Thursday, March 23, 2006

It Does Not Matter Whether Or Not There Were WMDs In Iraq

In what passes for our public political discourse, every issue gets reduced to preposterously simplistic sound bites. It is clear that in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration deceived us about the strength of the evidence concerning WMDs. The debate about that point is over: it is clear that we were deceived.

Now, I--like many people--believed that there were chemical (and possibly biological) weapons in Iraq before the war started. I objected to the administration's rhetorical tactics not because I thought that their conclusion was wrong, but, rather, because it was so obvious that they were lying about the strength and clarity of the evidence. I also objected to the fact that they vilified those with the temerity to object to their deception.

Since there apparently were no WMDs in Iraq--and since it is an invariable law of American political discourse that even the most easily-understood details must not be allowed to complicate our public discussions--people have come to speak as if the absence of WMDs in Iraq is what proves the dishonesty of the administration. That is false. It is the administration's distortion of the evidence that proves their dishonesty. Even if there had been WMDs in Iraq, this would not have made the administration honest. It would have made them lucky. If I trick you into believing that there's gold in them thar hills by, say, fabricating or distorting geological data, then I am a liar--even if, by sheer luck, you do find gold there.

Now, I've said all this many times, and you may think that I'm just being pedantic. But I'm not. It's important to make our claims accurate primarily because, well, accuracy is important. But even those who can't be bothered to worry about such niceties on principle might be convinced on pragmatic grounds. Say after reading this.

Now, I don't know Sada from Adam...and neither does Professor Reynolds. The difference between professor Reynolds and myself, however, is that I'm not desperate to believe one side or the other here, I just want to know the facts. Insty is obviously eager--as are so many of his readers--to believe Sada. (He suggests that Sada is credible on account of his being on The Daily Show, a desperate lunge if ever there was one.) Me, I don't much care.

As I've made clear, before the war I did believe that Saddam had chemical weapons, so it would come as no real shock or surprise to me if he did. Now, however, if I had to bet money on it, I'd bet that Sada is full of it. But I don't have a dog in this fight. Even politically, it just doesn't matter to me, since I've never thought that the actually presence or absence of WMDs was relevant to questions about the dishonesty of the administration.

But--American political discourse being as it is--if it were to turn out that Sada is telling the truth, the administration's deceptions would probably be forgiven and forgotten by most people. Though I think this unlikely, it might be avoided if we are very precise in formulating our claims against the administration--that is, if we make it clear that we should object to their use of evidence, not to the fact that their conclusion was false.

There's a similarity between the intelligence dispute and the dispute about the election of 2000. It's too tempting and too common to simplify in the latter case as well. Specifically, it's hard to resist the urge to claim that Bush stole the election. But that isn't clear since the outcome is so close that it depends upon which criteria for counting the ballots we use. Actually, there may be no fact of the matter. The crime of Bush & co. during the recount debacle of 200 was not that the stole the election; rather it was that they tried to steal the election. It may have already been theirs, or it may have been nobody's. What we should object to, however, is that they tried to seize it before they knew whose is was. Such an act may or may not constitute theft, but it is the moral equivalent of it. Even if subsequent counting of the votes had shown Bush a clear winner it would not have exonerated him.

Both these cases show that accuracy is important in these matters.


Blogger the Ascetic Sensualist said...

The crime of Bush & co. during the recount debacle of 200 was not that the stole the election; rather it was that they tried to steal the election. It may have already been theirs, or it may have been nobody's.

Yes, but they succeeded in stealing the election. Therefore, their crime was stealing the election.

If someone is guilty of murder, we no longer try him for attempted murder, even though attempted murder is just as morally bad.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Hmmm... It's more like: Suppose Smith shoots Jones with the intention of murdering him, but we discover that there's a 50/50 chance that Jones was already dead when the shot hit him. How do we try Smith then?

4:20 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

It's more like if Adolf Hitler had surrendered in 1945, still kept building V-2 rockets and gassing Jews, kicked the inspectors out in 1949, jerked them around when they returned in 1953, and still acted like he had V-2s, still killing Jews, albeit not as many as before.

Then some dolts ask for absolute proof once again that he still has V-2s, as if that was the only reason there was an invasion force on his border, as if V-2s were Hitler's only crimes against humanity. The Allies come up with as much evidence as they can to please the handwringing moralists, although slamdunk information is excruciatingly tough to come up with from inside a totalitarian state.

The moralists (some of them) say OK, so Hitler is finally removed, as he should have been in 1945. It turns out later that Hitler had either destroyed or moved his V-2s, although evidence of either is equally as sketchy.

Those who didn't give a damn in the first place still don't, because he was a massmurdering bastard. Those who did care return to what they are best at, handwringing.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Maybe it's more like: A Republican administration had given Hitler support and sold him Zyklon-B and continued supporting him even after they knew what he was doing with it. When Democrats complained, they were accused of being bleeding-heart liberals who wanted America to be the policeman of the world. Then Hitler started to threaten our oil supply, and all of a sudden Republicans became shocked...SHOCKED that this madman was allowed to run wild. So they organized a war to chase him back to his borders, but let him keep killing people basically at will, including those who America had urged to rise up against him. Then ten years later, when Stalin attacked America, Republicans elected to fabricate a case against Hitler, pretending that he had an operational relationship with Stalin and terrible weapons. Although everyone thought that Hitler had some weapons, the evidence was so exaggerated and distorted that even a child could see that it was a joke. However, those who pointed out the weakness of the case, or who suggested attacking Stalin in retaliation instead were called fools and traitors; their patriotism as well as their sanity was questioned. Republicans assert that we should attack Hitler in part because it would be such a cakewalk. The populace would throw strudel at them. Later, when it becomes clear that Hitler has no such weapons and no relationship with Stalin, and the war turns into an ultra-expensive and lengthy quagmire that saps American money, strength, prestige, and moral authority, Democrats are blamed for the failure because they did not support the dishonest and doomed war effort.

Yeah...that's what it's more like...

9:59 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I like my version better. Saddam paid the families of suicide bombers. That was enough for me.

Per the Zyklon-B, I give, uncomfortably, Reagan a pass for the realpolitik, which your reply indicates is now the political philosophy of the left.

(Good. Back to JFK---there's hope for you yet.)

George 41 (and Colin Powell) didn't do right by the Iraqi people. Clinton 42 let the whole thing slide, hoping it would go away, as was his custom. George 43 set the thing right.

In terms of innocent deaths, far less than 41 & 42's butcher's bill. Yeah, the money part sucks, admittedly. In real dollars, I put it at about the cost of cleaning up the S&L debacle.

For which I blame Reagan, BTW, altho he made it up with the peace dividend from ending the Cold War.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

A very reasonable reply, which I very much appreciate.

I've never advocated a *realpolitik*-based foreign fact it was Jimmy Carter's foreign policy that first made me sympathetic to the Democrats.

Saddam was very bad. I wanted him dead. However:

1. The time wasn't right. In fact, it was the worst of all possible times in recent memory to attack him.


2. Lots of other places are lots worse and lots easier to fix. E.g. Darfur.

So the humanitarian case for invading Iraq was weak, and the strategic cost was high.

Anyway, it wasn't done for moral reasons. We still don't know why it was done.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...


BTW, Darfur isn't easy. Check the map---it's far away from everything.

Further, right now any Western intervention is being blocked by Black Africa, which would rather have untold thousands die than let the colonialists back in. Further, there is the Muslim dimension of Sudan's government and the janjaweed. Very difficult to get world support because of the political factors involved.

Besides, it's even hard to tell whom to shoot.

The need to disarm gunmen in Darfur is self-evident but difficult. The anti-government human rights group Justice Africa has noted: "Comprehensive, forcible disarmament is hazardous at best, impossible at worst. Before effective disarmament (or more realistically, regulation of armaments) can take place, a workable definition of the Janjawiid is needed." [10]

The conflict in Darfur presents a very complex situation with very complex problems, the understanding of which has already been made more difficult by the propaganda which invariably accompanies war, and which has historically been a feature of coverage of Sudan. The scarcity of reliable information on Darfur is an additional difficulty. United Nations media sources, for example, have noted "a lack of accurate information on the conflict" and Reuters has also stated that "it is hard to independently verify claims by government or rebels in Darfur." This has served to further distort perceptions of the crisis.

12:25 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Logistically, it's difficult I'll admit. Politically kinda, but less so than Iraq--and it's the comparative measures that matter here.

Invest 1/100th of the time, energy, lives, money, and political capital in Darfur that we did in Iraq and we could make the situation there LOTS better in 6 months.

But for all we've expended in Iraq, it's not clear that things are any better 3 years later.

If you were looking around the world for places to fight for human rights, attending to need and degree of difficulty, Iraq would not be near the top of the list.

If you were looking around for things to do that would help weaken al Qaeda, invading Iraq would be nowhere on the list.

There are only about 100 ways we could have spent our blood and treasure more effectively to achieve the relevant moral and strategic goals.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous ron2 said...

Just wondering....
Where do morals come from?
Do we make them up ourselves? Do we get them from a religion?
If two opposing sets of values exist, which one should laws be made from?

10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who is the Sada you are referring to in the original post Mr. Smith? What is the story behind that? All I see is a reference to this person with no background....could you please fill us in?


12:55 PM  

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