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Some say it's nothing but a train wreck ... roll in the big cranes, clear the track, see what the crew was smoking. If I thought so, I'd not be writing this ... and if they thought so, they'd not be drumming so hard.


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Many thanks to Tony Adragna and Will Vehrs, still shouting 'cross the Potomac at QuasiPundit. Early Camp Enron material can be found in QP's Dispatches department.
Wednesday, April 23, 2003

 
--- Operation Desert Snipe ---

The Snipe Hunt is an American folk tradition, a rite of passage for the novice outdoorsman ... an elaborate practical joke which ends with the initiate crouching alone in the woods, in the dark, literally "holding the bag", waiting for the nonexistent Snipe.

What if we sift through all the sand in Iraq without finding WMDs? (That means hundreds of tons, as advertised ... not lab samples, training rounds or inventory strays.) We're alone in the woods, in the dark, holding the bag. Paraphrasing NYT's Tom Friedman, we will have gone to war on the wings of a snipe.

Too early to call it a night. It's a big desert, our last candle hasn't flickered out, and the mocking call of the snipe still echoes hauntingly in the distance, but ... the original standard WMD thesis is strictly defunct.
Saddam Hussein had extensive, active, advanced, clandestine chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. UN inspectors couldn't find WMDs because they were inept, or corrupt, or because Saddam played the shell game so masterfully. US intelligence pinpointed dozens of high-value target sites, hundreds of intermediate-value sites and thousands of low-value sites. Chemical and perhaps biological weapons were deployed to commanders in the field, who had orders to use them against invading Coalition forces. Special Forces teams were dropping in to secure and neutralize high-value sites in advance of the ground assault, with high-tech analytic Mobile Exploitation Teams (MET's) close on their heels.
Six weeks ago, it was beyond the pale to suggest otherwise. Today the man in the street doesn't exactly care much about WMD's ... but he's curious. The men in the hawk's nest -- and some of their media enablers -- care a lot. Alternative explanations are being spun out so rapidly, they're not even kept on the same page.


In public, Bush and Blair -- as they must -- still insist WMDs will turn up. Behind closed doors, staff are obliquely, deniably huffing into trial balloons, testing branches of the contingency that never earned a spot of Rumsfeld's contingency sheet. What if there are no WMDs?

A Washington Post embed reports analysts here and in Washington are increasingly doubtful that they will find what they are looking for in the places described on a five-tiered target list ... strategy is shifting from the rapid "exploitation" of known suspect sites to a vast survey that will rely on unexpected discoveries and leads.

Come what may later on, Blair's dossiers, Powell's "solid intelligence", and Rumsfeld's "bulletproof evidence" are dead letters. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre.

Operation Desert Snipe is a marvelous case study in one of CP's pet themes -- collective self-deception. The plot spoilers were there all the time. "Everybody" was so sure, and so wrong. Down the page, we'll retrace the divergent arcs of evidence and attitude that brought us to this pass, and we'll sample some of the surviving alternative theses ... but first, a rundown of Truth or Consequences.


The joke is on us, but does it matter any more? We won, didn't we?

Yes, we won ... and yes, it still matters, else high officialdom wouldn't be clinging gamely to the original premise. And the PR labs wouldn't be working overtime testing damage control solutions.

From August's "what's all this frenzy about a war?", to September's "you don't introduce new products in August", through November's election victory over an opposition "soft" on Saddam, through the winter games of spinning Blix on ice, through Powell's PowerPoint prestidigitation in February, to a no-time-to-vote forced March, we plied the crowd with predictable fare. We loosened them up with liberation cocktails. We circulated tray after tray of Saddam-as-Hitler appetizers. We dutifully jotted down orders for commercial or strategic side-dishes. But the main course was always a grand sterling-covered platter of sizzling Snipe a la Bush.

No WMD, no War Powers Resolution. No WMD, no UN Res. 1441. No WMD, no Coalition of the Willing. No WMD, no Azores ultimatum. Everything hinged on Iraq's possession of WMD, and her intransigent refusal to give them up. Scratch the surface of any auxiliary casus belli, and chances are you'll find a circular argument: "Saddam is evil and dangerous. How do we know? Because he has WMDs. How can we be so sure he has WMDs? Because he's evil and dangerous."

"If she floats, she's a witch ... burn her at the stake! If she drowns, the poor thing's innocent." Did we go to war because Iraq failed a test she could only pass by surrendering artifacts she did not possess and could not reacquire?

Did we run Hans Blix off the case because he was ineffective? Or because he was too effective?

Why were we in such a hurry to dis-arm little Ali? Did we face an unacceptable risk that Saddam would pass nukes to terrorists? Or an unacceptable risk that the moment would pass without incident?


The Stakes
Bad enough if we were deceived. Worse if we deceived ourselves. Worse yet if we knew it all along, and deceived others. The downside is substantial. (Maybe that's why we never faced up to it.) We called the shot, we called it wrong, and there are consequences.
Intelligence impacts are unavoidable. We won't trust our own stuff ... and that uncertainty will cost us dearly somewhere down the road. Foreign agencies won't trust our stuff. Our several agencies won't trust each other. Buckpassing antics, and the leakage that goes with them, will intensify. Local law enforcement won't trust national intelligence. And we'll think twice before paying retail for Israeli intel "product".

Heads will roll ... first whistle-blowers, then scapegoats, then whole ranks of intel leadership will be laid waste for spinning or being spun, for twisting arms or caving in ... or for not caving in. Career professionals who played it straight are already alienated, retired or bureaucratically gulag'd.

Individual agents will get the idea it's just a cynical game, and cynically lower their resistance to temptation.

CIA Director Tenet makes a good fall guy (and he can be recycled as a West Bank special envoy). Powell is damaged goods. Despite appearances, parallel forces are converging invisibly on the Colossus of Rumsfeld. The whole neocon ideological aerie is destabilized, and we can't begin to guess how the surrounding ecosystem will adjust.

There will be investigations and hearings, for show and for real, for politics, for justice and for history. The unexcavated backlog of questions from 9/11 is still piling up. Dots will be connected. There will be spectacular disclosures, and quiet burials ... new Woodwards and Bernsteins and Deep Throats.

Intel community uprisings are inevitable. They're already underway in the UK, with the arrest of a deliberate leaker, and "fairly serious rows" at top level over intel findings "spiced up to make a political argument".

A considerable roster of familiar talking heads, prize-winning journalists and best-selling authors will see their reputations go up in smoke. (Oddly enough, this doesn't seem to slow them down a whit.)

France will laugh their collective derriere off, perhaps deriding us as a pathetic bunch of ketchup-eating attack monkeys!

UK (who signed on for disarmament, not liberation) may undergo regime change. So might Spain, Australia and eventually Italy. Partners in future coalitions will be harder to recruit.

Economic and legal consequences may ensue. Reparations? Who would enforce them? International trade bodies, perhaps. Torts? Bad cases make bad law, and the extended consequences for global rule of law (and hence commerce) may exceed expectations.

US no longer ranks as leading citizen in the community of nations. We're now the muscular, loudmouthed, gun-toting paranoid sot at the end of the block ... the new "serial miscalculator". Nobody wants us at their garden parties, nobody wants our opinion on neighborhood disputes, and nobody wants their kids to grow up to be like us.
What if "the goods" turn up later, neatly consolidated in a subterranean vault? The Coalition is almost as fully discredited. We wagered blood, treasure and sacred honor on the proposition that we knew what Saddam had, where he kept it, and how to prove it. We swore the stuff was field-deployed. We swore it all with a straight face ... the same face that now croaks "it is not like a treasure hunt".

Potential winners include presidential aspirants Bob Graham and John Edwards. Both hold minority seats on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Graham in particular has hinted at improper variances between public and classified intelligence postures. He can't say much directly, but he may lure Bush into verifiable self-serving lies against the classified truth. (Bush, for his part, seems susceptible enough.) The rules of triangulation then change considerably.

We may learn to walk more humbly amid the wastelands of imperfect information and credulous social consensus. That's the big "we", all of us, given fresh object lessons in how wrong we can be when we're as certain as we can be.


Evidence and Inference
Last summer CP raised hackles by suggesting there was as much as one chance in a hundred that Saddam had already folded his WMD tent. On the eve of war, we put the odds at three in ten. (The estimate would have been higher, but we gave deferential weight to conclusions formed by reputable insiders.) Today the odds are better than seven in ten that Iraq had no significant WMD, and ten in ten that the standard thesis is false.

The possibility was always there, staring us in the face.
Technically, our affirmative case was far from conclusive. The net amount of WMD materiel acquired, less materiel destroyed or degraded, was always well within the margin of error for ordinary bulk inventory accounting. Foreign intelligence knew it, antiwar activists knew it, foreign press knew it, but US war fever mentality excluded it. The remainder of the case rested on mind-reading Saddam's perfidious intentions ... always a dangerous game.

Tactically, Saddam might have contrived to deal us a PR blow by covertly destroying residual stocks and inviting the inspectors in ... while preserving the ability to brew them up again later. [Only enriched nuclear material and biological seed cultures are physically compact and expensive enough to justify preservation.]

Strategically, Saddam had enough experience to appreciate the limited practical value of chemical weapons. Biological weapons were an expensive hobby. He certainly coveted nukes (whose strategic value increased tenfold when we went after Iraq and passed on North Korea) but his program was probably stalemated, and his options for using nukes were never as inviting as best-selling table talk pretended.

We really should have had a clue, shouldn't we? We did. Let's start at the shallow end of the open-source swamp.

Iraq told us they had nothing left. Take that with a large grain of salt ... the same officials swore "there are no infidels in Baghdad" ... but we played the same source cards high and low. When Saddam's in-law Kamel defected, we took his portrait of WMD programs straight to the bank. When Kamel told us the programs had been scrapped (as senior officials confirm in the post-Saddam era), we buried the story.

If we had a mountain of direct evidence, as claimed, Powell could have brought the Security Council more than a few shiny nuggets of fool's gold. He didn't.

More decisively, the very first week of renewed UN inspections produced unambiguous, direct categorical refutations of specific unhedged high-profile intelligence claims made by both US and UK.
Bush personally voiced specific accusations -- with supporting visual aids -- of "new construction" at Al Furat's former uranium enrichment plant. On-site inspection found no new construction ... only weathered rebar protruding from construction abandoned ten years earlier ... not the sort of thing you can readily counterfeit. Iraq suggested that corrosion on unprotected material gave it a different ("new") visual cast. Alternatively, improved high-resolution imaging capabilities may have exposed long present ("new") detail. Embarrassing either way.

Blair's Dossier fingered the al-Daura vaccine plant as a locus of resurgent bioweapons efforts. On the ground, no trace of anything resurging -- malevolent or benign. Again, politically-spun intelligence leads to embarrassment ... except for those who are incapable of embarrassment.
We were deep in the grip of war fever, and flashing neon warning signs of cooked intelligence went by the boards. Jane's Defence Weekly (2003-03-05) diagnosed a case of "incestuous amplification ... where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation".

If we had a large portfolio of direct, reliable evidence, we should have fed UNMOVIC more than "shit, shit and shit" for leads. A single verifiable tip would have done wonders for US credibility, and would not have given away the store (unless the shelves were practically bare).

Did we share our best intel with UN inspectors? There is controversy on this point. We said we couldn't (UNMOVIC was bugged, inspections would be a tip-off, disclosure would spoil sources & methods or compromise targeting data, Special Forces would be put at risk). We said we had done ... at least for all high and medium-value sites. After-class chatter suggested neither was entirely true, and we never played straight with anybody, least of all ourselves.

The strongest inference flows directly from the infertility of US intelligence ... from the pattern of haystacks torched and needles not found when the ashes were sifted.
Suppose -- per the standard thesis -- Saddam had major WMD research, production, inventory and deployment programs. That implies thousands of incriminating points of presence ... physical artifacts, persons, documents, messages. And suppose -- again per standard -- that we had immense stocks of specific leads ... some direct, some inferential, but altogether thousands of points of interest.

We wouldn't expect a perfect match, but what were the odds that these two lists would not overlap at a single point? Not likely. After probing enough points of interest, we'd have to hit some points of presence ... even if our suspect list was cranked out by monkeys with typewriters.

Benchmark illustration: US troops have already discovered caches of US currency, approaching a billion dollars worth ... stumbling on them in unlikely places, without looking for them, quite by accident. In case Saddam had 1,000 times as much WMD as he had cash, we should have found some by now.
CP could elaborate the damning Bayesian statistics here, but it comes down to a simpler rule of thumb: if a proposition is true and important, it's highly probable you can prove it without resort to probability theory. A universe of stubborn, contrary facts was screaming for attention, and we turned a deaf ear.

A endless series of slapstick intelligence antics led up to Snipe Season's opening gun. Home-brewed ricin in London ... a balsa wood Drone of Mass Destruction ... missiles that "could hit the US" (provided they were shipped here first) ... forged uranium transfer documents and the aluminum tube follies ... "mobile labs" that on firsthand inspection proved to be food testing trucks ... an intel dossier plagiarised (typos and all) from student papers with times, places and conclusions changed to bolster the argument.

Categorical refutation of a single highest-confidence intelligence estimate should have premised a discreet inquiry. Umpteen such events in rapid succession should premise an Inquisition.

The follies continued after the ground campaign got underway. A warehouse full of SCUDs in one news cycle evaporated by the next. A "nerve agent" cache was a pesticide dump. Buried "chemical warheads" near a northern airfield failed the acid test. Likewise a half-rack of MLRS rockets. Special Forces broke down a terrorist camp in Kurdish territory and found recipes for "three kinds of chlorine gas" (probably the same three kinds you'd produce at home if you ignored the warning labels on household bleach). Numerous CW "finds" were defensive -- gas masks and atropine injectors -- and often past shelf-date.

No inspection regime can find everything ... but no concealment regime can hide everything either. UNMOVIC probed aggressively starting in December. Special Forces probed more aggressively prewar. There's no concealment regime left, we've probed scores of high-value targets, hundreds of medium-value targets ... and we are still batting 0-fer. At some point the question morphs from "Where are the WMDs?" to "How did we let ourselves swallow that WMD line without de-baiting it?".


Attitudes, Opinions, Reinvented Expectations
We've followed the arc of evidentiary inference from plausible surmise to untenable fixation. Now let's review the arc of opinion ... that's where we find the real smoking gun of collective gullibility.

From the beginning, prominent hawks described Saddam's WMD programs in great detail, and with uncompromising certitude ... but the evidence was classified, war proponents were not the most sober judges of risk and opportunity, and doubt lingered in the air like the scent of dead woodchuck under the porch.

A Labor Day sales blitz turned the tide. Cable news networks hopped on the bandwagon with "Showdown" this and "Countdown" that. Ken Pollack's Threatening Storm gave protective cover to more liberal, multilateral hawks. A light-weight space-age composite of auxiliary casus belli was molded to reinforce the creaky WMD superstructure. By weight of sheer repetition, Saddam grew bigger and deadlier. We've got to get him before he gets us!.

In February, "reluctant warrior" Colin Powell presented a WMD-rich case to the UN Security Council. CIA Director (and reputed foot-dragger) George Tenet sat behind him, vouching with his very presence. To those who hungered for conviction, this was the clincher ... though it consisted entirely of photos out of context, loose paraphrases of translations of dialect audio intercepts (also out of context), artist's renderings of things not seen, and offhand reference to evidence never presented.

For such worthies as Slate's Tim Noah and Fred Kaplan, "take the phrase 'nerve agents' out of the wireless instructions" was a smoking gun. [Your humble Provocateur found it no more dispositive than "take the phrase 'floppy disks' out of the database instructions".]

At this point, most hawks quit treating doves with anything resembling civility, and many "reluctant hawks" -- still rejecting the standard thesis -- bowed to fait accompli and found cognitive comfort in an array of even more inventive arguments in favor of war.

Two or three days before the shooting started, the winds of punditry shifted perceptibly. Talking heads openly hedged their bets ... musing aloud: "What if we don't find WMDs?". Candid speculation would no longer affect the outcome, but it could serve as a reputational safety harness.

In prewar press backgrounders, Special Forces were scheduled to drop in silently and secure key WMD sites in advance of the visible war. A full moon later, the past has changed a bit. Those plans disclosed on background? They never existed. We never expected quick results ... are you out of your mind? It's a big country ... not as big as Texas, but a mighty big country ... and there are thousands of places we haven't looked yet, and may not get around to looking for a year or more. And we don't expect to find anything by looking ... somebody will have to tell us.


Before the war, a majority of John Q. Public would have insisted on finding WMDs. Postwar, an overwhelming majority (6 or 8 of 10, depending which poll you like) no longer gives a hoot. We won, get over it!

Public expectations are still open to post-traumatic reinvention, especially if Iraqi democracy goes sour, shocks to national security crop up elsewhere, or the economy stays soggy. Which trumps which ... the "I've been had" effect? Or the "I'll be damned if I'm ever going to admit I've been had" effect?

Prewar or postwar, hawk, dove or undecided, man-on-the-street" opinion was remarkably uniform on one count. Everybody and his cousin assumed the Coalition was prepared to plant WMD evidence if necessary. Maybe everybody and his cousin sees too many movies. Or then again, maybe not.
... the CIA has exaggerated nearly all aspects of the WMD program in Iraq in order to support the administration. ... US planted Vietnamese uniforms and supplies in the Parrot's Beak area of Cambodia to make a case for the still secret war ... planted caches of weapons in Central America to justify and widen the war against the Sandinistas ... collaborated on a "finding" of boats on the Salvadoran coast in 1981 to link the FMLN to the Sandanistas ... essentially "planted" intelligence on the Papal Plot in 1985 and falsified a national intelligence estimate on Iran in 1986. (Mel Goodman, ex-CIA)
The planting prospect was -- and is -- discussed with remarkable openness. METs were composed with this concern in mind (though they excluded CIA -- the most independent branch). UNMOVIC is on the outside looking in, and Russia is reluctant to drop UN sanctions until UNMOVIC completes its mission.


Once the shooting war started, WMD "discoveries" were a breathless staple of war coverage.
CNN would tease a "disturbing new development". Judy Woodruff put on her best "disturbing new development" facial expression, cued "disturbing new development" theme music, and tossed it to Wolf Blitzer for a barrage of "smoking gun" overkill. An expert talking head popped up at the push of a button, reliably confirming "this looks like the Real McCoy", and internet message boards lit up with the cries of the gloat-hawk.

Every day, another "disturbing new development" quietly bit the dust. Rarely an obituary -- perhaps some mumble about "inconclusive tests". Slickly edited "smoking gun" video packages stayed in news rotation for hours or days after the respective spoilers came in.
Thirty days on, the news climate changed. After a virtual Olympiad of false starts, the smoking guns stopped smoking. Newshounds no longer salivated on cue, and damage control experts took over.


So we haven't found any WMD. There are plenty of reasonable explanations ... depending how warm the audience is. Try one of these on for size:
Saddam had WMDs, which were incinerated in coalition attacks. Funny, that's what Saddam said last time ... at least in part ... and we didn't buy it then. Probably true, in part ... but too convenient, on the whole.

We found WMD, but it's so secret we can't reveal it. Not credible ... not even if there's a Carlyle Group logo on every item.

WMD are hidden so well nobody has found them yet ... the "vault thesis". Incompatible with the standard thesis, and equally devastating to US intel reputation ... but faintly plausible. The goods could be consolidated in a relatively small volume. The technicians and forklift operators -- like Pharoah's pyramid architects -- could have been buried along with the goods. Saddam had the only key, and he's not talking. There are no seed cultures. (They'd require power supplies for controlled environments, and rotation of growth media.) There's no fissile material. (Gamma survey would find it despite shielding, and it there'd be a big, dirty production site somewhere ... US hasn't even figured out how to decontaminate its own WW II extraction facilities.)

Saddam slipped the goods across the border into Syria months ago. Unlikely from a number of perspectives, but plausible. Promoted by Israeli intel, which has its own agenda. Incompatible with the main corpus of prewar "solid intelligence", and suffers from most of the "vault thesis" plot spoilers.
There are a couple of late entrants in the reinvention derby. Most prominent is a report by NYT's Judith Miller, embedded with MET Alpha. In this version, an informant reveals that Saddam ordered all WMD destroyed just days before the war. So ...
Saddam brought a superpower down on his head rather than surrender these WMDs? Then he destroyed the same precious WMDs rather than use them against the superpower? As in the vault thesis, he does this without leaving major production-residue signatures. And ...

US intel was comprehensively wrong on every detail ... but coincidentally correct on the central premise ... but almost all of that evidence no longer exists. And ...

The story -- pre-cleared with the military -- reaches us through a chain of biased sources: a surprise witness (who tells us everything we want to hear, complete with an al Qaeda connection), one or more military intelligence operatives, and an embedded reporter who hasn't met the informant or seen any evidence, and who laid her reputational neck on the line with the WMD hawks a long way back.
Only a prize-winning, best-selling subject-matter specialist could get a piece like this printed in the Podunk Herald. Miller is a journalistic rock star -- deservedly so -- but she's stuck in the desert, holding the bag, waiting for the snipe, while a goddamn real biological terror -- SARS -- bounces around the globe. In short, this report walks like a fish, quacks like a fish, and smells like a fish.


On yesterday's Nightline, Ted Koppel spotted what may be a more promising explanatory trial balloon -- "all's fair in love and war". By this thesis, we were never serious about WMD. WMD was never anything more than a necessary selling tool for war. War was necessary and salutary as an "object lesson" to lesser beings, reminding them (for their own good) that the US is big and tough. Why now? "9/11 changed everything". Why Iraq? No special reason ... Iraq presented itself as an adversary of convenience. Koppel gathered unabashed supporting testimony from B-list neocon hawks, including former CIA Director Woolsey.

So no WMDs -- and no apologies! You've been had, John Q. Public, and it's for your own good! Same for you, Coalition of the Willing! A disturbing new development, but this looks like the Real McCoy! Over to you, Wolf ...



Monday, March 17, 2003

 
--- War Opposition Matters Now More Than Ever ---

The world at large will necessarily react to Plan Iraq ... and not in a good way. (See immediate preceding post.) Those abroad who stand with Bush will not stand long in office, and even while they stand they must task defense theorists to game out contingencies in which history finds them standing against us.

If all this plays out badly, the American Era is over ... and that may not be the worst of it.

Vocal, visible, vigorous war opposition is terribly important. We'll be booed off the world stage unless the world sees our role in Plan Iraq as an aberration -- not typical US behavior. Most hope for reconciliation and recovery lies in leading the global audience to view the action as psychodrama, not melodrama. In other words, we have to construct a temporary insanity defense:
It's not the real USA ... it's reaction to the trauma of 9/11. We're hurt, we're scared, we lash out. Understandable, and understandably temporary.

It's not the real USA ... it's unfit leadership. Our fault -- one of those drawbacks of democracy in action -- but we can correct it democratically.

It's not the real USA ... it's an intelligence glitch. We can learn from it and do better (as with any of several Cold War near-disasters).

It's not the real USA ... it's the intoxication of unchecked power. Tough one, that. Can we promise to "grow into" our newly-acquired unique superpowers, like some comic-book hero? Or is our fate sealed in advance, like a protagonist in Greek myth?
The more clearly we express home-grown opposition ... the more bravely and proudly we stand up for the OTHER America ... the more quickly and decisively we dump the people who got us into this fix ... the better a case we can make for clemency and probationary re-entry to the community of nations.

Stop the War. Now More Than Ever.




 
--- Choice of Evils ---

Plan Iraq had been pressed to the extent that there is no benign alternative. On every side there is the prospect of manifest harm to US principles and interests. What are we up against?

Suppose US refrains from invading Iraq at this point.
Emboldened, Saddam may resist inspection. Saddam may underestimate US/allied resolve, with serious consequences in future encounters. Other international actors may miscalculate likewise, with dire consequences.

Saddam's ruthless regime stays in power.

In domestic politics, a "Who lost Iraq?" faction emerges to blame so-called "appeasers" for every subsequent misfortune.
Suppose we invade Iraq, against the express or implied will of the Security Council.
US maintains on the order of 100,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, taking sporadic casualties ... sometimes in triple digits. The burden is aggravated by developments outside the dotted lines -- downstream regional conflicts (whether incidental or deliberate), loss of allies, demise of peacekeeping institutions, opportunistic thrusts by unrelated actors out-of-region. As a result the familiar all-volunteer, reserve-heavy US force structure becomes unsustainable.

Containment of unchecked US power becomes a widely shared concern. China, France, Russia and others gain stature (and economic clout) as preferred strategic partners and defense vendors. US loses basing rights, overflight privileges and other military concessions (in nearly 130 nations at present). US air power, sea power and global reach are compromised.

US-friendly factions lose influence everywhere. Noncommitted states become overtly anti-American. Anti-US alliances develop. Terrorists win new state sponsors. US (predictably) resorts to 1960's-style regime puppeteering (with predictable blowback). Military factions gain influence, some develop into dictatorships, and some of those become Saddam clones.

With the US isolated, Israel is isolated by proxy. Postwar domestic reaction and overextended defense programs may make US an ally in name only.

In Iraq's democracy after Saddam, US is the all-purpose scapegoat. Organized anti-US factions are major (if not dominant) political forces. International terrorist habitat improves by orders of magnitude, even under US military governance.

Immediate reactive terrorist acts may occur, but should not be chalked up against the war. Most will be works-in-progress moved up on the calendar (with corresponding reduction in near-future deliveries). Long term prospects are harder to assess, but the incidence of global terrorism increases in most variations.

International intelligence and law enforcement relationships are compromised. Transparent political gamesmanship creates fertile ground for a new generation of high-clearance turncoats like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

Identifiable US brands, US-based multinationals, US tourism are disadvantaged in global markets. Favorable exchange rates and foreign capital inflows -- both premised on positive US economic outlook -- are reversed. Multilateral trade declines. World economic output declines. Military budgets absorb larger fractions of remaining output.

[Most of the consequences above are at the optimistic end of the scale. Pessimistic scenarios include pandemic plague and WW III. The mid-scale portfolio would include a Chinese embassy bombing, extended regional warfare, major disruption of oil supplies, small-scale nuclear exchange, immediate proliferation of nukes to radical Islamic states.]

In light of best current information (and misinformation), it's possible no WMD caches exist. [Call it 3 chances in 10.] This would be more than embarrassing.
Either way, Plan Iraq was destined to estrange Americans from each other, bitterly, perhaps violently, in ways that will persist after all of us are gone.

Either way, a large fraction of US citizens -- maybe an overwhelming majority, maybe a permanently embattled minority -- will eventually learn they've been driven warward (in Tom Friedman's words) "on the wings of a lie".

Suppose we had waited.
The situation would have changed markedly when and if a single US "solid intelligence" lead had ever panned out on the ground.

The situation would have changed measurably when and if inspectors met increased resistance.

The situation would have changed markedly when gamma ray surveys confirmed or disconfirmed presence of a nuke program.

The situation would have changed (perhaps not favorably) if US revealed an explicit post-Saddam plan of governance.

The situation would have changed if US conveyed a more disciplined, less bloodthirsty impression to its diplomatic peers.
The war now cranks on of its own momentum ... as large projects are wont to when interim findings separate The Plan from its reasons for being.



Friday, February 21, 2003

 
--- "Some say the world will end in fire" ---

"I ran away ... my cat ran away ... and after that it was every man for himself."
(KCPQ on-street interview with an apartment fire refugee)



Wednesday, February 12, 2003

 
--- More Powell To Ya ---

Colin Powell raised a multitude of eyebrows yesterday morning when he announced the existence of a new bin Laden tape, one that proves Osama and Saddam are in cahoots.

As the news cycle unfolded, al-Jazeera did indeed have a tape. [BBC transcript here.] Assuming the tape is genuine, bin Laden does indeed address the looming Gulf War II. He calls on all good Muslims to repel American "crusaders" and "infidels". And he shares his assessment of US military:
"... in combat, they mainly depend on psychological warfare. ... They also depend on massive air strikes ..."
But bin Laden clearly marks Saddam and fellow Ba'athists as "socialists" and "infidels" [not as bad as "apostates", but sword-worthy nonetheless], whose regime is illegitimate, whose "jurisdiction ... has fallen a long time ago", who remain infidels "whether they are in Baghdad or Aden".

[Some confusion arose over whether bin Laden includes Saddam among the "hypocrites of Iraq" who are "apostates and outside the community of Muslims", such that true Muslims may permissibly "spill their blood and take their property". As I read this, it applies not to Saddam, but to those in Iraq and elsewhere who collaborate with "crusaders".]

None of this plausibly supported Powell's morning testimony, and thus raised another multitude of eyebrows. Speculation grew that Powell would reappear to amend his remarks or adjust his position.

Instead, Powell appeared on the Hill again this morning, insisting the tape confirms his interpretation. Here, we have a problem.

To paraphase Powell's UN presentation: "My charges are based on solid intelligence -- intelligence not unlike the impressive-looking artifacts you see here today (which do not address such charges). Take my word for it, similar undisclosed artifacts do support these charges, and I would not interpret them falsely." [see posts below]

Powell's case rests on his reading of privileged evidence. Yet the Osama tape lets us look over his shoulder as he reads public evidence. We can see bin Laden's original lines bent to intersect Powell's predetermined target ... and we imagine this interpretive motif recurring and compounding as information percolates through the pipelines and pyramids of our intelligence infrastructure.

Obligatory note: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was so dissatisfied with existing agencies' failure to validate the link between Saddam and al Qaeda, he chartered his own agency. Has CIA's George Tenet now become a true believer? Alone, or with agency buy-in? Or is he playing a classic double game to keep himself and/or his agency in the loop?


UPDATE: Powell's credibility took another hit today when he announced "The ricin that is bouncing around Europe now originated in Iraq". Per CNN:
A French intelligence source said he was "stunned" by Powell's comment. "There is no, repeat, no suggestion that the ricin was anything but locally produced," he said. "It was bad quality, not technically sophisticated."

Further, the source said, British authorities "are clear" that the poison was "home-made."

State Department officials said that Powell was likely referring to the "knowledge and capability" to produce ricin ...
Iraq processes castor beans (source of ricin) on industrial scale, and has produced ricin in quality and quantity, but does not appear implicated in the current case. Members of the European poison web have contacts with al-Zarqawi, but the ricin cookbook has been open-book since the late 1800's, and current contacts seem linked to Chechnya and Pankisi Gorge.



Monday, February 10, 2003

 
--- Powell Spoiler Updates ---

CP hasn't seen print copy yet, but Newsweek gets in the game with a frame by frame review of Powell's case here. Excerpts:
The intercepts clearly refer to stray items, not big caches.

Iraqis are disputing the English translations provided by the U.S. State Department.

... truck-mounted labs would be all but unworkable. The required ventilation systems would make them instantly recognizable from above, and they would need special facilities to safely dispose of their deadly wastes ... U.S. intelligence, after years of looking for them, has never found even one.

U.N. inspectors said they verified the destruction of almost all Iraqi chemical weapons and ingredients after Operation Desert Storm. By now, any leftover supplies would have degraded beyond use.
From a more unabashed generalized antiwar perspective, Traprock Peace Center offers Glen Rangwala's point by point analysis, with much useful comment. They also maintain an extensive survey of "Claims and evaluations of Iraq's proscribed weapons". Take the evaluations as you will, Rangwala's comprehensive running index of claims and counterclaims should prove valuable to advocates in both camps.

For more Powell-watch coverage, see:
Slacktivist here and here.

Thomas Spencer here, here, and especially here.

An ICG backgrounder on Ansar al-Islam here

BBC's visit to the Ansar al-Islam "poison camp" here.
Regarding Powell's assessment of al-Zarqawi, numerous doubts have been raised with respect to:
(a) his relationship with al Qaeda, if any. Not previously identified as a Bin Laden subordinate, he fought with Afghan mujahdeen against Soviet occupation (contemporaneous with bin Laden), headed his own group (Al Tawhid), ran his own training camp under Taliban protection.

(b) his focal mission, which seems to involve bringing Islamist theocracy to Jordan through a program of assassinations.

(c) his relationship to Ansar al-Islam, whose focal mission seems to involve wresting Kurdish leadership from the secular PUK, then bringing Islamist theocracy to Iraq. [In related developments, Ansar assassinates PUK leaders.]

(d) his sponsorship, which seems more closely linked to Iran than Iraq (as does Ansar al-Islam's).

(e) his relationship to Saddam, if any, and presence in Baghdad, if any. He has not been reported at large in Baghdad since Jordan sought Iraqi cooperation in his arrest.
See an International Herald Tribune profile on Zarqawi here. (It's the NYT piece, acessible w/o registration on NYT's IHT.)

Iraqi expatriate nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri suggests Powell may have misread the "death threat" evidence: "The four or five, as I recall such declarations, which I read in detail, held us to the penalty of death in the event that we did not hand in all of the sensitive documents and reports that may still be in our possession!"

And the UK Independent expands on the intel retaliation theme: "Mr Blair is facing an unprecedented, if covert, rebellion by his top spies, who last week used the politicians’ own weapon – the strategic leak – against him."



Sunday, February 09, 2003

 
--- Colin Powell, the Adlai Moment, and the OJ Question ---

We digress from our series Unpacking the Case for Invading Iraq, to unpack Colin Powell's presentation at the Security Council.

Wednesday, Feb.5, 2003 was Powell's "Adlai Stevenson moment" ... an allusion to the time Stevenson rocked the world by unveiling overhead photography of Russian missile sites in Cuba.

US mainstream editorialists pronounce Powell's presentation "convincing". Senator Joe Biden declares "If I had this evidence before ... an unbiased jury, I could get a conviction". Arch-liberal columnist Mary McGrory says "I'm persuaded". "Powell shows litany of regime's deception" blares the teaser for an Aussie newsfeed. Other global reaction was mixed, and Security Council feedback leans to "No sale!". Wonder why?

These "moments" have a way of losing their luster by the time History gets done with them. Reagan's televised moment -- charting "Soviet airbase" construction on Grenada -- was bogus. Bush41's bill of evils against Noriega was juiced with bogus intel. Bogus intel cemented the Gulf War Coalition and stampeded the Senate into approving it. LBJ's Tonkin Gulf "moment" -- bogus. Madeline Albright's "moment" -- displaying the detonator "fingerprint" linking Saddam to a car-bomb intended for Bush41 -- bogus. Stevenson's "moment" was real enough, but the intel gaps behind it nearly pitched us into WW III. Stevenson's other "moment", in the Bay of Pigs affair, held potential for career-ending credibility damage.

Powell's performance was incontestably brilliant. He grabbed our attention, told us what we were going to see, and ninety minutes later most of us left the tent convinced we had seen it. What, if anything, did we really see?

Working from video, press transcripts, and the official State Department version, I've made an effort to identify and dissect every major element of Powell's presentation. Let's see if there's any "there" there. [I may tidy up and add supporting links as I get to them.]

1. Electronic communications intercept ... ElBaradei is coming ... "modified vehicle" ... "evacuated"
Odd. ElBaradei (of IAEA) heads inspection for nuclear weapons -- the last place you'd find a "modified vehicle". Does "vehicle" means vehicle? It could refer to a container or gizmo or who knows what. What ever it is, the general officer in charge ("I'm worried you all have something left") didn't know he had it, and he's not supposed to have it as far as HQ is concerned. "We evacuated everything". In this context, everything clearly does not encompass the "modified vehicle". Curious as to nuance of the Arabic-to-English translation ... the English evacuated conveys a "remove from danger" connotation not carried by removed or emptied or swept.

In any event, this -- like the other two intercepts -- smacks of nothing more than routine pre-inspection brass-polishing ... same chatter you'd pick up eavesdropping on any US corporate branch office or military base on the eve of a VIP tour.

Why compromise signals intelligence by disclosing this? It is not dispositive. If Powell has better, why didn't he share it?

2. Second intercept ... "forbidden ammo" ... "destroy the message"
More brass-polishing and ass-covering, i.e., I hope you cleaned up what I told you to clean up ... and don't leave tracks, because I promised my boss it was already clean. "inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas" doesn't sound like top-secret project discipline.

3. "What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence"
Solid intelligence is something of an oxymoron. Powell vouches for his own forthcoming conclusions, based on his own sources and credibility, and plants the suggestion that you have seen and will see evidence supporting each point. Our evidentiary tour de force soon wanders from solid intel onto shaky ground.

4. "We know" ... weapons were "ordered removed" from palaces ... scientists hiding documents ... files driven around in cars ... hard drives replaced ... not only documents -- weapons ... missiles distributed in Western Iraq ... satellite photos of "banned materials" being moved
Vouching again. If we have solid intel on these points, why not present solid intel instead of those lame intercepts?

5. Active CW bunkers ... decontamination truck ... cleaned out ... "on the 22nd of December" just before inspection
Photo imagery lends an aura of substantiality to Powell's assertion ... but if the bunker was cleaned out 22 Dec., why is the "before" image dated "10 Nov"? Out of 30 similar sightings, why not cite a single more compelling example?

In any case, US would deploy similar decontamination support if it were working around a known high-toxicity legacy site, industrial or military.

6. UK's "fine paper ... which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities."
This paper documented deception activities, all right, and it became notorious only hours later. Heads are going to roll over this, and Blair's may be one of them. Plagiarized (clumsily, typo's and all) from published sources including Jane's and a grad student thesis ... except that the original thesis detailed Saddam's operations in Kuwait in 1991. Not just plagiarized, but plugged with more alarming estimates to punch up the conclusions. Foolish enough and obvious enough to suggest a deliberate effort to embarrass 10 Downing Street. What possible motive ... revenge for Blair's arm-twisting Brit intel for support of the case against Saddam?

The story is still unfolding ... start with this CASI discussion and this from Channel 4.

7. "housecleaning at close to 30 sites" ... "don't know precisely what Iraq was moving" ... "We must ask ourselves, why would Iraq suddenly move equipment"
Proof by suspicion. We don't know, so we must assume the worst.

8. U-2 flights, safe conduct denied
Iraq claims it can't guarantee safety of U-2 surveillance flights so long as US air patrols penetrate Iraqi airspace. Iraq asserts the right to shoot at these patrols (though it never hits anything), and the international community seems to agree. The 1991 cease-fire created "no fly" zones, but did not grant US enforcement powers. From US/UK perspective, we're enforcing an agreement the only way possible. From Iraq's perspective, they're exercising a legitimate right to territorial defense. It would be helpful if US sought, and UN approved, a resolution formally legitimizing US patrols and requiring Iraqi air defense to stand down. US doesn't want to seek formal approval, as any such request would imply we've been operating for 12 years without that authority.

9. Witness intimidation ... espionage accusations against UNMOVIC are "a veiled threat" that cooperative Iraqi's will be treated as traitors ... "human sources" reveal more explicit death threats ... "these are not assertions. These are facts"
But in point of fact these statements (though very likely true) are literally no more and no less than assertions -- in this case, assertions of hearsay.

10. Small vial is held up to the light ... ominous tones ... "less than a teaspoon ... shut down the United States Senate"
The anthrax moment ... high drama, but contrary to fact. "Mr. DASCHLE ... At about 10:15 this morning, a member of my staff opened an envelope ... the substance was anthrax ... this Senate and this institution will not stop. We will not cease our business. We will continue to work. ..." And so they did. (Congressional Record, 2001-10-15, Page S10673.)

Why gild the lily with a HOWLER so easily checked in preparation, and so easily exposed as fabrication? Why not gild the lily? Nobody called him on it.

At this point in the presentation, Powell has laid down a hypnotic groove and is plowing it deeper with each pass ... lulling us into a pattern of acceptance by rhythmically alternating assertions with evidentiary exhibits. Assertion, exhibit, assertion, exhibit, assertion, exhibit ... only the least susceptible subjects notice the exhibits are growing thinner and fuzzier, while assertions are growing bigger and heavier. Weak-minded subjects -- journalists and the like -- will go away convinced they have seen an exhibit to support every assertion.

Powell's "8,500 liters", by the way, pertains to liters of anthrax slurry ... not the equivalent of refined, dried, particulated spores simulated in Powell's vial. And hundreds of people did NOT receive emergency medical treatment ... they received -- or at least they were offered -- prophylactic doses of antibiotics.

11. Mobile BW production facilities
Powell makes up in detail what he lacks in documentation. Interior schematics, artists conceptions based on "firsthand descriptions" ... 7 units, 2 or 3 trucks each ... an accident killed 12.

Former UNSCOM exec Rolf Ekeus is skeptical: "... UNSCOM detected a system of mobility [but] a production line up on the flatbed of the truck, that sounds still a little difficult to believe ... not even Iraq is always that reckless. I still need to be a little convinced about that."

UNMOVIC exec Hans Blix has already complained about acting on US tips and "busting" mobile food safety inspection labs.

12. Iraq "weaponized" anthrax, botulinum, aflatoxin, ricin ... investigated a laundry list of others ... "has the wherewithal to develop smallpox"
Anthrax and botox are legitimate threats. Aflatoxin is a laughing stock in BW circles.

Ricin heretofore was relegated to the footnotes on Iraqi BW research ... well down the laundry list of other BW agents investigated. It is powerful -- a single molecule can kill a cell -- but BW community consensus does not rank it as well-suited to mass-casualty attacks. Iraq has NOT weaponized ricin ... it test-fired a single artillery shell loaded with ricin solution in 1988, with unsatisfactory results.

Suddenly, ricin is the latest Fear Factor Flavor of the Month ... all the rage in Europe! Powell headlines "ricin" to seed the mental association of Saddam with recent news events.

Smallpox is potentially disastrous ... not so much for the US as for the other 95% of Earth's population. There's no way to tell how fast it would spread in today's more mobile population, where the "speed bumps" of residual immunity (by vaccination or survived infection) are increasingly sparse. [We knew of Iraq's suspected "wherewithal" for many months, but only surfaced it publicly a few days before the November 2002 election.]

13. F-1 Test video of Mirage F-1 sprayer-modified drop tank
To many viewers, this was the emotional clincher. Powell recites the lethal effect of a pinch of this or a pinch of that, then wows us with the image of 2,000 pounds sprayed over vast territories. In context, most of the audience probably remembers it as US intel revealing Iraqi BW advances ... but that's not what they saw and heard.

The chilling dramatic effect would be attenuated if Powell emphasized that this is Iraqi footage, not US surveillance ... that it dates to 1990 or 1991, not 2002 ... that Iraq provided it to UNSCOM in the mid-90s ... that US has conducted similar open-air tests with similar material (harmless lookalike B. subtilis in lieu of B. anthracis) ... that tests (theirs, ours, and others') found the wet aerosol spray method rather ineffective ... and that Iraq has a snowball's chance of getting an attack jet across anybody's borders.

A number of detachable tanks remain unaccounted for ... could one of these be the "modified vehicle" mentioned above?

14. Chemical weapons ... missing inventories ... precursors for 500 tons ... four tons VX ... dual-use infrastructure
Reciting items of well-known concern and widely debated status. Saddam may or may not retain them, and might or might not be able to document them if he wanted to. Nothing new here.

15. Unusual activity at a CW transshipment point in May 2002 ... satellite image corroborated by a human source ... topsoil removed and sites graded.
US works around toxic nightmares in huge legacy stores and dumping grounds of discontinued war material, and takes similar precautions. Even Seattle's beautiful but quirky Gasworks Park, a fossil fuel processing site many decades ago, got a wall-to-wall soil transplant recently.

16. Procurement of CW precursors that "can also be used for legitimate purposes ... why did we have to learn about them [the hard way]?"
Proof by suspicion.

17. A third intercept: "nerve agents" ... "wireless instructions"
Caught 'em red-handed! Or did we? Anyone who has maintained tech manuals or S.O.P.'s might read this passage differently. A directive to strike the phrase "nerve agents" throughout a set of documents -- without scrapping the documents, and thus apparently without compromising their continuity -- does not indicate Iraq has nerve agents, any more than it indicates Iraq does not have nerve agents. It simply does not signify.

What are "the wireless instructions"? a stilted translation from the Arabic? weapons training manuals? first aid hot line protocols? an inventory reorder fax blank? an IVR script? ("For Anthrax, Press 1 ... for Botulism, Press 2 ...")

If this is our best intercept mentioning "nerve agents" ... sorry, I'm not impressed.

18. 122-mm warheads "could be the tip of a submerged iceberg"
Or the tip of a moldering scrap heap. Proof by suspicion.

19. "he recently has authorized his field commanders to use [chemical weapons]. He wouldn't be passing out the orders if he didn't have the weapons or the intent to use them."
Intercepts to that effect would be more compelling "smoking guns" ... though Saddam certainly might issue such orders -- and allow them to be intercepted -- even if he had no such weapons. A routine disinformation tactic, and Powell knows this, as any warrior would.

20. Human experimentation with CW ... prisoners strapped to beds
Horrific, probably true, and brought to our attention by Israeli intel back in the 1980s, when Saddam was "our bastard" in the Iran-Iraq War.

21. Recital of Saddam's past lies re nuke developments ... Saddam has scientists ... has design ... needs fissile material
Of course he needs fissile material. That was the stumbling block in 1990, that's the stumbling block today. Any evidence of progress? Oh, yes ...

22. Tubes, tubes, tubes! ... higher tolerance ... anodized ... 11 countries ... magnet production plant ... balancing machines ... "can be used in a centrifuge program" ... "debate this issue, but there is no doubt in my mind"
Clintonesque scope-parsing: "all the experts who have analyzed the tubes in our possession agree". An unspecified population of unnamed experts -- delimited by a qualifying clause entirely under Powell's control -- all agree with Powell. But as Powell admits, "there is controversy". A "Who's Who" of prominent anti-proliferation figures begs to differ. IAEA's ElBaradei. Wisconsin Project's Gary Milhollin. David Albright of ISIS. If you want tubes for centrifuges, you would not want them anodized (the experts say) ... and if the tubes had to be re-bored to centrifuge specs, that would defeat any supposed advantage of anodizing, wouldn't it?

23. Imported rocket engines ... "acquired as late as December" ... "engine test stand ... exhaust vent ... five times longer ... clearly intended for long-range missiles"
Aha, the "smoking test stand"! Powell's long-distance photo evidence conveys an impression of surreptitious development. A pack of journalists then toured the site -- well known to UNMOVIC -- up close and personal. They saw what UNMOVIC saw ... a vertical test stand with a short exhaust track, and a horizontal test stand with a long exhaust track.

24. "He is not developing the missile for self-defense."
Proof by suspicion. We are entitled to our suspicions, but how do we know he is developing the missile, and how do we know his intent? (IRBM's are usually held for deterrent counterstrikes. You can use them to break things, but you can't break enough things to put your side on offense.)

25. Modified MIG-21's, L-29's, and smaller UAV's ... 500 km test flight ... could attack the US
The smaller UAV is an artist's conception. "Iraq is now concentrating" on smaller UAV's ... the MIG-21 program was probably a disaster. UAV's could attack the US how? (From boats, we learn in off-line discussion.) Fair enough, but Iraq could attack Chicago from some ramshackle farmhouse in Wisconsin, using nothing but locally obtained materials. It doesn't matter what does or doesn't exist within Iraq's borders, and it would be foolish to imagine Saddam is the only bad actor perusing this script.

26. "Iraq and terrorism go back decades" ... 1990s nonaggression pact with al Qaeda ... Saddam applauds bombings
Preparing to weave a nebulous nexus between Saddam and al Qaeda. Iraq ... terror ... Iraq ... terror ... Iraq ... terror ... but Iraq's terror history is minimal (by neighborhood standards anyway).

27. Afghan labs were inadequate ... "Where did they go ...? They went to Iraq" ... Abu Atiya developed European poison network ... 116 arrests ... Abu Atiya knew al-Zarqawi ... al-Zarqawi went to Baghdad ... developed a network ... Zarqawi has a camp in NE Iraq
Where did they go? They went to several dozen countries, including all of Iraq's neighbors.

Conveniently, Mr. Z camps out in NE Iraq. Conveniently, Powell omits mention of Qatar, where Mr. Z received safe haven and lavish funding. Shouldn't we land an expeditionary force in Qatar and ... oh, wait ... nevermind. Powell omits mention of Mr. Z's other travels in the region.

Conveniently, Mr. Z is an expert in "ricin and other poisons". Ricin gets star billing these days. Blame a fickle public ... that poor "dog in the box" from the captured Qaeda nerve agent video needed a better agent.

There's a small problem here, a missing link, but conveniently ...

28. "Baghdad has an agent in ... Ansar al-Islam, that controls this corner of Iraq" ... "this agent offered al Qaeda safe haven"
So here's Mr. X, an agent from Baghdad with leadership influence in a region outside Saddam's control. Inconveniently, our Kurdish friends in NE Iraq are perplexed ... their understanding of local physical geography, political geography, factional alignment and leadership structure is at apparent variance with Mr. Powell's.

Parse that text again. Is Mr. X an agent of Saddam? Or is Mr. X an agent of anti-Saddam cadre operating in Baghdad. Mr. X offered safe haven? Or Ansar al Islam offered safe haven? Did Mr. X have authority to extend this offer, and could he make good on it?

30. "Some believe ... these contacts do not amount to much."
We've come to the climax -- or the punch line, if you prefer -- the first novel assertion in Powell's catalogue. Ricin plots in Europe are linked to Atiya, a colleague of Zarqawi, under protection of Mr. X, who may be Saddam's agent. If you read carefully, Powell disclaims any sure knowledge of Saddam's direct control or material support of Qaeda terrorist activity.

Still, the allegations are serious, and we should weigh them seriously. Have we heard similar allegations before? Yes. Have they panned out? No, quite the opposite. Have their advocates retreated gracefully from definitively discredited claims? No, anything but. As with the "Prague meeting", they hung on til the last wisp of evidence blew way. After recanting under oath, they let their shills reflate the original reports, making them "common knowledge".

Though it wears many hats and goes by many names, one obvious name for Bad Intelligence is "stupiddity". Press your intelligence resources hard enough, and they'll deliver the results you demand. One problem with this -- when you get the results you want, you can't possibly tell if they're genuine. At that point in the game, though, you probably don't care ... you're locked in on a favorite number, and you probably bet it big.

Powell and the gang are the boys who not only cried "Wolf!" ... they stood pointing to an empty box, insisting it had a wolf in it. If we "age discount" these newly-minted assertions -- if we assume they'll decay over time, along trajectories similar to previous Saddam/Qaeda "clinchers" -- we can't give them much weight at all.

31. "we confront a regime that harbors ambitions for regional domination, hides weapons of mass destruction, and provides haven and active support for terrorists"
Ambitions of domination? Proof by suspicion. Once true, but Saddam's potential for mischief is fading.

Hiding WMD? Proof by suspicion. Probably true, but no new evidence here.

Haven for terrorists? Proof by suspicion.


Instead of "solid intelligence", we're up to here in intelligence quicksand ... while Powell's hypnotic performance has us thinking we can walk on water. His task was to prove what everybody concedes: Saddam practices deceit, Saddam covets weapons of vast destruction, Saddam cheats as much as he can get away with.

We believed it before, we believe it now, only now we believe we've seen the proof, when we've actually seen ... nothing. We are left with many questions, including the classic OJ Question: Why frame a guilty suspect?



Thursday, February 06, 2003

 
--- Unpacking the Case (I.1): Saddam's Threat Inventory ---

This is the first of a series of posts surveying Saddam Hussein's WMD threat potential, within a larger series Unpacking the Case for Invading Iraq.

Here we lay out some principles applicable to all WMD, and to all potential bad actors. We proceed to apply these principles to Saddam and his threats ... though magnified and distorted focus on Saddam is half the problem with The Case.

WMD occur in four widely discussed categories of concern -- chemical weapons (CW), biological weapons (BW), radioisotope dispersant "dirty bombs", and nuclear fission weapons. Biotoxins are produced like BW but applied like CW, and we'll address them in either category as appropriate. [A wily foe might find superior options outside these four categories ... but that's outside the envelope of this discussion.]

WMD threats arise in two very different domains. First is general warfare -- nation against nation, armed force against armed force, contesting supreme and subordinate objectives. Second is terrorism -- unconventional, surreptitious, agenda-driven attack, usually on unsuspecting civilian elements -- basically shooting fish in a barrel. On most counts the two domains have very little in common. They intersect (more rarely than you think) in a zone dubbed "state-sponsored terrorism". Beyond that, tech evolution and proliferation may eventually put Mass Destruction within the ambit of non-agenda vandalism, akin to teenage pipe bombings and computer virus construction.

Segments to follow will zoom in on each threat category, and explore their potential in each domain.

The standard WMD threat involves a particular actor (state, faction, rogue military element, stateless organization, or the ubiquitous "accidental actor"), with respect to a particular capability. Before we welcome any new applicant to the Threat Club, we should cover a couple basic interview questions: What are his capabilities? What are his ambitions?

What are his Capabilities?
Can the actor in question invent active WMD ingredients? Not required. Most active ingredients have been around forever -- mustard "gas" (1910's), sarin (1930's), uranium/plutonium (1940's), VX (1950's) -- and the basic recipes are not well-kept secrets. Important new discoveries are incredibly rare ... though the biotech revolution may soon bless us with a whole new catalog of horribilia, and somebody someday may figure out how to build a fusion device without the more bulky and detectible fission trigger.

Can he produce or procure these active ingredients? Not a high hurdle. Any dot-on-the-map island with a modern medical center can roll their own dirty bomb. Any town with a brewery, any two-star restaurant, can brew BW, and most seed cultures aren't that hard to come by. Any town with a 20th-century economic base can cook up potent CW. Scores of nations can refine weapons-grade material from power reactor waste. If you can't make it, you can buy, beg, borrow or steal it.

Can he weaponize them? Mandatory. A chunk of fissile material is not an atomic bomb. CW molecules make lousy weapons without stabilizers, thickeners, dispersants and aerosol sprayers or bursting charges. Likewise most pathogens and biotoxins. Innovative preparation/presentation is the locus of most contemporary "Iron Chef" competition.

Can he deliver them? Mandatory. Until you rain them on the enemy in a controlled fashion (at controlled distance from your guys), WMD stockpiles mainly threaten the night watchman. For CW and most BW, controlled dispersal is a critical challenge. Big-league missiles are resource-intensive, nukes are resource-intensive, one isn't much good without the other, and a long row of technical hurdles separates the test stand nuke from the missile warhead. [Meanings of "weaponize" and "deliver" diverge dramatically in general versus terrorist applications.]

Can he test them prior to delivery? Not strictly required, but highly advisable. Most WMD make people mad even faster than they make people dead. Any WMD launch is a high-risk proposition, even riskier if you don't know it works ... and you don't with home-brew, even with best-effort copies of proven designs. State actors have a definite edge over rogues and stateless actors in the testing department.


What are his Ambitions?
Is the actor hostile? Maybe not ... but he can learn. Amities and enmities are even more mutable than national boundaries and identities. Whole regimes -- and subordinate chains of command -- can change in a heartbeat. Remote, obscure developments can drag friendly powers abruptly into conflict. Misunderstandings occur, mistakes are made, accidents happen, leaders miscalculate, counterplay escalates, bluffs are called, events overtake us. Hostile attitude elevates the risk that ordinary mishap will escalate to hostile action, and it sometimes predicts coalition structure, but it's at best a rapidly decaying intermediate-term predictor. (Both Saddam and Osama have realigned repeatedly.)

Can he use WMD to advantage? Usually not. The stronger party prevails without WMD. The weaker party fears retaliation. Most 20th-century WMD were held for deterrence and defense, and almost never used. Non-state actors are less sensitive to retaliation, more likely to miscalculate, and may inflict damage as a mission per se (rather than a side effect of a means to an end) -- but most terrorists serve political agendas that are poorly served by indiscriminate destruction.

Are WMD his preferred implements? He might be reluctant to bet the ranch on his technology and his chain of command, against our countermeasures and intelligence capabilities. He might prefer a series of bargaining games to a single-elimination shootout. He might envision more effective ways -- economic sabotage, etc. -- to inflict consequential damage. Mass destruction alienates allies and trading partners, who may be vital to his larger agenda.

Is the US his preferred target? He may identify higher priorities, more opportune targets, more troublesome immediate adversaries. He might very well reserve his options, anticipating unspecified emergent priorities in the indefinite future.


What are Saddam's capabilities?
Saddam finds Xtreme weapons fascinating. If you want to crack his inner circle, approach him with "mad science" schematics for an antigravity beam or a weather machine. Much of his portfolio is junk ... incompetent knock-off's of purloined plans, outlandish schemes sold by cranks and hustlers, useless production runs by bureaucrats trying to make quota. Several technically sound projects have been disrupted by discovery. We should assume some of the others are deliberately mounted as intelligence decoys.

Saddam's labs have all the popular recipes. He has sponsored research in all four classic WMD quadrants, though dirty bomb efforts appear extremely limited (as Doomsday weapons, they leave a lot to be desired).

Saddam has produced substantial stocks of BW and CW ingredients (though nothing to rival US or Russian stocks), and has made multiple attempts to produce or procure weapons-grade fissile materials. He likes playing hide-and-seek, he's good at it, and it's fair to assume he still has some of the goods. Case by case, however, it's also conceivable he does not have them.
Much has been destroyed under uncontrolled conditions -- battlefield capture, destruction under aerial bombardment, or casual disposal. [US is uniquely fastidious in WMD disposal, under legal pressure from enviro's. Lots of folks just landfill 'em, burn 'em or dump 'em at sea.] US DOD racks up billions in inventory discrepancies, and we haven't lost staff and records centers under precision bombing. Many intel estimates net out finished goods based on presumed input stocks, presumed production yields and presumed degradation rates. Subordinates might divert assets for their own reasons. And Saddam might encourage deliberate ambiguity to keep potential adversaries' uncertainties up in the yellow zone.

Saddam would enjoy keeping UN inspectors and US intel busy looking for things that aren't there. He would love to catch us (as he has done repeatedly) making public declarations that don't pan out. And Saddam is fully capable of abandoning a blunted initiative, or trashing diabolical Plan X for even more diabolical Plan Y ... destroying the evidence and leaving everybody guessing.
Weaponization is a mixed bag. Iraqi and imported researchers have advanced the state of the art in some areas, e.g., particulates, but other results are primitive or incompetent, and some are downright head-scratchers ... either he knows a whole lot more than we do, or a whole lot less, or somebody's pulling his leg.

Delivery is Saddam's weak suit. Iraq isn't much of a force on land, sea or air. Iraq probably never developed effective CW, BW or nuclear warhead designs. For whatever reason, Iraqi rocket scientists aren't exactly rocket scientists. (We'll take up delivery considerations in greater detail under each WMD category.)

All intelligence detail on Saddam's holdings must be taken with a grain of salt. Saddam leaks disinformation, opposing factions invent horror stories, defectors reel out lines of bull in exchange for sponsorship, and US "war entrepreneurs" grasp at straws and scurry them past the usual screens and filters of prudent assessment.

On the whole, Saddam retains an active interest in WMD technology -- greater than that of his near neighbors (possibly excepting Iran). He has taken a scattergun development approach ... initiating more projects and maturing fewer than would be in his best interest. Recent progress and current holdings are uncertain. To the extent his holdings have been reduced, he could reconstitute them on short notice.


What are Saddam's ambitions?
Saddam is situationally hostile to US, not inherently hostile (as per current myth). His major beef is our intent to destroy him ... declared (with intermittent equivocation) for more than a decade, after cultivating him as a regional ally for more than two decades prior. He retains an evident grudge against George H. W. Bush and family. Other than that, he's no more hostile than the average of his immediate neighbors. He properly anticipates that US might revert to form -- courting, coopting, aiding and abetting him -- under different circumstances.

The popular profile of Saddam as territorially ambitious is a bit of a stretch, extrapolated from two incidents over 35 years (again, not atypical for his neighborhood).
First was an opportunistic incursion to resolve long-unsettled boundary issues with Iran. This backfired, escalating into a war which threatening Iraq's very existence. Iraq enjoyed US support in this conflict, while Iran enjoyed minor covert US support (Iran-Contra arms trading). Second was the annexation of Kuwait ... a more serious case of unforced aggression, a serious miscalculation, but not entirely without provocation. Saddam may have believed (or persuaded himself) he had a US green light for this adventure.

Saddam is megalomaniac and historically ambitious in an ill-defined pan-Arabic sense. (Some of his "cult of Saddam" trappings may be calculated for domestic political consumption.) Saddam's six contiguous neighbors (Kuwait included) regard him as responsive to ordinary deterrence, and none regard him as an above-baseline territorial threat.
Saddam appears to value WMD primarily for the same reasons most of us do -- deterrence and defense, especially in light of Iran's 1980s "human wave" attacks -- but we should consider other possibilities.
"Going out with a bang". Saddam unleashes horrific, pointless destruction at the end of a losing battle. No way to know whether he'd do this, or whether subordinates would comply.

Mass-casualty attacks on Israel. Saddam probably has little animus toward Israel, but his neighbors do. He might trade on technical capabilities to buy regional influence.

"Bank shot" diversion. Saddam goads Israel into conflict (as he attempted in Gulf War I), gaining increased latitude of operation in conflict with individual Arab nations.

Cover for aggression. Saddam thinks WMD would deter US and other counter-intervention if he went on offense with conventional military forces.

State-sponsored terrorism. Conveyance of WMD assets to al Qaeda or other non-state networks, for anonymous attack.
If developed to maturity, Saddam's WMD programs would give him substantial deterrent capability. No scenario gives him a fighting chance to initiate aggression, and almost all of them hasten his demise ... but we cannot precisely calculate his propensity to miscalculate.


Interim summary: Saddam possesses, or is close to possessing, or can readily reconstitute, a variety of WMD assets. He has few, if any, advantageous offensive uses for them. He may or may not realize that. Many other potential actors have similar capabilities -- some in less advanced stages of development -- and similar prospects.

In subsequent segments, we'll survey each category of WMD ... and reinforce the premise "what Saddam has probably won't hurt us, and what hurts us probably won't come from Saddam".



Saturday, February 01, 2003

 
--- So Light a Candle, and Lift a Glass ... ---

Recite Kirtan, Kaddish, and Mass

Our best in class, brief shooting stars
They reached so high, and fell so hard

The arc of hope, the searing blast
"we interrupt this telecast ..."

The silent prayer, the lines gone slack
The empty chair, the marble plaque

From dust ... to dust and ash and gas
But surely this torch, too, shall pass
 




Friday, January 31, 2003

 
--- Unpacking the Case for Invading Iraq: Introduction ---

What are we going to do about Saddam? It's increasingly clear ... we're going to invade Iraq and take him out.

On subsidiary questions -- who, when, where, how -- the veils of uncertainty are dropping to permissible minimums for an impending military operation. What next? We'd rather not think about that. But the disquieting big question -- WHY? -- lingers like Dilbert's "stench of a dead woodchuck under the porch".


General public sentiment hangs uneasily on the vapor trail of last year's bogus arguments ... mostly on a residual impression that Saddam masterminded 9/11.

Leadership sentiment hangs on a very different set of pegs. This post is the first in a series taking up -- and taking down -- the strongest of these pegs, including the Case for Invading Iraq presented by Kenneth Pollack in his very thoughtful, knowledgeable and influential book The Threatening Storm. (Highly recommended, BTW.)

Some of the supporting arguments are far-fetched, some are not even sane, not even on their own terms -- though perfectly sane analysts stand behind them. Capable decision-makers would object vociferously if they saw other people in other settings apply these same principles the same way. What's going on here?
One school of thought explains dreaming as an elaborate side-effect of random synaptic noise and involuntary muscular contractions -- the upper brain inventing story lines to satisfy its need for a master narrative consistent with the moves it thinks its neuromuscular subsystems are making.

Brain-watching technology has advanced to the point that we can detect similar phenomena in the waking state. The subconscious reacts to an event, informing the conscious an instant later -- action before thought. The conscious not only invents a consistent reason for the action taken, it falsifies the supporting history. The subject experiences this sequence as purposeful thought -- conscious choice -- driving physical action!
I hope that's not all there is to my dreams ... but I'm tempted to believe "action before thought" accounts for the parade of arguments for war in Iraq. I also hope Colin Powell will bring us better material next week, but we can only work with what's on the table.


Some Ground Rules
For purposes of this discussion only, we confront the issue on narrow consequential grounds: Does invading Iraq make the US foreseeably more secure, or less secure?

We exclude several popular bases of argument, or truncate them unceremoniously, claiming the central question can be settled without them. (These are the CP's rules -- love 'em or leave 'em -- though objectors are encouraged to stick around out of curiosity.)

Moral argument is out of bounds. We may lose a few dogmatic pacifists and pilgrims on the road to Armageddon, in order that the rest of us can communicate in terms of least common denominator precepts.

On the other hand, the real-world dynamics of competing belief systems and their effects on various players' motives, reactions and affiliations, etc., are very much in bounds. So are pragmatic pacifist considerations (warfare's proclivities for miscalculation, contagion and unintended consequences), and likewise "peace through strength" arguments.

Compassion is out of bounds. Saddam characteristically tortures and kills innocents, often in front of their loved ones. War characteristically tortures and kills innocents, often in front of their loved ones. Postwar score-settling does likewise. US policy apparatus has been happy to abide (and abet) all of the above, and has promised Saddam uncontested tenure if he disarms. The human tragedy is real; the sentimental argument is an illusion.

Legalisms are out of bounds. "Material breach" and "burden of proof" are window dressing. To go, or not to go -- that is the question. US can devise satisfactory rationale for either option, and overwrought fears of irreparable harm to UN legitimacy are not dispositive.

Ordinary economic effects are out of bounds. Dollar costs of invasion and occupation won't derail the US economic juggernaut. Same for visions of plunder on one side and "War for Oil" accusations on the other. Ultimately, similar volumes of Iraqi oil will reach world markets at similar prices regardless of US action. If we expropriate oil as spoils of war, the financial upside pales next to the geopolitical downside.

On the other hand, the prospect of large-scale disruption of Gulf oil production (Iraq + Kuwait + Saudi + Iran) is in bounds. It is a distinct possibility (either way), it has large-scale security implications, and it figures prominently in Pollack's argument.

Extraordinary economic effects are out of bounds. If some chain of events induces a major reversal of US fortunes, or lights the fuse on a massively expensive WW III, we'll have a lot more than red ink on our hands.

Speculative futurology is out of bounds. If you enjoy thinking through Rube Goldberg historical scenarios, you have an inquiring mind and should consider a career as a video game designer. If you think you know how these chain reactions will play out, you have a deranged mind and should be allowed nowhere near the levers of power.

Short-range knock-on effects are fair game. For instance, a US presence in Iraq would give us political, military and market leverage with Saudi Arabia.

Raise taboo arguments, and you are arguing from premises not shared widely enough to win the day, or you are claiming superhuman foresight, or seizing on fine points in a coarse-grained landscape ... or you are simply rounding up palatable arguments in service of a predetermined conclusion.


Where the case hangs on controversial estimates, we'll grant the hawks any reasonable benefit of the doubt -- and sometimes more. For instance, we'll score the war itself as a non-cost item in either dollars or blood, and we'll ignore the prospect of immediate stateside reprisals. The case for invasion is so riddled with error, we are comfortable spotting the hawks many valuable debating points.

We will call "foul!" when midrange probabilities are inflated to perfect certainty, or deflated to dismissal, or compounded with no respect for the steepening odds against longer parlays.


Series Outline
I. Unpacking Saddam's threat inventory. We'll post separate segments on each major weapons category: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear. We'll survey the interplay of development, production, delivery, and operational strategies for each. We do not assume Saddam's strategic intentions are sound, but we do assume they are purposeful.

In each category, we'll review Saddam's threats to America (and American interests), and place them in perspective against Saddam's threats to Others, Others' threats to America, and Post-Saddam's threats to America.

Conclusions in brief: in each category, what Saddam can do isn't likely to hurt us, what ends up hurting us is more likely to come from other hostile actors, and Saddam's successors are nearly as likely to hurt us as he is.

II. Unpacking Pollack's Case. We'll show that some key links in Pollack's chain of inference are stretched, bent, badly forged or just plain missing. We'll take up an explicit ad hominem angle, one we believe has explanatory legitimacy in this case.

Starting from the premise "something must be done about Saddam", Pollack convincingly eliminates a series of noninvasive alternatives, and reluctantly concludes "something must be done about Saddam". Not surprising -- he spent the most intense years of his career assigned to do something about Saddam, and Saddam is still with us. Pollack shuns the hysterics that color most popular discussion, but his support for the main premise is unsatisfactory. Saddam, in his eyes, is a problem -- necessitating a solution -- in closed context. Downstream consequences get short shrift.

III. Inspecting National Security Impact. This is a big payload. Rather than unpacking the whole thing, we'll pry open selected crates from selected pallets. It should become clear there is much at stake outside the Iraq regional "bubble".

IV. Unpacking arguments of last resort. There are a handful of arguments that some see as bulletproof clinchers, and others see as grasping at straws. These include "What's your alternative?", "Bet your city!", "Appeasement!", and various permutations of Pascal's Wager.

What's My Alternative?
Briefly:
If we invade Iraq on current public evidence alone, if we proceed with few partners, if we look trigger happy, we incur adverse national security consequences that are extensive, severe and long-lasting -- even if we are eventually proven right on most points.

If we invade Iraq on the boldest stretch of plausible insinuation, and it all turns out to be well-founded, we incur very serious adverse national security consequences.

If we do nothing, severe adverse national security consequences are unlikely.
In all cases, the future history of Iraq is highly unpredictable. OK, but what's my alternative?

In terms of US national security, "nothing" beats the heck out of "invasion" ... but US and friends can do better than "nothing", and we'll have some suggestions.



Wednesday, January 29, 2003

 
--- S.O.T.U. Review ---

Give Bush credit -- he found an acceptable tone, avoided pitfalls, and pulled a couple of velveteen rabbits out of the hat. He may get his SOTU bounce after all. [UPDATE: ABC News has the first legit response poll, giving W about a 3 point bump (within MOE).] Will it stick, or is it (as one MSNBC commentator speculated) a "sugar high"? [Bad decisions pile up ... he'll never make the play-off's.]

One rabbit was a threadbare stuffed bunny, but it plays surprisingly well in early reviews. Did the Hydrogen Car sound familiar? It should. In dailyKOS comments, "olds88" notes that Bush announced this US Council for Automotive Research FreedomCar subsidy last January, using it to run Clinton's quicker-starting USCAR Partnership for a Next Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) off the road.

The other was AIDS funding for Africa. $15B over 5 years, of which $5B was previous committed ... so it's a $2B/year rabbit out of the $2000B/year federal hat. Will it displace other "hearts and minds" expenditures? How much ends up in Big Pharma coffers? (Or is US going to bell the drug-patent-waiver-for-poor-countries cat? Unlikely.) How much is earmarked for condoms? (Or is "prevention" a windfall for Christian conservative abstinence missions?)

The tone of delivery was serious, subdued, almost leaden ... successfully avoiding flippancy on the one hand and hysteria on the other. This was no mean feat.

The economy? What economy? Glad to hear "our economy is recovering" but we still need tax cuts, what with "unemployment rising" and all. Deficit? We have a deficit? OK, more tax cuts.
Response by Washington Governor Gary Locke provided a study in contrasts ... the affirmative action Yalie versus the legacy admissions Yalie ... and oh, yeah, that economy! CP suspects several Republican governors were tuned in and muttering "You tell him, Gary!".
Social Security? Privatize it. Medicare? Privatize it. An odd passage railed against bureaucrats and HMO's. (The proposed reform involves herding seniors into HMO's, by holding prescription drug benefits hostage).

All that was just warm-up. The feature act was Iraq. "If war is forced upon us ..." we'll kick ass. If war is not forced upon us ... we'll find another pretext to kick ass.

SOTU coinage can be disastrous, but it's never accidental. New coinage: "Hitlerism", as in "Hitlerism, militarism and communism" ... the Axism of Evil? What happened? Was that Hitler fellow giving "fascism" a bad name?

And tubes? The Boy Who Cried Wolf cried "ALUMINUM TUBES"! Bush's "intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production", but CP's intel says the "centrifuge tube" story was doubtful from day one, and recent inspections refute it decisively ... or so it seems. (Does Bush have even more secret secrets up his sleeve?) Not to worry ... Colin Powell is scheduled to break out the good stuff next week, and we'll all have a snort before we hit the Road to Baghdad.

In light of this development, we'll interrupt our regular programming (OK, not very regular) to unpack the case for war with Iraq. And then we'll get back to those staggering deficits -- in finance, marketing, personnel and elsewhere.



Tuesday, January 28, 2003

 
--- "Big Hat ... No Rabbit" ---

The Bush43 Presidency is on the skids. People with a nose for these things can smell it, and several of them are becoming honorary citizens of New Hampshire. With the exception of two minor bounces ("Bush takes Iraq resolution to UN" and "Bush rules in midterm electoral contests"), his poll numbers have been in sustained decline from stratospheric heights post-9/11.

Polls don't begin to hint at the depth of underlying problems, but the polls alone require a tactical response. Bush has been playing winner-take-all on thin margins, and the polls are an indispensable part of the act. What does Bush do to regain momentum?

One classic answer is "invade something". The Commander in Chief usually gets a rally-round-the-flag boost in the polls and a free pass on minor controversies while troops are in harm's way. Problem is, troops are already in harm's way. We're still taking casualties in Afghanistan (and Kuwait). Folks are still asking "Why Iraq?" and "What about Korea?". If Bush has better answers, it's time to trot 'em out ... but folks are starting to feel like they've had enough cowboy talk for the moment, and more isn't necessarily better.

Another classic is "reorganize". Been there, done that. We have a new Homeland Security department ... two dozen old agencies, doing the old same things they did yesterday, trying to figure out where they report today. Pretend it was your idea, George, and take your bow, but avoid details.

Another answer: "stimulate the economy" and/or "fire the economic advisors". Did that, too, and then introduced a "not-a-stimulus" growth plan that didn't pass the laugh test. [My guess is that Bush commissioned a stimulus plan, and his right-wing think tank advisors gradually -- maybe even unintentionally -- morphed it into yet another tax revolt initiative, and the not-a-plan was out the door before the boss knew the difference.] Speechwriters will do their best to deliver applause lines about "not punishing the winners" and "it's your money", but there's only so many ways you can dress up the trickle-down pig before people realize she's the same old pig.

The State Of The Union is a biggie in its own right ... always good for a bounce in the polls, right? Right? It's a time to hand out goodies, a time to unveil bold new initiatives ... a time to astonish the crowd by pulling a rabbit or two out of the federal top hat. Stirring phrases, bold delivery ... but what about content? What's in the hat? Where's the damn rabbit?

A lot of Bush's bold talk may not wear well on today's audience. War talk ... we're not too excited about that. The economy ... I wouldn't spend too much time on that. The deficit ... you can blame it on terrorism, or on your political opponents, but tomorrow's fact-checkers will have a field day. Social security reform ... no, those numbers don't work anymore (as if they never did).

What's next? A half-baked Medicare reform -- give 'em drug coverage if they'll take the HMO route in lieu of traditional Medicare (the only segment of US health care that delivers world-class outcomes). Again, go light on details -- promise 'em another bipartisan commission or something. It will look like action, and it may bump the polls before the geezers find out you really are out to kill Medicare just like those shameless "MediScare" Democrats always said.

Even the S.O.T.U. tone is problematic. Bush can't come on looking too confident ... things are bad, people know it, they want answers. He can't look too fretful -- there's no room for bunny-in-the-headlights paralysis. He can't show too much bravado ... last year's "follow me!" won't cut it this year. He can't point the finger of blame, or play the "pass my program or lose your job" card.

Bush made the big time as a cheerleader -- not as a player. Last year we wanted a cheerleader. Now we want answers. We want solutions. We want results.

My guess is he'll talk the talk again. The talk will be BIG and bold, but the talk is getting old. He may make even register a negative S.O.T.U. bounce. It's not a man on the moon, but it is sho'nuff a historic achievement!


What keeps Bush from pulling a rabbit out of that hat? He has a nice, shiny hat -- it's his to keep until 2004 -- but he doesn't have any rabbits. Can't he beg, borrow or breed one? The prototypical profligate son, Bush hocked the family jewels to throw wild parties, cover his gambling debts, make friends and influence people ... and when the bills came due there was nothing left to feed the rabbits.
Starting from unprecedented heights of positional advantage, Bush managed to run the nation into a sea of red ink, squander a king's ransom of international good will, frittered away the flexibility to make discretionary "friend or foe" decisions, gave the policy development pipeline a bad case of vapor lock, spent down his own credibility inside and outside the Beltway, and allowed unmanaged issues to overtake the White House's limited management bandwidth resources.
More on these fundamental deficits tomorrow. For now, as a famous man once said, "this looks like a re-run of a bad movie". Grab some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show!