telegraph piece by David Harrison as follows:

Top secret documents obtained by The Telegraph in Baghdad show that Russia provided Saddam Hussein's regime with wide-ranging assistance in the months leading up to the war, including intelligence on private conversations between Tony Blair and other Western leaders.

Moscow also provided Saddam with lists of assassins available for "hits" in the West and details of arms deals to neighbouring countries. The two countries also signed agreements to share intelligence, help each other to "obtain" visas for agents to go to other countries and to exchange information on the activities of Osama bin Laden, the al-Qa'eda leader.

In retrospect, however, the espionage angle of that report mightn't be the most important. Instead, consider this:

Another document, dated March 12, 2002, appears to confirm that Saddam had developed, or was developing nuclear weapons. The Russians warned Baghdad that if it refused to comply with the United Nations then that would give the United States "a cause to destroy any nuclear weapons".

A quick Google search of the only direct quotation from the March 12 document gives the impression that most of those news organizations and bloggers who chose to mention it highlighted the information-cooperation angle in the context of U.S./Russia relations, essentially tacking the mention of nuclear weapons onto reports as something that seemed only of potential interest.

Note something else about the mere three pages of Google results: the only major media coverage, apart from the Telegraph, came from the New York Post and Fox News. For some perspective of how insignificant that coverage is, search for "Abu Ghraib."

Unraveling these threads becomes all the more significant if we add in James Robbins's suggestion that much the same dynamic has been at play in the search for WMDs:

So between the al Qaqaa explosives, the dual-use equipment, the Tuwaitha nuclear material, the missing chemical weapons, and the Syrian connection, it sounds like the WMD rationale is much stronger than most critics give it credit for. One can only imagine what Saddam would have done given the chance to put them all together.

Speaking of putting things together, the thesis that begs to be tested is just how tangential the various threads to this story really are. How huge of a storyline has been permitted to submerge, here, I don't know. But somehow I suspect it would be better to find out sooner than later.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 28, 2004 11:16 AM
International Affairs