Friday, December 23, 2005


I found the movie a little boring, actually, and I can't say I see what all the fuss was about. One thing did bother me. In the book Edmond apologizes personally to each of his siblings. In the movie, his big brother cuts him off before he could. In the scene before, Peter explains to Aslan that Peter had been too hard on Edmond. The contemporary mind can't stand the idea of a kid just being bad. He has to have been made bad by authority, even if it is only his big brother. It makes the film feel kind of weird. Both Edmond and Peter are so vile to one another that you can't figure out which one is supposed to be the good guy.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

True, but Irrelevant

In judging whether someone made the right decision, we must look at the evidence the decision maker had available to him at the time he made the decision.

Pundits seem to have recognized this principle in discussing the recent shooting of an erratic passenger by US Air-marshals. The one thing that has not been brought up in evaluating the performance of the marshals is the fact that the man did not, in fact, have a bomb. While there some dispute over what occurred before Rigoberto Alpizaro was shot, what was found or not found in his backpack after he was shot is rightly considered irrelevant to how we judge the marshals’ decision. Their decision must be evaluated on the basis of the information they had at the time.

This is a good thing to keep in mind in the debate about Iraq. Pointing out that after the war Sadaam Hussein was found not to be in possession of WMD is like pointing out that Alpizaro’s backpack did not contain a bomb: true, but irrelevant.

A good test is to imagine how we would react if the situation had been the opposite. In the case of the marshals, suppose the man really did have a bomb and they had decided not to shoot? One can imagine the pundits excoriating the Air-marshals for not shooting, “So here’s a guy saying he has a bomb in his backpack running toward the plane and they do nothing. A man claiming to have a bomb that is coming toward you, refusing orders from armed men to stop—why would someone do that unless they intended to do harm?”

Sadaam’s behavior was little different. In the face of orders from the UN backed by a clear threat of war from the US to comply with inspections he refused to fully comply with the resolution, as even the UN commissioners admitted. And he did this even though by complying he could have saved himself upwards of $100 billion in lost revenue due to the sanctions. Add to this his provision of financial support and a safe haven for a broad network of terrorist murders of Americans and you have the national equivalent of a man running at armed officers claiming to have a bomb.

That the evidence at the time of the decision pointed to his having WMD is attested to by the fact that all major intelligence services had come to the same conclusion. The Germans thought he was closer to having a nuclear weapon than we did. You can demonstrate this to yourself with a Google to see what people were saying at the time. The statements of prominent Democrats in 1998 when President Clinton made it national policy to depose Sadaam are, if anything, more alarmist than those of the Bush administration. Even those nations opposed to the invasion (the example of France comes to mind) didn’t say it was because they believed he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, but rather based their objections on the claim that containment was working.

Sadaam had even fooled his closest confidants. Of all the bizarre revelations about the Iraqi regime that came out of the Duelfler report (the US’s post-war investigation into Iraq’s WMD programs) was that all the generals in the Iraqi army had taken great trouble to equip their units with chemical weapons suits and counter measures. Even though each knew that his own unit did not have chemical weapons, they took it for granted that the units next to them did. It is hard to image a higher standard for intelligence than having the same information as the top generals in the opposing army. That this information turns out to be false is a measure not of our intelligence failure so much as the bizarre and twisted nature of the regime we were trying to gain intelligence on. Iraq under Sadaam truly was the international analogue of a psychotic patient off his meds.

Of course the analogy is not perfect. The Bush administration had a lot more time to make the decision and should therefore be held to a much higher standard. But on the other hand, the Air-marshals in Miami had no information about their suspect’s past behavior. Not so with Sadaam. He had killed thousands with chemical weapons, many his own citizens and all his fellow Muslims. He had twice—at the end of the first Gulf war and again two years later—been certified by the UN as having rid himself of all WMD programs, only to be subsequently discovered with large quantities of chemical weapons and an advanced program to build a nuclear bomb. Indeed, according to the UN, Sadaam’s possession of WMD was never in doubt. Iraq had previously admitted and the UN had certified possession of tons of VX nerve gas. The only dispute was whether to accept Sadaam’s explanation of where the nerve gas was now: “I got rid of it but I can’t remember where or when.”

In assessing the costs of having gone into Iraq we should not neglect the costs we would face had we not gone into Iraq. In the aftermath of the marshals’ shooting of a man that did not have a bomb, airline passengers reported feel more safe, not less, and we have seen an increase in airline reservations. What if, instead, the story had been that a man claiming to have a bomb had been allowed to board a plan unopposed by the armed marshals? Surely, those people that actually do intend to bring bombs onto planes would have taken encouragement.

According to the Duefler report, Sadaam was convinced that making others believe that he had WMD protected him from all-out US attack. If, by backing down, we had confirmed him in this belief, we would face a whole new set of problems. If, after defying 17 UN resolutions, openly supporting terrorism and offering a “dog ate my homework” explanation for the whereabouts of his known stocks of VX nerve gas, Sadaam had made the US back down, not only would he have concluded that possessing WMD rendered him invulnerable to US retaliation, so would have every other dictatorial regime. Instead of Libya voluntarily giving up its nuclear program to avoid Sadaam’s fate, other dictators would be starting their own programs to imitate his success.

What ever credibility problems we face now because of Sadaam’s ‘empty backpack,’ they pale in comparison to the credibility problems we would face had we let him bluff his way back on to the plane.