When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

March 17, 2006

Did the President mislead or lie to get us into war?

Bravo Romeo Delta

The following is a series of exchanges on a comment thread at Protein Wisdom between myself and a Llama School. As it happens, it turned into an interesting Socratic discussion of the Iraq War, which I’ve opted to repost.


"Did the President mislead or lie to get us into war?"



I don’t know if the President lied, or misled, or was misled. I can’t judge that, and I won’t be chanting “Bush lied, people died”. Though the alternative ("The Bush administration was incompetent, took shaky “evidence” without properly examining the alternatives, and because of this went to war under mistaken pretenses; people died") isn’t much better.


L School,

Fair enough. Now just a little food for thought about the role of the intelligence community in the diplomatic and security arenas:

A True/False Quiz On Major Intelligence Events
And Don’t Be A Bastard And Google The Answers

Did the intelligence community successfully predict

1) the Fall of the Soviet Union
2) the Soviet nuclear presence in Cuba prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis
3) the Soviet lead in ICBMs in the early 50’s
4) post WWII German resistance movements
5) the status of the Indian nuclear program
6) the status of the Pakistani nuclear program
7) the invasion of Kuwait
8) the facilities being used in the North Korean nuclear program
9) the status of the Iranian nuclear program
10) the status of the Libyan nuclear program
11) the status of other Libyan WMD programs
12) Soviet preparations for an offensive nuclear strike in the 80s

I’ll stop there before I get to the lucky 13. But the point being is that this President has acted as reasonably and carefully on intelligence reliable as any President historically. Not a lot of out line on that front, when it comes down to cases.



Let’s take your logic here (for now, putting aside your statement that the President acted reasonably and carefully on this intelligence). If the intelligence community is this bad, then why on earth should a President start a preemptive war based on such a flawed institution?


L School,

That, right there, is precisely the VERKAKTE POINT!!!

Sorry - I just get excited from time to time.

Ok, here we go…

Once upon a time, the dynamics governing state-to-state interactions and terrorism were basically understood to have self-limiting elements. Deterrence, in all of it’s lovely forms, among them. The interplay of deterrence and political effectiveness between interstate relations and terrorism basically dictated (according to the logic of the day) that there was an upper bound to the amount of damage and fatalities that terrorists would seek. Think of the self-imposed IRA ban on attacks on the royalty.

Ok, so then along comes 9/11, demonstrating rather visibly that this self-limiting factor was no longer applicable. From now on, we could not rely on the restraint of intent by latent threat. To put it more simply, it became apparent that these guys were really quite serious about killing as many infidels in as spectacular a fashion as possible.

Now, check this - we have an intelligence apparatus that is mighty, mighty, far from foolproof. Moreover, our laws have many features that mean that ensuring the kind of domestic controls that could prevent an attack - in other words adequate defense - would be impossible.

So… we can’t accurately keep tabs on WMD development.

So… we can’t reliably count on stopping terrorists every time they try for a mass casualty attack.

So… we can’t make particularly good predictions about the leadership and future behavior of rogue states.

So… we have a great deal of difficulty tracking and monitoring relationships on the ground in a wide variety of instances.

Now, let us suppose that Al Qaeda is serious when they say acquiring nuclear weapons is a holy duty. Furthermore, let us take Al Qaeda seriously when they announce the fact that they consider anyone who pays taxes and thereby contributes to US government revenue to be someone eligible for murder at their hands.

So, what happens if they are able to make good on their intentions. And what makes you think for a single instant that we’ll find out about it before the attack Every Single Time?

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that war is the lesser of two evils here. And that’s not the same thing as saying the evil we got is great, it’s just saying the downside potential of inaction is far more significant.



So since we’re not good with intelligence, and since Al-Qaeda attacked us, we should have gone to war with Iraq? And that’s not meant as snark...that seems to be the point you’re insinuating here.

And secondly, there was dissent within the intelligence community re: the view that Hussein had what some claimed he had. So this wasn’t necessarily a failure of the intelligence community...it was a failure of someone to listen to all of the voices in the intelligence community before acting. This wasn’t an example of the intel community giving a clear, unambiguous sign that Hussein had stockpiles of WMDs. The intelligence community was torn, the evidence was questionable, and someone in the administration decide to damn the torpedoes and go ahead based on what ended up being very very wrong.


L School said:

So since we’re not good with intelligence, and since Al-Qaeda attacked us, we should have gone to war with Iraq? And that’s not meant as snark...that seems to be the point you’re insinuating here.

I was trying for more of a descriptive process, but what the heck, we’ll take it as prescriptive. I think that of the many nations in the War on Terror that need to be addressed, the Axis of Evil represented the three most significant short to medium term threats. Clearly, taking all three out was not much of an option for what are, essentially, political reasons. Furthermore, from a legal and diplomatic standpoint, Iraq was by far and away the low hanging fruit of the bunch. Think about it, with all this stink after violation of the Gulf War cease-fire, 17 UN Resolutions, the Iraq Liberation Act, and the Authorization for Use of Force, there’s still this amount of rancor. Other countries may have been more fruitful targets, but the political ruckus would have been unimaginable.

But, in general, I put the above description to you as an implied question - so what would you suggest?

Secondly, I am not sure that “dissent within the intelligence community” means what you think it means. Actually, as far as it goes, I’m pretty certain. There really isn’t and has never been a way for an analyst writing a report to say, “Well, I’m pretty darned certain about A, provided that B and C are true - if not, A is never going to happen.” Rather the analyst will write something along the lines of “There are strong indicators that A will occur, based on information from B and C.”

Now this isn’t a matter of shirking or anything else, it’s a lot more to do with the fact that fully qualified reports start to lose utility. A decision maker will go over material, provided it’s brief. A staffer will advocate a policy, based on what they actually read. If the analysis becomes too cumbersome, it just gets skipped because people are freakishly busy.

So, when you talk about “dissent within the community”, that’s not really saying a whole lot. Of course analysts disagree about things. Of course these concerns aren’t always borne out in excruciating detail. That’s just the way intel works (and incidentally is the reason that the US has a preference for technological, rather than human intel).

Second, the much bandied about claim of “dissent” comes from the notion that of the 16 agencies in the US Intelligence Community, all of them were in agreement that Hussein had retained chemical and biological materials proscribed by UN Resolutions. Of the agencies that maintained that he possessed nuclear materials in defiance of UN Resolutions, there was one, just one, agency that was of the opinion that he was not in violation of agreements on nuclear weapons programs.

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to pass on open and closed source intelligence from non-USG sources, despite the fact that there are some truly interesting things on that front.

At any rate, let’s take the tally here, 16 agencies: Yes on Chemical Weapons Programs, Yes on Biological Weapons Programs, 15 Yes on Nuclear Weapons Programs, and 1 No on Nuclear Weapons Programs. That’s our dissent.

Now, to define our terms here (and I’m just going to skip compliance with the rest of the provisions of UN 1441 for the sake of simplicity here):

"Deploring the fact that Iraq has not provided an accurate, full, final, and complete disclosure, as required by resolution 687 (1991), of all aspects of its programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles with a range greater than one hundred and fifty kilometres, and of all holdings of such weapons, their components and production facilities and locations, as well as all other nuclear programmes, including any which it claims are for purposes not related to nuclear-weapons-usable material,"

Ok, so now that we’ve set the stage, what actually happened?

Let’s start with the nukes - as it turns out, the agencies were incorrect on compliance with the resolution on nuclear programs. Iraq was in violation, so the dissenting agency here was in the wrong.

Well, what about chemical and biological materials? Well, I’m not going to rehash the Kay Report, but on a fundamental, brass-tacks level, Iraq was in violation of the WMD provisions of 1441.


This then presents a few obvious questions:

1) Why all the hue and cry about not finding WMD?
2) Did discovery of these materials then justify the war?

On the first question - you have to recall that the administration itself didn’t rely heavily on WMD. Perversely enough, more dovish legislators who made the calculation that failure to back the war would make them seem soft on defense issues then had to pitch the conflict to the relatively dovish constituencies they represented. Being dovish and very vocally in the “war as last resort” camp, the pitch had to be a much spookier hard sell of the argument I gave earlier. This almost inevitably got rephrased and dumbed down to “Saddam will give Al Qaeda nukes which they’ll use in the US” which is a gross misstatement of the argument and a disastrous oversimplification.

In other words, in order to make the more difficult pitch, they started (not unreasonably) placing bets on finding a very dramatic smoking gun. Which, evidently, didn’t show up on cue.

On to the second point, was the war justified based on the discovery of violations of UN 1441? Tough call - it depends on how you call the justification. As far as it goes, Iraq had been in violation of the Gulf War Cease Fire for years and years, which in and of itself is legal grounds for full resumption of hostilities.

But this is kind of beside the point. The short answer is that the discovery of weapons is a backhanded justification. Not because some guy had a centrifuge - while legally passable, I sure as hell wouldn’t drop a cool $100 billion and send home 2,300 “We Regret to Inform You“ letters over that.

But this is where the more troublesome chunk of the earlier analysis comes in. We (the US and others) were absolutely convinced that the WMD was a slam dunk. And you know what? Even three years on, with complete and total access to everything in the country, we still don’t have any real answers. Do you recall the recently aired tape about the Iraqi guys spouting off about their weapons and concealment programs? One of the rather disturbing things, from an intel point of view, was that one of the speakers on the tape is unidentified.

Think about that - after 12 years of inspections, after 3 more years of having full and total access to anyone and anything in the country, we’re still finding out about people at the highest levels who were intimately involved in the WMD programs. That doesn’t speak highly to our actual understanding of what was - or is - going on.

So to make a complex answer long, the uncertainty of our intel forecasts is even worse than we had thought. Moreover, by pure grace alone, it turned out that the error turned out to be a false positive. If we had a false negative - decided that Iraq had disarmed when they really hadn’t, we wouldn’t know about it until the nuke gets displayed. If we had a true positive on WMD, then people not too dissimilar from yourself would be crowing about how they knew Iraq had chemical weapons and then Bush had to invade and provoke Iraq anyways when diplomatic measures were working. They’d probably go on to say that he’s a reckless unilateralist who should have listened to his allies, but now Americans are coming home dead because he’s a brash simpleton. The bad part of that scenario is that the body count would be higher than it turned out to be, for both Americans and Iraqis.

To rephrase, I would have to say the course of action Bush pursued with respect to Iraq was the least miserable of all choices available to him at the time. I also think that the strident opposition leveled at Bush is going to make the next decision maker understandably gunshy about using force. Furthermore, I am convinced that this increasing hesitancy will ultimately (sooner or later) result in the death of thousands and thousands of Americans that otherwise need not have died, because we won't be aggressive, and we'll fail to stop Every Single Attempt at a WMD terrorist attack.

(h/t to Kevin)

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at 01:51 AM | Retaliatory Launches Detected (5) | Missile Tracks

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