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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.