Friday, November 18, 2005

The Iraq Intelligence Inquiry Initiative

Now hear this:
We're going to figure out this business about the administration's use of intelligence in making the public case for invading Iraq.

After getting reading Emerson's "Self-Reliance" for the twentieth or so time and getting what passes as a good night's sleep for me, I've calmed down enough to think about the relevant topics again in a passably dispassionate way. Josh Marshall is assembling evidence on one side of the case, and lots of folks are assembling it on the other. (oh, and I found this interesting, clear and relevant textbook-form version of the case for war by Steven Den Beste (it's mostly on the GWoT in general, but part of it is on Iraq)). But there are important tasks that have to be completed before the evidence will do us much good. For one thing, we have to identify and clarify the important claims at issue. For another, we have to determine which claims there is rational disagreement about.

I've got a lot to do today, so this will just be a quick start, but here goes:

Let's start with the easy stuff. One central-but-not-terribly-important claim is:

(WMD) Saddam had significant stockpiles of WMD.

It's important to start with this claim for several reasons, among which are:

1. It's appropriately vague.
As C. S. Peirce notes, vagueness is important, and there's nothing wrong with vagueness so long as you are clear about what you are being vague about. In the case of the proposition (WMD) we are being vague about a couple of things, in particular about what period of time we're talking about. If we were interested in this claim we'd want to make it clearer as we went along, but how clear we'd need to make it and in what ways isn't yet obvious. But, for example, we'd almost certainly want to specify a certain period of time, e.g. the time the decision to invade was made. Theoretically, it could end up being important to know whether Saddam had such weapons exactly when the invasion began, in which case we'd ultimately want to make it clear that we were discussing something like:

(WMD3/20/03) Saddam had significant stockpiles of WMD on the day the invasion began.

2. (WMD) is also important because almost everyone agrees that it's false, so there's no need to waste time arguing about it.

3. (WMD) is also important because it's representative of the propositions we'll be dealing with in that it contains a term that needs to be defined--to wit, 'WMD'. We can propose criteria for being a WMD:

x is a WMD if and only if:
x is a nuclear weapon
x is a biological weapon
x is a chemical weapon

Some of these terms are themselves in need of definition, e.g., as we've seen, 'chemical weapon.' But we'll cross that bridge if/when we come to it.

4. (WMD) is important because it is almost entirely irrelevant to the discussion.
Um, and it's important to realize that. The dispute at hand is about whether the administration was dishonest about the evidence, not about whether or not there actually were WMDs in Iraq. (WMD) does, in fact, play a tangential role in this discussion (I think), but only a tangential one.

At this point, the real question seems to be about the honesty of the administration in making its case for war. Thus the following proposition is far more relevant than (WMD):

(AL) The administration lied

As with (WMD) there's lots of vagueness here that would have to be cleared up as we went along--who exactly are we talking about, what exactly is a lie, what exactly did they allegedly lie about, etc. One obvious candidate clarification is:

(AL-WMD) The administration lied about (WMD)

But that's just one way to go here. There's also:

(ALaQ) The administration lied about links between Saddam and al Qaeda.

But it's more important in this quick-and-dirty opening exploration to note that (AL) doesn't appear to be the most important proposition. 'Lie' is a vague term, but it's usually thought that in order to lie one must state a falsehood and do so intentionally. There are many points to be made here, but let me just note one of them: it's possible to deceive with a truth or a half-truth, and in some cases that is exactly what the administraiton is accused of. So--initially and subject to further inquiry--I'm inclined to believe that the following proposition is more important:

(AD) The administration deceived us

So, if the administration told us that British intelligence had concluded that x, and they did so in an attempt to get us to believe that x, and they did so even though our own intelligence had equally good evidence that not-x, then they deceived us even though they did not--strictly speaking--lie (because they did not tell an untruth).

O.k., you can see how this project has to go. To semi-cut to the chase, I'm currently inclined to think that the most important proposition will be either a cousin of (AD) or something more like:

(AI) The administration acted irresponsibly

Again, (AI) is vague--it doesn't specify whether it is moral or epistemic responsibility that is at issue, it doesn't specify what they were allegedly irresponsible about, etc., but those are things we'll have to clear up as we go. Currently I'm inclined to think that the important allegations against the administration go something like this:

The administration acted in a morally and epistemically irresponsible manner in the run-up to the Iraq war. They used evidence in a morally and epistemically irresponsible manner, allowing themselves to be convinced of some things that responsible agents would not have allowed themselvs to be convinced of, and then adding another layer of irresponsibility by making the public case for war in an unacceptably dishonest manner, tailoring and exaggerating evidence and asserting things that even they did not believe to be the whole and unvarnished truth.

The left has an inclination to focus too much on (WMD) and the right has a tendency to focus too much on (AL), probably because it is with regard to these propositions that they have their strongest respective cases. But both propositions are beside the point. We're fairly sure that (WMD) is false, but that doesn't mean that the administration didn't believe it was true. On the other hand, there's little doubt that the administration believed at least some of what they told us, so in many cases they were not lying. But if, as initially seems to be the case, many of these things were half-truths, then it's irrelevant that they weren't lies strictly speaking. So (AL) may be substantially false, but that misses the point.

Finally, let me note that there is an inclination on the part of some participants in the discussion to assert something like:

(V) The real task is achieving victory in Iraq; to expend energy questioning the honesty of the administration is irrational and blameworthy.

(V) is false and contains an unwarranted presupposition--to wit that there is A real task at hand. There are several real tasks at hand, and we, as a country, are certainly capable of the intellectual equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. I agree--though some people I respect do not--that it is important to achieve vicory in Iraq. But there is not doubt that it is also important to know whether the Executive branch of the United States government is run by honest or dishonest persons. (More on this point later.)

O.k., that's a start.

[Note: to comment on this post go to the next post. Mike: it's o.k. to link to your blog, but please don't overload the comments with multiple excessively-long comments. Thanks.]

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