free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ... taking an imposing analytic toolkit out of the box, over the wall and into the street ... with callous disregard for accepted wisdom and standard English

reading tea leaves from original angles, we've led with uncannily prescient takes on the federal surplus, the dotcom crash, the "Energy Crisis", the Afghan campaign, the federal deficit.

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All "major" articles of older material have now been imported, some with updates worth perusing. We'll keep it all on the main page for a while, will add a few loose pieces of history, will trim the main page and index the archives for convenience later.


free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ...
... gateway to the next Progressive Era?
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.

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.
Thursday, September 26, 2002

--- A Convergence of Parallel Li(n)es ---

There's been some grousing lately that Democrats have no clear position on Iraq. What is -- or ought to be -- the Democratic Party position? The question itself is beneath contempt. Should Democrats have a party position on Iraq? No. Hell, no. In the tarnished tradition of bipartisan foreign policy, Declaration of War (or functional equivalent) must be an absolutley free vote -- a vote of conscience.

Before that vote of conscience, does Plan Iraq deserve robust, forthright debate? HELL, yes. As (Nader stooge) Phil Donahue threatens Democrats in Congress with the "Profiles in Cowardice" tag, I must agree, and I'd apply the same yellow brush to their Republican colleagues, and to President Bush.
Bush is dead serious about war with Iraq, but -- in studied deliberation, on current evidence -- he can't make the sale. He prefers exploiting the election cycle to abbreviate debate on Iraq, and using Iraq to suppress election-season debate on domestic issues. His avoidance of debate is cowardly.

Many Democrats harbor serious doubts about preemption, and unilateralism, and the war itself, and the day after the war, but looking "soft on Saddam" might cost a swing-state Senator a few thousand swing votes. To preserve Party control of the Senate, Democrats prefer giving Bush a free pass on Iraq ... preferably an express pass, so that domestic issues might yet bob up on-screen before election time. Their avoidance of debate is cowardly.

Many Republicans share these doubts, but few dare undercut their Party leader (noted for prizing loyalty and holding grudges), and they don't mind keeping domestic issues off the radar for a few pivotal weeks. In an especially ticklish dynamic, few Republicans dare object unless Democrats take the lead, but even fewer dare object if too many Democrats line up against the President. Their avoidance of debate is cowardly.
Bush and Daschle have no viable political alternatives; Lott has no palatable alternatives. Nevertheless, all three should take their political lumps and play the statesmen -- deferring any binding vote until after the election.

There are discomforting parallels in the throwaway lines offered as pretext now, and those offered in promotion of an earlier adventure.

In the heat of 1960's high-stakes toss-up election, the die was cast. Televised Nixon-Kennedy debates became a battle for supremacy in anti-communist bluster. On the way to a razor-thin victory, JFK laid down a series of high-profile markers on containing Red China, and inherited a string of low-profile operations in places most Americans had never heard of -- Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.

Today, in the heat of a high-stakes toss-up election, new markers are being laid down in a battle for supremacy in anti-terrorist bluster.

Then, as now, playing on naive ethnic identifications, our leaders gulled us into conflating one adversary with another.
Vietnam was a USSR client state and China's traditional adversary, not the advance guard of China's "Yellow Peril". It would have been a useful refractory buffer state (in the euro-socialist model of Yugoslavia) against Chinese Expansionism, which (as it turns out) never existed. Our leaders knew; the people didn't.

Iraq is a secular, modernist natural adversary of extreme fundamentalist Islam. It buffers the region against both Shiite Iranian and Wahhabi Arab extremism. Our leaders know; the people don't.
Then, as now, we stood on the threshold of war halfway around the world, and our leaders assured us the next step forward was vital in the looming clash of civilizations.

Then, as now, we were exhorted to take up arms in self-defense, to confront a malignant menace.
It will seem implausible today, but average Americans were conditioned to anticipate hordes of yellow soldiers in Red Army uniforms, marching like army ants, destroying everything in their path, eventually gnawing their way through redwood forests and purple mountain majesties. My 9th-grade civics teacher explained how they could march tirelessly on a handful of rice a day.
Then, as now, our expressed higher purpose was to liberate captive peoples, bringing them a better way of life.

Then, as now, our enemy was a demonized former partner in regional stability.

Then, as now, we banked on highland minority tribes as our ace in the hole ... knowing nothing of their language, culture, history or vital interests, and frankly caring less.

Then, as now, the case for war was a concoction of bright, shining lies ... transparent enough at the time, if anybody bothered to look.

Then, as now, most of us conceded the real reason must be something the President knew, something he dared not reveal.

Then, as now, public figures operated under pressure to demonstrate unity, lest the enemy sense weakness.

The, as now, the media waxed enthusiastic in their democratic idealism and lust for the Big Story.

Then, as now, the first step -- the first regime change -- was a piece of cake. (So was the second, and the third.)
"Now, as a result of our taking the strong stand that we did, the civil war there was ended; and today, at least in the south of Indochina, the Communists have moved out and we do have a strong, free bastion there." (Nixon, 1960)

First a few undercover agents, next a few dozen "advisers", hundreds of troops, thousands, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands. The "hearts and minds" problem was discovered later. The word "quagmire" wasn't heard for a decade, and it was a decade more before we bugged out -- pretending we weren't -- divided, defeated, and diminished.
Then, as now, our first efforts were operationally efficient, but failed to produce the intended results.

Then, as now, we were a decade into the conflict before the President asked Congress to endorse a blank check.
I remember the sweltering August night as if it were yesterday. The voiceover-of-God announced "we interrupt this program". LBJ told us (falsely, we know now) that North Vietnam had attacked US vessels in the Tonkin Gulf, and we weren't going to stand for it. Even as I believed it then, I knew -- how, I don't know -- something wasn't right. Someting in the eyes? Body language? I felt it viscerally ... felt the cable snap and the elevator plummet ... and "wasn't it a long way down?"
Then, we found ourselves mired in a war We The People had neither debated nor endorsed nor properly understood at any of several tollgates on the road to hell.
Then, the war hobbled pursuit of US interests elsewhere in the world.

Then, we couldn't exit without explaining why we entered ... and we had no such explanation. We kept putting off the inevitable loss of face, while other losses doubled and redoubled.

Then, the war refused to confine itself to recognized borders. Military action in one country spurred military buildup in the next, fusing a succession of military regimes, and counterreactions, and bloodbaths, creating a persistently conflicted region which now (by some accounts) provides the world's most fertile habitat for al Qaeda.

Then, we elected a President who promised to limit US involvement, but opted for massive escalation instead. Four years later we elected another President on his promise to get us out ... but he came to office with a secret plan to procrastinate and triumph anyway.

Then, one mother after another got her big baby boy sent home in a box. Other boys came home as living ghosts ... souls who will never rest. Odds are you've encountered -- and instinctively avoided -- at least one of these souls since yesterday's breakfast.

Then, the Pentagon commissioned a study to find out what we were doing there and how we got into the freaking mess. The report leaked, sensationally, and the President tried unsuccessfully to suppress it, and chartered a covert task force -- "the plumbers" -- to plug similar leaks, and these plumbers turned their talents to political operations, and broke into opposition party headquarters, and got caught, and got tracked back to the White House, and -- long story short -- a President resigned in disgrace.

Then, White House speechwriters penned a slick transitional phrase ("... now that we have learned the lessons of Vietnam ...") but when an alert reporter piped up "Mr. President, what were the lessons of Vietnam?" Mr. President was at a loss for words.
Today, we still at a loss for words. Every released archive and first-person confession only deepens the mystery. This much is clear: our leaders knew the disclosed casus belli was nonsense; our leaders knew the hidden agenda was insubstantial; leader after leader perpetuated the charade rather than own up to previous error.

Of those who saw combat then, relatively few went on to greater things. Today, some of those who avoided service are promoting war with Iraq by cultivating popular misconceptions ... myths that are not taken seriously in their own informed circles ... fictions that will not stand the test of time.

Again, what were the lessons of Vietnam? Have we forgotten the cost of going to war without authentic consent? If the gambit plays out badly -- as honest strategists know it can -- questions will be raised, documents leaked, and "managed information" exposed for what it is, and poll-sniffing trough-feeders who foreclose debate in trade for a mess of political convenience will be judged harshly in the court of History ... and perhaps even more cruelly in the night court inquisitions of Conscience.

The current public case for the current recommended action is a fraud upon the marketplace of ideas. Perhaps a better case can be laid, but I stand against those who would coerce, misinform and stampede us with rhetorical sleight-of-hand ... and I stand with Senator Byrd when he thunders "Lay on, Macduff, and damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'".

Wednesday, September 18, 2002

--- Field Guide to Bellicose Casuistry ---

"Of course you know, this means WAR!" (Groucho Marx, Duck Soup) By long-standing tradition, the call to arms calls for some grievous injury, irresistible opportunity or absolute exigency -- a casus belli.

In neighborhood disputes or small claims court, a certain suspicion attaches to bills of grievance that are inconstant, overly long, overly diversified or fundamentally unsatisfiable. Similar doubt attaches when old, cold grievances are abruptly reheated. It's possible to wage war for longstanding or compound reasons (strategic calculations are always compound) ... and hostile gestures do tend to generate opposing stockpiles of auxiliary grievances ... but (unless we have already taken sides) we naturally suspect either a vicious cycle of retaliation, or some baser animus dressed up for public consumption. Inquiring minds want to know: What's the real beef?

The stated case for Plan Iraq keeps budding and branching and mutating, yet the prescription remains: Forcible regime change, by any means necessary. Here's a ramble through the thicket of publicly-endorsed justifications. Some are pulp fiction, some are mere decorative embellishments on the rolling war-wagon, some are plausible and serious.
"Saddam is a Tin-Pot Dictator" Mere name-calling. We've sponsored scads of tin-pot dictators -- including Saddam -- when it served our purposes. "Saddam is Defiant" Ah, that's something else entirely. We've pulled the throne out from under scads of tin-pot dictators when they became "defiant" ... but it's hardly a respectable premise.

"Saddam is the Next Hitler" Yeah, and so's yer old man. Googling "Saddam" and "Hitler" yields 48,000 hits, many asserting "Saddam = Hitler". But Saddam has competition from Osama (39,600 hits), Castro (30,100), Milosevic (29,000), Putin (17,400), Pol Pot (13,700), Ho Chi Minh (7,540), Allende (7,250), Khomeini (6,780), Musharraf (3,950), Noriega (5280), Ferdinand Marcos (2,750), Kim Il Sung (1,670) and his boy Kim Jong Il (1,020). Omar Qaddafi (1080) is underrated due to numerous alternate spellings. Pat Buchanan (13,900) is overrated due to his recent thesis that US should have stayed out of WW II in Europe. Clinton and Bush also rack up impressive numbers. Let's be more specific. What has Saddam done to earn the coveted Next Hitler mantle?

"Saddam Gassed His Own People" Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. Until shortly before Desert Storm, US intelligence insisted he didn't -- rather that the atrocities at Halabja were inflicted by Iran, in an active theater of the Iran-Iraq War. What really happened? Both sides probably used CW, and (deepening the after-action fog of war) used each other's captured CW. Kurds fought on both sides, and fought each other factionally. Halabja had been occupied and abandoned by Iraqi and Irani forces in close succession; Kurdish civilians were slaughtered, but probably not as intended targets. And we did not actively protest CW usage when US and Iraq were partners in the game.

"Saddam is an Aggressor" The direct evidence here is limited to Iraq's border war with Iran (where we favored Saddam), and Iraq's thrust into Kuwait (where we got our signals crossed, and inadvertently gave him the go-ahead). The whole region is a patchwork of unnatural boundaries imposed by 19th century empires, post-WWI and post-WWII decrees. Iraq claimed Kuwait as the "lost province" ... they had as good a case as not. The more urgent issue was Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil rigs tapping the same formation, with Kuwait slant-drilling, pumping faster and selling cheaper (literally undercutting Iraq). The indirect evidence is more equivocal. Saddam likes military assets, but his forces are severely downsized from the era when US and USSR vied for his affections. He conceives himself in grandiose terms -- as a secular socialist modernist role model and Arab power broker -- but at age 65 the evidence for "Saddam the Conqueror" is pitiful. (Alexander conquered the known world by 30; Hitler had it in flames by 50; Genghis Khan ruled most of it by 55.)

"Saddam Threatens Israel" This is a serious concern. If he could strike a telling blow, Saddam would gain great -- albeit short-lived -- stature among Arab states (or their chaotic successor regimes). Scavenger states might move in to finish the job ... probably blowing up the world in the bargain. US can take measures Israel cannot, this rationale does not extend to other supporting actors. A more difficult question is whether Israel is safer, or less safe, in a region of high-temperature chain-reaction regime change and (potentially) increased military opportunism. "Saddam Threatens Saudi Arabia" The oil fields, conceivably, if we let him ... which we wouldn't ... unless we wanted to let him. The Desert Storm "threat" to Saudi borders now looks like a US propaganda bluff. He'd be no more welcome in the holy sites than we are. "Saddam Threatens the Region" Why not? Everybody else in the region threatens the region. Where does he start? Under close scrutiny, he's not much of a threat. "Saddam Seeks Muslim Hegemony" Let him seek. He has all he can handle just nailing down Iraq itself, he's made no progress in greater Arab circles, and has essentially no following elsewhere in the Muslim world.

"Saddam Supports Terrorism" In a penny-ante fashion, yes, but less so than most of those neighbors we're afraid he'll threaten. If there were no blips onthe radar, no coincidental intersections, we'd have to assume the radar was broken ... but there's no empirical case. "Iraq Was Behind 9/11" Reasonable grist for speculation in the days immediately following 9/11, this currently ranks right up there with "CIA did it" conspiracy theories. Saddam and Osama would both have strong pragmatic reason not to cooperate on any such operation, even assuming they liked each other (they don't), and assuming they agreed on a plan. The administration has given up actively defending this proposition, though it still gets lip service from people who should know better, and it polls consistently in the 70's. "Iraq Harbors al Qaeda" Yeah, yeah, Iraq and 60 other nations. No evidence they are a significant, cooperative or even voluntary harborer ... most of the alleged harboree's are out of Saddam's reach, in coalition-protected rebel territory. The recent assassination of Abu Nidal in Baghdad could be taken as a gesture of Iraqi cooperation against terrorism (though it can be taken several other ways, too).

"Bring Democracy to Iraq" Why Iraq? Why now? When it comes to "bringing democracy", we have a pretty shabby track record. Why not warm up our act with some easier Middle Eastern state? Why not Kuwait? "Saddam Mistreats Minorities" What else is new? Some of our best friends mistreat minorities. We mistreat minorities, though not as badly as we used to. (Colin Powell, on CBS Sunday Morning last, says this point is "more important than terrorism". That should indicate how far "Iraqi terrorism" stock has been discounted.) "Saddam Violates Human Rights" Children are tortured in front of their parents, and so on. Part true, part propaganda, none of it a major departure from regional norms. We have always had separate sets of human rights standards ... one for people we like, one for people we don't, plus special rules for people we don't like who have things we want.

"Saddam Expelled Arms Inspectors" Technically, no, we withdrew them. Less technically, no again -- it seems we undermined our own inspections regime (which was gaining effectiveness despite Saddam's shell games) ... but why? Gambling and losing on an intelligence overreach? Deliberate sabotage? Were we afraid they'd achieve compliance, and we'd have to discontinue economic sanctions? Wouldn't economic normalization give us better covert intelligence opportunities? [This leads to chains of speculative topics, including the Ritter riddle.]

"Saddam Wants Nukes" No secret there, like a score of nations on faster tracks to nuclear capability. "Saddam Will Have Nukes Soon" Sort of. He (and others) can acquire and replicate tested designs. He can shop for black market fissile material, or roll his own. On either track, it's a stretch for him to assemble more than one low-yield device per year. While we focus on Saddam, the most prominent threats are elsewhere.

"Saddam Will Use Nukes Against US" If he plays that card, it's his last. We recover from grievous local damage, his regime is obliterated. With one or two devices, he'd be better off using them for leverage (extortion) for some plausibly achievable local objective. And for leverage, a make-believe device is almost as good as a real one. [Personal view: someone will nuke us sometime; it probably won't be Saddam; chasing Saddam increases our net exposure.]

"Saddam Will Furnish Nukes to Terrorists" Far-fetched. Saddam is a control freak; terrorists are loose cannons (and loose lips); Iraq is equally capable of smuggling containerized devices into US ports; and the more players in the chain, the greater the chance of detection, defection or double-cross. The supposed payoff is that Iraq could attack US without being identified as responsible. Slim chance, high-risk, low payoff, and it further deprives Saddam of extortion opportunities and bragging rights.

But "Saddam Is Crazy" so he wouldn't mind going out with a bang, right? Only US and Israel put much stock in this proposition, and Israel is probably pulling our strings. This proposition -- even if true -- "pays off" only to the extent that much of Saddam's chain of command is loyal to the point of mass suicide. (This, by the way, is inconsistent with superhawk assertions that -- under credible threat of regime termination -- nobody will show up to fight for Saddam.) Saddam may be a sadist and a megalomaniac, but one with well-honed survival instincts ... a chess-player, a poker-player, not a craps-shooter. [More on the irrationality argument in a separate post later.]

"Saddam Starves his People" Sanctions were designed to make life difficult enough to foment rebellion. Sanctions made life difficult, but rebellion failed. Saddam has made life even more difficult by diverting scarce resources to military and self-aggrandizing projects. This was supposed to be a short-term solution, it turned out to be a long-term humanitarian problem, and most of the neighborhood blames US as much as Saddam (cramping our coalition flexibility elsewhere).

"Saddam Cheats on Sanctions" So he does ... and most all the neighbors are in on the game ... and with US complicity in some cases.

"Iraq Holds POW's" Mostly Kuwaiti's, allegedly, and a smattering of other nationalities ... 600 people unaccounted for (how many should be unaccounted after a conflict on the scale of Desert Storm?) ... and 1 US aviator, very recently upgraded from presumed KIA to MIA, leaning to POW. This last-ditch propaganda ploy recalls the shameful exploitation of US POW's to prolong lost-cause involvement in Vietnam.

"Saddam Breaks Promises" Aye, and artfully so. Nobody trusts Saddam. Nobody trusts us that much either. "Saddam Violates International Norms" Norms, schnorms ... go fish. "Saddam Defies International Law" Okay ... but present-day US is no champion of International Law. "Saddam Violates Desert Storm Truce" Now we're getting somewhere! If a cease-fire agreement is materially breached, the parties might resume firing. From Day One, Saddam has not complied, and we have not demanded strict compliance ... for reasons of our own convenience, and because the winning Coalition was in imperfect agreement on the means and ends of the war, and because Desert Storm's original casus had been satisfied, and because we expected Saddam to die of Gulf War Embarrassment Syndrome. The case for renewed hostilities might still stand on these wobbly old legs ... but we'll have to reattach them first. How?

"Saddam Targets US Aircraft" Getting warmer! A shooting violation is better than a paper-pushing violation. We (US & UK) patrol Iraqi airspace under terms of Iraq's Desert Storm cease-fire agreement. From time to time our aircraft are illuminated by targeting radar, and even fired upon. [No hits, though ... is Saddam sandbagging?] Strikes me as cause enough, if we play it up.

"Iraq Tried to Assassinate Bush41" This has a ring of legitimate casus belli. Under cover of an alcohol-smuggling scheme, an explosive-laden SUV crossed the Iraq border into Kuwait, where Bush was visiting. It's a cold complaint (1993) ... and the connection to Saddam depends on a series of stepping stones, including "evidence" trumped up by agencies known to trump up evidence to suit the prosecution. Still, almost everybody buys it, and I would not hesitate to use it (if I thought occupying Iraq was to our ultimate advantage).

Suppose we confront Saddam with an ultimatum he won't accept, and go to war because "Saddam Defied an Ultimatum"? Lame. Confronting under imminent threat of violence is essentially an act of war anyway. It begs the question: where's the underlying casus belli?

"Saddam Disses the UN" BINGO! Use preexisting agreements to lay the UN's tarnished honor on the line, putting multilateralism and International Law on the defensive. To defend the viability of cooperation itself, the cooperators have to fall in line behind our warwagon. Those who feared US unilateralism are relieved, those who opposed it receive a psychic reward. Covertly-supportive partners can hide behind UN obligations. In the fast shuffle, the Regime Change card is off the table ... but still up GWB's sleeve. So is Preemption -- we draw a line, Saddam crosses it, and then we thump him. Preemption? I didn't see any preemption, did you see any preemption? Hard-core neo-uni-con's sense a trifecta prospect -- the opportunity to take out Saddam, the Security Council, and Colin Powell in one stroke.
But what's the REAL casus belli? The roster above is mostly an inventory of pretexts. In alleging (as I do) a public case built on mirrorboxes and flashpowder, it's fair to ask "OK, wise guy, what's the hidden motive?". Speculation abounds, with some superhawks candidly hyping the imperial imperative.
"Sanctions Must End" The sanctions regime is a real quagmire. It fails the intended purpose, real people are suffering and dying, blame rubs off on us, and we can't conveniently just call it off. Regime change effectively knocks over the chessboard, and in the next game there are no sanctions ... but we haven't "backed off" either.

"Plunder!", or more specifically, "Liberate the Oil" But (except for war jitters) the oil markets are behaving nicely of late, and taking the oil without paying for it would not only look bad ... it would destabilize numerous oil states, incite terrorism, and make US an outlaw regime.

Another "Because We Can" casus is the "Basing Options" angle. With Iraq as an occupied US protectorate, we'd have an uncontested air/land/sea base of operations in a key region ... a sort of West-Germany-on-the-Gulf.

The combination of basing rights and oil reserves would give us pivotal "Leverage Against Saudi Arabia" (who some identify as the real enemy), with downstream prospects of "Saudi Regime Change", the consequent "Decline of Wahhabiism", and -- proceeding to run table after table without a scratch -- the Holy Grail: victory in the "Clash of Civilizations" clearing the way to a "New American Century".

Another transformational fantasy is the "Proof of Concept" scheme. US demonstrates the ability to crush recalcitrant regimes at relatively low cost, and nobody dares stand against us. Worth noting, this was the underlying notion in Vietnam. US technology and organizational ju-jitsu would flip the regime and alter the course of history at nominal cost, and non-superpowers would thereafter get out of the way when they saw us coming ... compensating for the embarrassment of previous stumbles and stalemates, prevailing in the clash of civilizations, and clearing the way to a new American century, etc., etc... Not worth it then (even assuming the revisionist "could have won if we tried"), not worth it now.

"Politics, Pure and Simple" Regime change in Iraq has been a cornerstone of Bush43's agenda since before Campaign 2000. In this sense it transcends political calculus ... he'd find a way to do it even at great cost in political capital. But after winning the 9/11 trifecta, GWB is awash in political capital, and he's always had a use-it-or-lose-it philosophy. Politics is secondary but important -- the Commander in Chief role plays well in Peoria, his domestic record sucks, and the permanent campaign team is eagerly wallowing in political opportunism. Politics dictates the timing ... it doesn't account for the basic impulse.

"Finishing the Job" Desert Storm stopped short of Baghdad. Several current administration figures actively concurred at the time. Some now feel this was a mistake; some think it was correct strategy but with embarrassing side-effects. Others -- outsiders and fringe players in Round One -- were irate when we "wimped out". Both groups are eager to tidy up the historical record, wherein Bush41 supposedly frittered away a golden geopolitical opportunity and a king's ransom in political capital. Other astute Bush-watchers (Safire, for instance) intuit a "Freudian Flip" ... subconscious forces drive the reckless, rebellious son to one-up the Old Man by converting Pop's old reliable pickup into Junior's dunebuggy. Yet another theory invokes the familiar motif: "Find Out What Clinton Did, and Do the Opposite".

Out on the fringe, "Saddam Owes Us One" (Hitchens) We made Saddam what he is today, he's ours to break if we want to, just like we did so many other former partners.
Summing up, what have we got? For the administration's true reasons it's not clear ... my "serious" list includes the potential threat to Israel, the sanctions quagmire exit strategy, the assassination attempt, the plunder and transformation arguments, and the Freudian angle. For (informed) US public consumption: Israel, broken promises and UN credibility (especially targeting coalition aircraft), and assassination. For the international market: UN credibility. [Brilliant stroke! Bush outmaneuvered everybody ... maybe even himself!] For the timing and urgency: politics, pure and simple, down and dirty.

Monday, September 16, 2002

--- A Twisted Straw in the Winds of Multilateralism ---

ABC News polling results from Sept. 12-14, following GWB's UN speech:
"Would you favor or oppose having U.S. forces take military action against Iraq to force Saddam Hussein from power?" 68% responded in favor. But suppose "... U.S. allies opposed such military action ..."? Then 75% favor the move!!!
Another artifact of subjects' inability to parse questions phrased in the negative? Or does our "screw the French" crowd really outnumber those who favor military intervention but draw the line at unilateral action?

In other results, this sample now leans more strongly to the premise that such action would reduce the threat of terrorism (55%), rather than increase it (36%) ... now thinks GWB has "a clear policy on Iraq" (60 to 35%) ... but still wants more evidence (50 to 48%).

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

--- Suggested Exercise for 9/11 ---

Walk three thousand steps anywhere you like, counting every step.

You will not succeed, but you will learn much from the exercise.

Monday, September 09, 2002

--- US Intel Operatives Held, Tortured ---

A Explainer sums up the case for a meeting between Mohamed Atta's Prague and Iraqi intelligence in Prague.
According to Newsweek, when an FBI agent recently told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that the meeting was "unlikely," Wolfowitz grilled him until he agreed it was technically possible.
The "meeting" may have been a case of dual mistaken identity -- Atta looked like a Prague auto dealer who knew an Iraqi national whose name sounded like that of a high-level IIS official. Reconstruction places Atta on US soil before and after the "meeting", with no sign he crossed US or Czech borders in the interim ... and his movements normally left tracks.

Analysis: Absent proof positive of Atta's whereabouts on April 9, the meeting is still "technically possible" ... but it's way beyond the bounds of reasonable suggestive inference. If you were determined to advance the case for Saddam's complicity in 9/11 -- and you had credible supporting information -- you'd bury this item just to avoid looking gulliblestupid.

But if this flimsy thread were all you had, and you still hung your whole case on it ... you'd be a knave, or a crank, or a fool. You'd torture the evidence to support a predetermined conclusion. And it you were also a high-ranking national security official ... you'd torture the faculties of career professionals, trying to get them to cough up some hairball of supportive plausible coincidence.

Sunday's NYT featured a Week in Review special report on intelligence in the age of terrorism. Good as far as it goes [we'll pick up some of those threads in later articles], but important distorting influences go largely unremarked.

In the most pristine environments -- before any hint of coercion -- distortion creeps into analysis of sparse data against sparse background in the presence of random noise, source noise, channel bias, deliberate withholding, obfuscation and misdirection. Everyone is subject to expectation bias, hopes, fears, pet theories, obsessions, the universal human propensity to recognize patterns even in pattern-free data, blind spots, cognitive dissonance, echoes of past triumphs or past failures, force of habit, calibration, extinguishment, boredom, and the ever-present risk of an erroneous major premise.

Every institution has corrupt biases of internal origin. It's always tempting to find the jot of data that could "save" your own earlier discredited finding. Parkinson's Law applies. Some beats are always more status-laden, career-aggrandizing, or simply "juicier" than others. Humans tend to pick sides between competing propositions, and form "cheering sections" for their favorites. Humans develop opinions about policy objectives, and develop opinions as to which findings favor which policies. Missing an obvious finding is a career-limiting move, so intel is biased to discovering the obvious ... whereas information value is maximized by detecting the unexpected. And when intelligence gathering (discovering what is) gets mixed up with covert operations (changing what will be), every form of budget and agenda bias goes into overdrive. [Special concerns here re CIA command of armed drone aircraft.]

Wading into deeper waters, counterfeit intelligence corrupts the democratic political process, just as democratic political pressures corrupt the intelligence process ... and these effects reinforce each other. The War Cabinet's quest for a compelling casus belli raises these concerns in high relief.

For perspective, a stroll though the recent annals of corrupt intelligence ...
As documented extensively in the Pentagon Papers, two decades of intel coercion/corruption dragged US into Vietnam and kept us there. We turned against our (OSS's) man Ho Chi Minh in favor of French rule, then regime-changed emergent left-wing democracy in the former French colony, leaving Vietnam divided. We regime-changed our own hapless puppet into the grave (Diem, 1963). Intelligence kept telling our leaders what they wanted to hear -- that they could steer history by applying minimal force with maximal effect -- and it all kept turning out disastrously wrong. We regime-changed leaders at provincial, tribal and village level. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf "incident" (which in retrospect was either a misreport, a wholesale fabrication, or a routine coastal defense response) provided the rationale -- and the authorizing resolution -- for years of massive escalation. At the end (1975) we abandoned a failing regime in a militarized and destabilized region ... and the chain reaction hasn't settled out yet.

In 1983, "Operation Urgent Fury" regime-changed the tiny island of Grenada. A key pretext was the intelligence report that Cuban forces were improving the island's main airfield ... a development President Reagan insisted could only be intended as a Soviet airbase. We closed our eyes to Grenada's previous bid for US sponsorship of the same project, or the 1980 World Bank report recommending the same improvements as a boon to tourism, or a similar British recommendations dating back to 1954, or the project's hands-on management by Plessey (UK) with Cuban, Canadian, US and other subcontractors. After regime change, with minimal fanfare, we helped Grenada complete the commercial runway extension per original design.

In 1989, we regime-changed Panama, ostensibly to extradite General Manuel Noriega. Noriega was a former CIA asset, gone off the reservation. In the run-up to invasion ("Operation Just Cause", a.k.a. "Panama 5" ... after four failed coups) we declared Noriega an agent of Colombia's Medallin Cartel. We declared him an agent of Cuba. We declared him a weapons trafficker. We declared him a psychopath. [Tipped off by an intoxicated ex-girlfriend of someone in the know, I followed the defamation campaign with amused interest. It all played out as plotted, beginning with atmospheric language popping up in commercial wire-service reports. Noriega the strong leader had been replaced overnight by Noriega the brutal thug.] A significant fraction of 1% of Panama's adult male population died in the course of the "arrest", and we barely eked out a conviction when the drug case got to court.

In 1990, a US-led coalition relieved Kuwait from Iraqi-sponsored regime change. Iraqi tanks were real, but politically pivotal reports of Kuwaiti babies tossed out of incubators were not.
... Congress and the American public were swayed by the tearful testimony of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only as Nayirah. ... Later, it was learned that Nayirah ... had no connection to the Kuwait hospital. She had been coached ... by [PR firm] Hill and Knowlton ... which had a contract worth more than $10 million with the Kuwaitis ...
CSM covers this and other Gulf War crockery, including our detection of Saddam's troops massing on the Saudi border. On further review of satellite imagery, it seems this "massing" was invented out of whole cloth. In other words, Kuwait conned US into their game, and US conned Saudi Arabia ... and sympathetic Arab states ... and oil-dependent Europeans ... into our game.
In the presence of political agendas, intelligence data will be tortured to fit the case, and the intelligence apparatus will be tortured to produce the "right" answers. This can become a vicious circle (as in Vietnam), trapping our leaders in a dark of their own making, and creating new pressures and pretexts for conveniently fanciful findings.

Ramping up for Plan Iraq, the bullshit generators will be working overtime. Our bullshit detectors should be tuned accordingly. In another forum a couple weeks ago, I suggested we look for a fresh Tonkin Gulf pretext ... and suggested last week that we'll suddenly discover new and urgent threats behind Saddam's kimono. And so it is.
Saddam (just as he was ten years ago) is shopping for aluminum centrifuge tubes. [Actually very good news, if true ... it means he's years away from homegrown nukes, and his outsource attempts haven't panned out. OTOH, it could be a head-fake.]

Saddam has a fleet of CBW drone aircraft.

Saddam met face-to-face with Mohamed Atta. [At least Defense Policy Board chief Richard Perle is quoted to that effect in foreign media. Most likely: this is a secondhand misrendition-in-translation. Next-most-likely: Perle is out of his gourd. Third-most-likely: somebody is pulling Perle's leg. Least likely: this really happened, and Perle knows it, and spilled it.]

In general media "chatter", unrelated atmospheric fear-bombs are popping up like turtles on fenceposts. Some of it is 9/11 anniversary stuff, but we are being conditioned.

GWB says IAEA said Saddam was six months away from nuke-you-lore capability in 1998. [IAEA says it ain't so, and NBC says the White House says "What happened was, we formed our own conclusions".]

US/British air-to-ground tempo is increasing in the Gulf no-fly zones. [Could be several reasons for that.]

Saddam's supposed former mistress pops up on ABC with bizarre Saddam-as-Hitler testimony. [Atrios casts some long shadows of doubt over this production.]

This just in -- we're going to Condition Orange! [Orange is not my color ... but it may be warranted.]
How is it we have just enough intel to confirm Saddam's imminent threats, and enough to forecast the course of history post-Saddam ... but not enough intel to neutralize these threats more artfully? Sure, it's technically possible. Is it likely?

Bush43's "Kitchen Cabinet" (Perle, Safire, Woolsey, et al) promises the people of Iraq are waiting for liberation. We put Saddam on the run, they'll rise up, Declare Independence, convene a Continental Congreff, and get right to work on a Conftitution. Sounds good, but this rests on exactly the same intelligence assessment of internal dissent that led Bush43 to break off contact with Saddam's defeated forces. Back then, we were confident Saddam would be overthrown in short order. Now, we're confident nation-building will be a piece of cake.

Same data, same interpretation ... only back then the conclusion read "Don't go to Baghdad", and now it says "Go to Baghdad". DON'T KILL MOOSE AND SQUIRREL KILL MOOSE AND SQUIRREL. When the same evidence supports diametrically opposite action plans, watch out!

Now every fiber in the intelligence web is straining to produce the smoking gun, under threat of being trapped in a windowless room with Paul Wolfowitz. [As I check the background of casus belli nominees, the particulars of People v. Saddam get thinner and more contrived. Even the old reliable "Saddam gassed his own people" is questionable. More later.]

[This just in -- Tuesday's WaPo reports "the Bush administration has for now dropped what had been one of the central arguments ... Iraq's links to al Qaeda ... CIA has yet to find convincing evidence despite having combed its files and redoubled its efforts ...". The administration isn't giving up the search for this Holy Grail, just beating a tactical retreat.]

The scariest of the kitchen cabinet may be Woolsey. I see him on the tube, firm in his conclusions and the evidence be damned ... shrugging off all red flags, seizing on the most far-fetched rumors, inflating them to Godzilla proportions, and riding them around in circles, hanging on for dear life. Complain all you want about Chomsky, but Woolsey is out there in crackpot territory ... and this guy was our Director of Central Intelligence! Scary. Very scary.

But it's a scary world ... and we're not the half of it.

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

--- Which is the Safe Play? ---

Remarkable. Per this 8/29/02 ABC News Poll, 40% of US adults think it "would create a greater risk of further terrorism to this country -- if the United States DOES take military action against Iraq" (against 47% who believe inaction is riskier).

It's the correct answer -- "um, we're not sure, ask again later" -- but as a polling result it doesn't sound right. Maybe a small or biased (summer vacation) sample. Maybe half the folks misunderstood the question. Or maybe, out of necessity, We the People are evolving more nuanced views of issues we'd rather not even have views of.

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

--- Emerging Consensus: Plan Iraq "wouldn't be prudent" ---

A remarkable consensus is emerging outside the inner circle. Though every notional scouting party shies away at a different bullet-point, they're all on the same page -- Plan Iraq (per Dana Carvey's classic tagline) wouldn't be prudent. The unifying theme is a vital piece of business neglected in the planning process.

Herewith, remedial exercise in contingency analysis. Conclusion: Preemptive regime change, in most plausible sequels, parries a threat that would not have come to fruition, and/or creates more hazards than it extinguishes. (Reviewers with professional or Constitutional responsibilities will reprise the exercise in far greater depth and detail.)

Examine the Standard Case for regime change by territorial conquest:
(1) Saddam Hussein's Iraq is developing potent Weapons of Mass Destruction (notably, nukes and delivery systems).
(2) When Saddam has WMD, he will damage the US ... either directly, or by extortion, or acting against US interests (notably Israel), or by equipping third parties (notably, Islamic terrorist networks).
(3) Forcible regime change in Iraq will prevent this damage.

Simple, isn't it? Either invade Iraq, or get blow'd up. Simple and wrong, diving headlong into the first gaping elementary pitfall.

Plan Iraq takes us merrily down the path of lowest-resolution analysis. We enter a forest of possibilities, fixate on the most prominent decision tree (maybe not the biggest in the forest, just the biggest in the immediate foreground), climb the thickest branch, and so on to whatever fruit lies at the tip.

Human nature is not adept at embracing contradictory possibilities. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance pushes us to trust all our weight to the thickest branch ... to force an issue even where cost exceeds gain ... and to choose counterfeit certitude over realistic perplexity. Social process reinforces this bias.
Skeptics, try opening an argument with a hypothetical. "Wait, that's not right, or is it?" ... "How does he know that?" ... "Get to the point!" ... "How can he even suggest such a thing?" ... "Aha! He's contradicted himself!" ... "If it's not true, why even bring it up?".
Thus public debate is commonly framed as if everything important is knowable -- if only we squint hard enough into the fog, and speak firmly enough to whatever awaits beyond the darkened doorway.

Still, many practical disciplines -- portfolio analysis, sports and games, scientific inference, the art of war, the conduct of history itself -- demand we overcome this urge, and cultivate tools and methods to deal with ensembles of unknowns. Let's have at it!

We'll make another pass at higher resolution, cataloging some of the thinner branches. [Our bundle of kindling here is limited to propositions whose absolute probability is arguably 1% or better, or whose annual probability density is at least 1%. Bear in mind this is an illustration, not an comprehensive analysis.]

"(1) Saddam is developing potent WMD."
This seems highly probable, but not certain. Informed sources disagree. Have we missed any salient possibilities?
(1a) Saddam was developing WMD, but has abandoned the program.
(1b) Saddam's WMD program is a deliberate bluff.
(1c) Saddam is developing strategically insignificant WMD (WWI-vintage mustard gas, poorly-dispersed anthrax, etc.).
(1d) Saddam is developing impractical WMD using technically incompetent designs.
(1e) Saddam is developing potent WMD susceptible to undisclosed US countermeasures.
(1f) Saddam's WMD program is susceptible to intelligence, and thus amenable to "editing" with finer-tipped policy instruments.
(1g) Saddam's WMD program is impenetrable in research mode, but at strategic scale becomes susceptible to intelligence.
(1h) Saddam is procuring/deploying WMD by means other than Iraqi R&D on Iraqi territory.
(1i) Saddam is a year or more away from strategic WMD capability. (If the timeline were much shorter -- and we really bought the Standard Case -- we wouldn't invade ... we'd launch).

Under contingency (1i), informed consensus centers on a three-year development horizon. And as said the Fool who avoided the gallows by offering to teach his King's horse to talk, "Much can happen in a year ... the King may die ... or the horse may die ... or I may die ... or ... the horse may talk!". Each passing year of time-to-completion turns loose a stampede of Markovian horses of a different color.

(1i) Before Saddam completes his WMD program ...
(1i1) Regime change occurs via Saddam's death by natural causes. Allowing for high-risk, high-stress lifestyle, high quality medical care, heart-healthy diet, back trouble, previous hardships, etc., we might guesstimate the probability density of this "state transition" at 3% this year, increasing rapidly with each year of attained age. This event spawns its own tree of contingencies -- not all to the good.
(1i2) Regime change (at least de facto) occurs via Saddam's mental or physical disability, or medical procedure requiring extended convalescence. Peg this at 6% per annum, and increasing.
(1i3) Regime change occurs via opposition close at hand. Probability increases as Saddam ages, as resentments mount, as disillusionment over failed initiatives (socialism, secularization, territorial aggrandizement) deepens, and as Saddam's justifiable paranoia increases. No guarantee the successor regime is friendly, but if a would-be successor adheres to Saddam's suicidal WMD agenda, why would he bother? 5% per annum seems conservative.
(1i4) Saddam passes the torch voluntarily, and goes fishing. Sounds remote, but who knows what lifestyle choices an aging self-absorbed lunatic might make?
(1i5) Saddam changes his mind about WMD (as he has about-faced on other major undertakings) ... because he's crazy.
(1i6) Saddam changes his mind about WMD (for any of several good reasons) ... because he's not crazy.
(1i7) Saddam's WMD program becomes susceptible to improved intelligence capabilities.
(1i8) US technical defense capabilities leapfrog Saddam's WMD delivery designs (with or without Saddam's knowledge).
(1i9) Saddam's regime is engaged (and possibly removed) by other international actors, for reasons unrelated to this discussion.
(1i10) US and Saddam become allies (again) in common cause unrelated to this discussion.
Under these assumptions, cumulative odds are less than 50/50 that Saddam remains in power and completes WMD development ... even assuming that is his current intention, and that his current designs are feasible, and that US rules out later, better-informed interventions.

Moving on, let's feather out the second major premise:
"(2) When Saddam gets WMD, he will use them effectively against US interests."
Many observers have doubts on this one, but for sake of argument we suppose this is the weightiest branch. Any possibilities overlooked?

(2a) Saddam develops WMD (nukes, ICBMs) and is detected testing them, at which point US responds massively against the regime, or decisively against key facilities, perhaps enlisting a broader coalition.
(2b) Saddam mounts untested nukes on untested ICBM's and launches; these prove ineffective; US responds massively.
(2c) Saddam launches inadequately tested WMD; they are less than fully effective; US responds massively.
(2d) Saddam launches WMD; US intelligence and/or technical countermeasures mitigate damage; US responds massively.
(2e) Saddam develops WMD, but hesitates ... "amassing" them, or awaiting some pretext, provocation or opportunity, or using them as bargaining chips, or pursuing some other "irrational" strategic agenda. Here again most of the delay/decay contingencies under (1i) apply.
(2f) Saddam develops WMD, but changes his mind about using them. (He's crazy, isn't he?)
(2g) Saddam develops WMD, but targets them against another adversary. (He's crazy enough ... or somebody is crazy enough to pick a fight with him.)
(2h) Saddam is not suicidal after all. He covets WMD for the same reason everybody else does -- deterrence.
(2i) Saddam is not suicidal after all. He develops WMD, but is deterred by the threat of US reprisals.
(2j) Saddam is suicidal, but subordinates who are not suicidal countermand or sabotage the launch sequence. (Don't laugh ... it worked with Nixon.)

The third leg of our Standard Case has received more attention elsewhere.
"(3) US can preempt Saddam's WMD threat by forcing regime change."
Suppose -- purely for analytical convenience -- that regime removal proceeds spotlessly. US goes through the military motions, and Saddam vacates without a shot fired in anger. The itemized inventory of sequels still explodes exponentially ... here's a generic summary.

US forces are left holding a stateless domain roughly the size and cultural complexity of California, in a neighborhood of unstable regimes and unresolved territorial disputes. The neighbors already hated us for prioritizing Iraq ahead of Palestine, and for (as they see it) starving Iraqi children. Now they resent us as a territorial menace, a defiler, and a price-cutter in the petroleum markets.

The locals despise us and our parade of carpetbagging puppets. Some of our puppets are merely ambitious, others have covert agendas (not all the same agenda). There is no tradition of democracy. An impoverished civilian population includes large non-integrated ethnic factions (Kurds, for instance, who enjoy more autonomy under the current stalemate than ever in modern history) ... and an overbuilt military establishment, now disarmed, displaced and distrusted. Concealed WMD labs still exist, but key employees are busy relocating to Syria, Iran, and points beyond. Islamic radical factions (repressed by Saddam) suddenly become hyperactive ... sure, it's a rebuilding year, but recruiting is excellent.

The holding action and "nation building" efforts absorb large portions of our military and intelligence assets, subject us to an array of ticklish bilateral diplomatic constraints, and impose a drag on our economy ... maybe for decades, certainly for years. And "much can happen in a year".
(3a) Things can happen in New Iraq, mostly because of our presence.
(3b) Things can happen in the neighborhood, either because of or in spite of our presence.
(3c) Things can happen elsewhere, in the ordinary course of geopolitics -- political, military, diplomatic, technological, cultural, natural, demographic and economic developments that would warrant serious consideration of US intervention.
(3d) Things can happen outside the ordinary course of events, by the usual knock-on effects of a major military event.
(3e) Things can happen outside the ordinary course of events, because we ripped out the course markers when we gave preemption our stamp of approval.
(3f) Things can happen outside the ordinary course of events ... precisely because we have tied up assets, expended reserves, foreclosed options and made deals with devils.

Let's focus on military happenings. (Some of our target audience is unconvinced any other kind really counts.) How often is the US called upon to project force?
Since inception, US has found occasion for a venture under arms every seven years or so ... an event density of about 0.15 per year ... but most of history was made before the shrinking globe put us all at each others' doorsteps. On today's faster, denser playing surface, a call to arms is heard perhaps every two or three years ... say 0.40 events per annum.

In 2002, trouble is brewing at what seems above trendline for "modern times". Even omitting a couple household names, obscure conflicts, and more potent challenges that would take the discussion too far afield, we have a War on Terrorism, two of three Axers of Evil still at large, Marxism's unsettled epilogs everywhere, Africa's rolling boil, Latin America's faltering political economics, dicey mop-up in Afghanistan, and a chain of Islamic "hotspot" franchises running from Gibraltar to the South Pacific. This suggests a higher work rate in the intermediate term.

My guess? History serves up occasions for large-scale US military response at the rate of 1.0 per year, for the next several years. That doesn't mean we'll encounter one every year. Treating them as independent events (applying a Poisson model) there's a 36% chance of no events in a given year. On the other hand, odds are better than one in four that we'll catch two events (or more) in a given year.

Is my estimate too rich for your blood? Fine. Let's dial it down to an event density of 0.70 per year ... and suppose we can exit Iraq in three years, after taking only three months (mobilization and combat) to enter. That gives us a 10% chance of getting through Plan Iraq without the onset of a competing event ... 23% chance of one event ... 27% chance of two events ... and a 40% chance of three or more such events.
A more refined (and more alarming) analysis would consider the scope and duration of entanglements, potential overlap, contagion and opportunism, and the consequences of non-response. If you command a hostile force -- or even a rival force -- wouldn't you want US to invade Iraq? If you are neutral or friendly -- even a declared ally -- wouldn't an aggressively interventionist US merit the #1 or #2 spot on your roster of war-game adversaries?

Speaking of contingencies ... maybe (shades of Vietnam) the stated case for Plan Iraq is not the real case. Maybe there's a plot twist or intelligence report too unsettling to share with the public ... or the Security Council, or NATO, or former Secretaries of State, or Congress.

Maybe the real motivation is some fancied bonus payoff. A twenty-one-cushion bank shot ending with secular democracy from Morocco to Malaysia? Black Gold, the plunder of conquest? Or "winning by intimidation" -- the notion (shades of Vietnam, again) that after exercising decisive strength here, we'll only have to cock an eyebrow to win the next showdown?

Or maybe (shades again, in spades) we've drawn a line in the sand, and we know it was a dumb idea, but we don't know how to back off without signaling "weakness"?

In the next half-century on a planet much like ours, but without Saddam or al Qaeda, we might reasonably expect unscripted use of WMD. Weapons of Precise Destruction could be even more disruptive. The US makes an attractive target. The Imperial US makes an even more attractive target. The next nuclear event -- by anybody, against anybody -- takes us into unknown territory ... a new world context, where Saddam might likely as not end up on our side of the table!

Against this backdrop, there is a finite chance that Plan Iraq prevents an event that would have damaged US interests (and a even smaller chance that Plan Iraq is the most efficient means to this end). In most sequels, however, we wish we'd kept our powder dry, after paying full price to spin the wheel whether the posted payoff was real or imaginary.

And "full price" means accelerating the kinetics all over our geopolitical laboratory. In other words, Plan Iraq maneuvers US into a less responsive posture in a more eventful world. This is imprudent leadership of the first magnitude ... the moral equivalent of tipping over the chessboard when we're a piece or two ahead.