Iraq, Al Qaeda, and what constitutes a 'relationship'

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For the past few days, the dialogue in this town has sounded more like "Sex and the City" than "The McLaughlin Group." Suddenly the question of what constitutes a relationship has come to the fore. We're not talking J. Lo here, we're talking about the Bush administration and whether its definition of "relationship" fits with everyone else's.

Last week, the 9/11 Commission released a report saying, among other things, that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The press jumped on the story, saying the Bush administration has been proven wrong. The White House, however, quickly countered that it had never said that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; it had simply argued that there was a connection.

"There was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda," President Bush said. "The evidence is overwhelming" that there was a relationship, Vice President Cheney said.

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What kind of relationship? Well, that's not clear. The commission reported that, beyond the Sept. 11 attacks, there were indeed contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq but that Iraq rebuffed Al Qaeda's entreaties. Late last week, however, the vice president hinted that might not be the whole story.

When asked if he knew things the panel didn't, Mr. Cheney said, "probably," leaving some to wonder whether the administration has shared all it knew with the panel. Just as quickly, however, a spokesman also said the administration "cooperated fully with the commission," and "the president wants the commission to have the information it needs to do its job."

It may still turn out that there is some bit of bombshell evidence showing a "collaborative relationship" between Al Qaeda and Iraq. It's not really clear though, why the White House would keep such information secret. This administration, like many others, has not been shy about leaking sensitive information that helps its cause.

All of which means, what we probably have here is an issue of semantics. What exactly qualifies as a relationship in the early 21st century? Is it chatter that doesn't lead to anything, or something more? Where are Carrie Bradshaw and her friends when you need them?

These questions may be wonderful for conversation around the campfire. They may even enable you to say you dated the homecoming queen, but they aren't exactly on point. The point, as it so often is in politics, isn't what those in the administration actually said with all their link talk; it's what they implied.

Since it began talking about invading Iraq, this administration pushed two main lines of argument as justification. First, Iraq needed regime change because the government there was amassing or had amassed weapons of mass destruction. Second, Iraq was likely to use those weapons against the US or sell them to someone who would because it was part of the Al Qaeda-led jihad against the United States.

With the first argument largely discredited, the White House is holding on tenaciously to the second - tenaciously, but carefully. For the past year members of this administration have been dancing along the line of connecting, but not completely connecting, Al Qaeda and Iraq.

There are numerous examples, but one of the best is Cheney's comment on "Meet the Press" last September. "If we're successful in Iraq," he said, "we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11."

Parse that carefully and you'll see he is 100 percent correct. If the US brings a stable democracy to Iraq, it will strike a blow at "the heart" of "the geographic base" of Islamic terrorism: the Middle East. But the wording, if you will, leads the reader or listener to more dramatic conclusions, particularly when the "9/11" is added in there. They are led toward the idea that Iraq and Al Qaeda are working together.

Of course, members of the administration are generally pretty careful not to cross that line. They're careful not to say it explicitly; they just let the public infer it.

That's not exactly unprecedented. Semantics and careful lawyerly phrasing are all too common here. But straightforward talking is supposed to be this administration's strong point. And for all the talk of restoring honor and integrity to the White House, here we are again arguing over how to define "relationship."

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