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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.
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.