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August 21, 2010

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I will try to put a trip together in the not too distant future.

Eric, arguing that chem and bio is not really any more dangerous than conventional explosives is drawing a pretty fine line. The anthrax thing scared a lot of people.

Eric, arguing that chem and bio is not really any more dangerous than conventional explosives is drawing a pretty fine line. The anthrax thing scared a lot of people.

While the latter is true in terms of fear generated and public perceptions, it does not address lethality.

That is my point: WMD is a scary label, but in reality, nukes is up here, and everything else is down there (the distance being insanely big).

As I've said, repeatedly, conventional explosives are almost always more lethal in non-battlefield scenarios. Meaning, terrorists are better served using conventional explosives than, say, sarin gas.

McKT: I'm in the city. jhogan at law dot upenn dot edu when you know your itinerary. (I'll be away the week after Labor Day week, but around otherwise.) And whatever you do, don't tell anyone else here my email address.

H--my keyboard is sealed. I'm assuming you are a prof and not a slutty, mercenary water carrier for slimy corporate interests? Here's my top secret email: mckinney at mckinneycooper dot com.

Meaning, terrorists are better served using conventional explosives than, say, sarin gas.

Not if their purpose is to terrorize. Body count does not equal fear quotient. At least, not always.

Fair point. But I'm not sure invading Iraq on those grounds makes any more sense.

McTx - Eric, arguing that chem and bio is not really any more dangerous than conventional explosives is drawing a pretty fine line. The anthrax thing scared a lot of people.

Of course it scared people. But the larger point is not whether it's scary or not, but whether we should respond to it as if it were more dangerous than it is on pure pathos.

Our reactions are the reactions of a nation that hasn't suffered war on domestic soil in living memory. We freak out of privilege and we pay to much (money, power, attention) to maintain our public illusion of invulnerability. The EU nations react the way they do because they know that, other than the spectacle and shock of the attack, 9/11 was chump change compared to any real war. It was scary and traumatic, (and it should be), but it was not an existential threat.

Our government and media should be trumpeting this, rather than repackaging and selling us back our own naive fear, but both are more enamored of their own power and privilege than they are dedicated to the common weal they pretend to serve. There's comparative advantage to be gained...public good be damned.

You are right to point out the fear, but we hurt our own cause when we pander to it rather than pushing back.

It was scary and traumatic, (and it should be), but it was not an existential threat.

. . .

You are right to point out the fear, but we hurt our own cause when we pander to it rather than pushing back.

No, it was not existential in the literal sense of the word. It was paralyzing and it induced an overarching sense of helplessness, a feeling many Americans don't deal with well, me included. For some years after 9-11, we kept waiting for the other foot to fall. It never did, not really, not here.

Pushing back was what a lot of us thought we were doing. We went about it in a way that, looking back, seems obviously overdone, too much, etc. That's one of the huge advantages of hindsight.

What we lacked, in hindsight, was a cool-headed leader who had the defense and national security chops to focus our efforts intelligently.

For some years after 9-11, we kept waiting for the other foot to fall. It never did, not really, not here.

I just want to say that, as a resident of lower Manhattan both during and after the 9/11 attacks, this fear was palpable.

Heck, on the day in question, the last I heard from my brother (until late in the afternoon) was that he had bought a portable camera and was taking pictures at the WTC immediately after plane #2 hit. Talk about fear - I thought he could be dead given that his last known location was right there when they fell.

But, again, my point is only that many cynical people used that very real, very understandable fear to pursue a long held objective.

And they did so in three ways:

1. Lying about al-Qaeda/Iraq ties.
2. Lying about Iraq's nuclear program
3. Hyping Iraq's WMD that, while most agreed Iraq had in some form or another, were still not a casus belli.

Although it backfired, making the entire question of whether or not invading Iraq was wise and/or justified come down to the question of whether or not Iraq had WMD was brilliant.

The consensus was that Iraq had some chem and/or bio agents, the consensus was bi-partisan and spanned two presidencies and, most likely, we would find "some" chem and/or bio agents. Also, the imprecision of the term WMD would enable war supporters to weave in tales of Mushroom clouds and "suitcase nukes" (actual cover of the NY Post at the time) while falling back on the "certainty" of WMD intel (chem and bio, agaain).

But here's what I kept saying at the time:

Even if Iraq had WMD, that STILL doesn't mean that the invasion was either wise or justified.

But the debate was already neatly clipped, its parameters defined as "If Iraq has WMD, then invasion is prudent and if not, not."

We are still, in some ways, having the argument within that framework.

"But the debate was already neatly clipped, its parameters defined as "If Iraq has WMD, then invasion is prudent and if not, not."

We are still, in some ways, having the argument within that framework."

And for those people like you I have great respect. The invasion is, then was, wrong anyway is a consistent defensible point of view.


For those who ran to hide behind "I was lied to" so the war was wrong I have no respect. If you agreed, at the time, that the existence of WMD's constituted a justification for the war, then you were for it.

While not irrefutable, little in intelligence work is, the evidence for the likelihood of WMD's was enough to make it the Presidents call. Those who voted to make it his call should have stood up and said I was for it based on everything we knew at the time.

As it turns out we are trying to help make the best out of a bad situation for the Iraqis.

Too bad a 211 year old kid still in college was so cocky he (and the Congress, and most of the nation)listened to the wrong people.

Thank goodness at 28 he isn't cocky now that he knows everything.

Pushing back was what a lot of us thought we were doing. We went about it in a way that, looking back, seems obviously overdone, too much, etc. That's one of the huge advantages of hindsight.

Given that you've said we can dismiss the people with foresight as "unserious" due to their being too dovish, hindsight's about the only tool we're left with, unfortunately.

Those who voted to make it his call should have stood up and said I was for it based on everything we knew at the time.

With the caveat being that people could have voted for the AUMF as a means to pressure Iraq to open up to inspectors, and then been shocked to learn that the POTUS would remove actual weapons inspectros on the ground when they, using our best intel, did not find any actual WMD.

That was also "what we knew at the time" and in intel terms, it was worth more than a football stadium full of speculation from the outside.

Too bad a 211 year old kid still in college was so cocky he (and the Congress, and most of the nation) listened to the wrong people.

With the caveat that a lot of Congress and the American people did not support the war. Not majorities, obviously, but sizable minorities in each instance.

Given that you've said we can dismiss the people with foresight as "unserious" due to their being too dovish, hindsight's about the only tool we're left with, unfortunately.

Phil, that's not what I said. I said that people who were historically dovish and were dovish on the invasion were discounted because of past positions and presumed bias. What this means is that their views were not analyzed substantively, but rather pretty much on the basis of who they were and their generally known positions. In much the same way you treat with people who are known quantities on the conservative side.

In much the same way you treat with people who are known quantities on the conservative side.

This is not true, btw.

I said that people who were historically dovish and were dovish on the invasion were discounted because of past positions and presumed bias.

I think it's more that opponents of this invasion were dismissed as categorically dovish, irrespective of any provable past positions.

people who were historically dovish and were dovish on the invasion were discounted because of past positions and presumed bias

Your argument seems suffused with this weird form of relativism, almost as if people who are skeptical of wars were just born that way rather than being skeptical because they investigated empirical questions and got particular answers. I mean, historically, it seems like a fact that when the US government starts a war, it lies a lot. Especially about the war. That fact seems to have motivated a lot of people to be skeptical about US wars: they know that the government will probably lie about the basis of the war and that the lies will only get worse over time. Now, you may not agree with this, but surely you recognize that this is the sort of historical claim that is amenable to empirical investigation, right? And if it is, then isn't it irrational to discount war-skeptic claims made on this basis?

I see this a lot with my wife's family: they'll just declare that someone is biased and that ends the discussion. Sometimes bias is bad but sometimes bias is just another word for not being stupid. You know who is really biased? Every doctor on the planet. People go to med school and they get all kinds of biases. Smart people who are not ignorant are going to have opinions about things. You can call those opinions bias and use that to justify ignoring them, but that just makes you look dumb. It seems like you're idealizing this state of child-like ignorance where we have to pretend that lots of our own history never happened so as to prove our lack of bias because only the ignorant, er, I mean the unbiased are entitled to an opinion about foreign policy.

Now, if people have opinions that are wrong or are based on faulty analysis of empirical questions, by all means, criticize them. But that's a totally different conversation than just whining about "bias".

Daniel Davies had a great blog post (but I repeat myself) in 2004 about the things he learned in business school that made him skeptical of the Iraq invasion, like "good ideas don't need to have lies told about them to get support."
Sample:

Fibbers' forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make innacurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to "shade" downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can't use their forecasts at all. Not even as a "starting point". By the way, I would just love to get hold of a few of the quantitative numbers from documents prepared to support the war and give them a quick run through Benford's Law.

Application to Iraq This was how I decided that it was worth staking a bit of credibility on the strong claim that absolutely no material WMD capacity would be found, rather than "some" or "some but not enough to justify a war" or even "some derisory but not immaterial capacity, like a few mobile biological weapons labs". My reasoning was that Powell, Bush, Straw, etc, were clearly making false claims and therefore ought to be discounted completely, and that there were actually very few people who knew a bit about Iraq but were not fatally compromised in this manner who were making the WMD claim. Meanwhile, there were people like Scott Ritter and Andrew Wilkie who, whatever other faults they might or might not have had, did not appear to have told any provable lies on this subject and were therefore not compromised.

Indeed Hogan. That is a masterpiece, a true classic of the medium. I've re-read it several times over the years.

If I wanted to commit a chemical attack on the US, I'd get hold of the timetables of freight trains through Washington looking for one transporting chlorine or something similar. I'd get in contact with grafitti sprayers (disguised as a reporter*) to find the best ways to get near those trains when they go slow or regularly stop at signals.
A few determined men could easily use that info to set free a lot of 'WMD' close to inhabited areas. I read estimates that a single tank car of chlorine set free by accident or attack in that area would result in 10000 casualties within half an hour (only a minority would die though). The psychological effect would be huge and the costs for the perpetrators minimal.
Btw, if terrorists got hold of plutonium not yet in bomb shape, it would be far more effective to use it as a poison instead of trying to construct a working bomb. A few gram in soluble form in the water supply combined with a warning to the public should do the trick. A bit of plutonium dust here and there should also suffice to cause chaos.

*this has been done by real reporters

I said that people who were historically dovish and were dovish on the invasion were discounted because of past positions and presumed bias. What this means is that their views were not analyzed substantively, but rather pretty much on the basis of who they were and their generally known positions. In much the same way you treat with people who are known quantities on the conservative side.

I've asked this repeatedly, but even if I were to assume your premise (Everyone who opposed the war was biased against war, therefore their objections could be ignored), if you dismiss people arguing against the war because of their bias, why would you not ALSO dismiss the people arguing for the war, who had been arguing for that same exact war for at least a decade beforehand, who are biased exactly the same way, but the opposite direction?

Also, I'm not sure that any purpose is served by ignoring people whose arguments have been honed by previous debates on the same topic, it seems to me they've likely put more thought into the question and should have better arguments than somebody who just considered the question today.

Also, I would say that the evidence of what happens shows that "The Bush Administration isn't trustworthy, or competent enough to not screw this up" should have been the most compelling argument.

Also, on the subject of shortcuts for judging plans, from 2006, I give you the Jedi Principle, from Lawyers, Guns, and Money, which is "If you need the Jedi in order to make your project work, don’t start." Which could apply equally well to the idea of invading, occupying, and rebuilding a foreign country with an army that doesn't speak the languages and where neither side trusts each other for pre-existing reasons.

f you agreed, at the time, that the existence of WMD's constituted a justification for the war, then you were for it.

First, what if someone thought "WMD" (in reality, nukes) would be a justification for the war, but also thought that Saddam didn't have them, as the evidence available before the war showed (including the Bush admin's removal of weapons inspectors when they couldn't find the WMD that weren't there)?

While not irrefutable, little in intelligence work is, the evidence for the likelihood of WMD's was enough to make it the Presidents call.

No, no it wasn't. The weapons inspectors didn't find anything, any of the places we told them to look. The "Nigerian Yellowcake" was an outright lie, and the Bush administration burned a CIA anti-proliferation operation to get revenge on the wife of the guy who showed it was in the NYT. (Which, again, shows they weren't serious about caring about nuclear weapons AT ALL) Not to mention the conflation of the very label WMD to cover nuclear weapons, which the administration used as a scare tactic over and over and over (There's plenty of clips of everybody in the admin talking about "mushroom clouds", from the President on down) with chemical and biological weapons, and then expecting to find some outdated chemical and biological weapons after the invasion.

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