Wednesday, May 20, 2015

From Ancient Greece to Modern Babylon

OK, quick break from ancient Greece because the Iraq War is back in the news and I just can't resist weighing in.  The Republican candidates are being asked if it was a mistake and the consensus answer is that in the clear light of hindsight it was a mistake, but President Bush was misled into it by faulty intelligence.  Hawkish Democrats like Hilary Clinton are saying much the same.  I weigh in as one who opposed the war from the start but never doubted that Saddam had chemical weapons and was open to persuasion on biological weapons.

Let's start with some links.  Paul Krugman links to three: Josh Marshall pointing out that Bush deliberately misrepresented the intelligence to make the case for war; Greg Sargent pointing out that plenty of people, faced with the same intelligence, did not see that it make the case for war; and Duncan Black arguing that in any event, being right was less important to the in crowd than being part of the Washington Consensus.  Of these articles, Marshall's is by far the best.  That many people opposed the war should go without saying (but then again, I was one of the people who opposed it, as were most people I knew).  Black is always more snark than serious analysis.  But Marshall makes an important point.  The intelligence was, indeed, wrong, but Bush did not simply go along with it.  He did his utmost to make it sound a lot worse than it really was.  On the subject of weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence of the day really did believe that Saddam had chemical and possibly biological weapons, but not nuclear weapons.  Bush and other members of his administration ran around talking about WMD and strongly implying that they meant nuclear weapons without quite coming out and saying so (most notoriously Condoleeza Rice who said that we didn't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud).  They also talked about "terrorism" and "taking the fight to the enemy" in such a way as to imply without quite saying that Saddam was responsible for 9-11.  These may not have been technical lies, but they insinuated something false with the intent to be understood that way.  I am not one who believes that there is any moral distinction between lying and making a technically accurate but deliberately misleading statement meant to be understood in an inaccurate way.  Or, as one famous critic of the Iraq War said:
We also learned in accounting class that the difference between "making a definite single false claim with provable intent to deceive" and "creating a very false impression and allowing it to remain without correcting it" is not one that you should rely upon to keep you out of jail. Even if your motives are noble.
Others argue that since the whole Washington consensus believed that Saddam had WMD, there was no deception involved, only intelligence failure. The obvious problem with that argument was that in the buildup to the war, the Bush Administration clearly thought the intelligence was faulty in the opposite direction -- that it was underestimating the menace Saddam posed.  Administration officials regularly visited the CIA urging them to reconsider or pointing out sources they thought would show a greater threat.  They even created the Office of Special Plans to sift through intelligence data for anything that could justify the invasion.  I am prepared to concede that the Bush Administration did not know that Saddam really did not have a chemical or biological, let alone nuclear arsenal or ties with al-Qaeda.  No doubt they sincerely believed these things did exist and the intelligence community was just missing them.  In other words, the Administration was trying to frame a man they believed to be guilty.  But to say, how were we supposed to know, the intelligence misled us when you spent the whole buildup to the war arguing that the intelligence was missing the severity of the threat is grossly disingenuous.

Or, put differently, to say that the Bush Administration, the intelligence community, and the Democrats were all wrong so why the fuss is to assume that there are no degrees in being wrong. But, of course, there are.  Take a very simple example -- the game of guessing how many beans in this jar. Suppose the real number is 488.  A person who guesses 500 is technically wrong because the true number is 488, but for all intents and purposes the guess is right because it is as accurate as anyone has the ability to be.  Someone who says 400 beans or 600 is wrong, but reasonable.  Someone who says 200 beans or 1000 clearly is not so good at this game.  Someone who says 5,000 beans or 50 does not have a good enough sense of scale to be playing at all.  And anyone who says five beans, or 50,000 is just plain nuts.

So then, in the case of Iraq the jar is painted black so no one can actually see the beans, and Saddam is not allowing anyone to lift the jar.  The intelligence community calculates the capacity of the jar at 500 and estimates that there are 500 beans in the jar.  They know the jar might not be all the way full.  It never once occurs to the intelligence community that there might be no beans at all in the jar.  The Democrats accept the 500 bean estimate as accurate and acted accordingly.  The Bush Administration, by contrast, argues that the intelligence community has grossly underestimated the number of beans in the jar, and there must be at least 5,000.  Argument goes back and forth between the Administration and the intelligence community, with the Administration insisting that the intelligence community is grossly underestimating the number of beans and the intelligence community saying that an estimate of 5,000 is simply not credible.  After some wrangling, they agree on a compromise number of 1,000.  Then they actually open the jar and discover that it is empty. Sorry, but the Bush Administration does not get to argue that the intelligence community led it to believe that there were 1,000 beans or even 500.  Yes, there was a general, unquestioned consensus about 500 beans.  But anyone insisting on 5,000 beans or even 1,000 was a whole lot more wrong than the general Washington consensus.

Of course, to make the analogy really work, instead of beans we should be talking about pellets of poison about the shape and size of beans, in the hands of a known sociopath.  Yes, the overwhelming consensus was that he had some poison pellets, but 500 is simply not the same as 5,000 and does not necessarily call for the same response.  Or if you just can't believe anyone would think there could be 5,000 poison pellets in a jar with only a 500 pellet capacity, maybe the dispute would be about the quality of the poison.  The intelligence community recognizes that the sociopath can only make poison in a crude home lab and therefore the threat is manageable because the poison in the pellets is not all that strong.  The Bush Administration insists that they treat it as industrial grade poison of a quality that the sociopath simply lacks the capacity to make.  Then it turns out that there is no poison in the jar at all.  Once again, both parties are wrong, but the intelligence community is more realistic in its threat-level assessment than the Administration.

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