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Unchangeable minds

February 1st, 2004

Among the famous quotes attributed to JM Keynes, one that stands out is

When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir

I am reminded of this whenever I read discussions of what was in the minds of those who pushed us into the Iraq war. It’s regularly stated that the behavior of Saddam Hussein in obstructing weapons inspections led analysts to assume he had something to hide. I shared this view until late 2002, and was reinforced in this by the behavior of Bush and Blair, including the various dossiers they published and the push for UN Resolution 1441 – they acted like police who had their suspect dead to rights, and only needed a search warrant.

In November and December 2002, however, the facts changed. First Saddam announced that he would readmit UN inspectors, without restrictions on the sites to be inspected and that he would declare all his weapons. Then he proceeded to do just that, claiming to have no weapons at all. Meanwhile Bush and Blair suddenly started hedging about the nature of the knowledge they had declared. The same pattern proceeded right up to the outbreak of war. Time after time, some condition would be declared crucial by Bush and Blair (overflights, interviews with Iraqi scientists, out-of-country interviews with Iraqi scientists), the Iraqi government would agree after a brief delay and then new condition would be raised. As quite a few observers noted, the behavior was the same as that of the Austro-Hungarian government with respect to Serbia in 1914.

Given the change in facts, any unbiased observer would have concluded, correctly that the balance of probabilities favored the hypotheses Bush and Blair were bluffing and that there were no weapons of mass destruction in usable form. I drew precisely this conclusion at the time, though with the mistaken corollary that Blair would stick to his word and refuse to go to war once Saddam called their bluff.

If those facts weren’t enough, it was obvious that, if Saddam did have weapons he would use them in the early days of war, preferably before Coalition troops had entered the country. Thus, it was apparent by the first days of the war that (with probability close to 1), there were no usable weapons. The fact that the contrary belief prevailed for so long is testament to the power of faith in the face of experience.

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  1. February 1st, 2004 at 22:31 | #1

    You realise you got this (excellent) one up twice John? I suggest you delete this version.

  2. February 1st, 2004 at 22:31 | #2

    You realise you got this (excellent) one up twice John? I suggest you delete this version.

  3. Dave Ricardo
    February 2nd, 2004 at 08:14 | #3

    The right wing commentator Charles Krauthammer has an intereresting take on this in today’s AFR. According to Krauthammer, war was necessary because the sanctions/containmnent policies following Gulf War 1 were untenable.

    Amongst other things, “Thousands of Iraqis were dying as a result of sanctions”.

    That’s strange. I thought the claim that sanctions were killing thousands of Iraqis was a fiction that had been invented by left wing apologists for Saddam. At least, that is what every right wing commentator in this country said.

  4. February 2nd, 2004 at 08:19 | #4

    Nice post.

    Personally, I thought that the only WMD’s that Saddam was likely to have were small supplies of chemical and possibly primitive biological weapons – and hence, not much use against an invading army. So Saddam’s non-usage of these weapons didn’t change my mind.

    My mind changed when none of his scientists talked.

    Reposted by John after accidental deletion – still getting used to ecto

  5. Homer Paxton
    February 2nd, 2004 at 09:38 | #5

    I find it interesting that NO pro-war politician nor their supportes in the blogsphere are able to SPECIFY the type of WMDs Saddam had.

    We are always given the generic WMDS on the assumption that all WMDS are in fact weapons of mass desctruction ie they kill more people than conventional weapons.

    The only evidence people ever bring up are the WMDs that Saddam used against the Kurds and Iran. Neither of these ‘WMDs ‘ would threaten any country in the vicinity lat alone the US and UK.

    Given that facts was never the reason for the illegal invasion of Iraq Keynes’s quote is perhaps irrelevant.

  6. Michael Burgess
    February 2nd, 2004 at 13:11 | #6

    The justifications given by Bush etc in support of the war have, it is true, been confused. However, I find it depressing that so many on the left of the political spectrum do not seem to think action is justified to get rid of such an evil dictator. Large sections of the so-called left seem more concerned nowadays with taking action against individuals for telling politically incorrect jokes or criticising Islam (which often needs to be criticised) than getting rid of fascist dictators and fascist regimes. Incidentlty, organisers of peace marches around the world demonstrated their lack of real solidarity with the oppressed by preventing Iraqi torture victims and relatives of torture, rape and murder victims from presenting their arguments in support of the war. Furthermore, WMD’s aside, the main, if unstated, reason why Bush etc intervened in Iraq was to send a message to other regimes that support terrorism which is that if you mess with us we will mess with you. As crude as this message might be, it has some value given the respect leaders and many people in the Middle East have for powerful individuals and the exercise of power. If my friends from this region are correct most people have far more respect for a powerful but ruthless leader than they have for a well-intentioned leader they deem to be weak.

  7. February 2nd, 2004 at 15:11 | #7

    A couple of points about WMDs that do not require inspectors or right-wing panic merchants to talk:

    Th only serious WMDs are nukes. Bio- and chemo-weapons are dangerous on a small scale, but without effective ordiance weaponisation and massive long-range delivery systems they are not effective as weapons of war.

    Bio- & chemo-weaons would be useful terror weapons until the US authorities found out which nation was smuggling them. Then they would then turn the supplier nation into a car park.

    Husseins nukes were disarmed – by GW I – and inspections, not sanctions, maintained the status-squo.

    Hussein did not even have effective conventional weapons delivery systems. Nor did he have air power sufficient to cover, or deliver, WMDs.

    Had he made attacks of any kind on neighbouring countries, the USAF would have turned his tanks and infantry would have been turned into iron filings and hamburger. Same deal if, per unlikely, he had tried long range missiles, which were not particularly accurate.

    I never took the WMD scare seriously, and correctly predicted this on my blog.

    I believe that the US’s stated justification forceful [regime change] is false. SH does not have any:

    – substantial or effective caches of WMDs

    – significant links to fundamentalist terrorists

    Of course I completely screwed up the analysis of the invasion, since I assumed occupation would be a cake walk of grateful Iraqis greeting liberators. This was an empirical, not an ethical, error, for which I have made full confession if not penance.

  8. Jim Birch
    February 2nd, 2004 at 17:34 | #8

    Sure Michael, getting rid of Saddam with the minimal damage is a real worthwhile objective. (Which I would support.)

    However,

    (1) This was never argued in an honest coherent manner. A wide array of spin and outright bullshit was used to justify the war, eg, Saddam was (in part) responsible for 911. Lies and spin are an unlikely basis for a good result.

    (2) The US is certainly capable of mounting a powerful war effort but historically weak in the rebuilding department. Before the war, it was fairly obvious that the recovery effort was not being taken very seriously. As many of us expected, the rebuild of Iraq has been a consumate failure. For the Iraqis, to date, at least.

    Has the war been a success? Some positives, but basically, No. Will it be a good long term result? Who knows. Then, is the the ongoing death, destruction and suffering visited on the Iraqi people justified?

  9. Dave Ricardo
    February 2nd, 2004 at 21:32 | #9

    Now, Michael old son, it’s all very nice talking about liberating the people of Iraq from a terrible dictator – assuming of course that they don’t end up with something worse.

    But if this was a war of liberation, what was with the song and dance of Colin Powell getting up before the UN General Assembly and swearing on a stack of bibles that Iraq had all these WMDs, and here were the facts to prove it, and this was why we had to go war – and as it turns out, those facts were as factual as the tooth fairy?

    And what about our own Prime Minister, who said before the war that this wasn’t about getting rid of Saddam, for if he gave up his WMDs, he could stay right where he was? Tony Blair said the same thing. Doesn’t this represent less than a wholesale commitment to the welfare of the people of Iraq, in your opinion?

    Your view seems to be simply, “the end justified the means”. Which, in the short term, is certainly arguable, in this case. But, longer term, what we have now established is that any country with enough muscle can go to war on any old bullshit pretext, and international law and international institutions which we rely on to keep the peace, however imperfectly, can go to buggery.

    This time, there was a lucky side benefit, which was a dictator was toppled. Next time, and the time after that, and the time after that, the people on the end of the war might not be so lucky.

  10. observa
    February 2nd, 2004 at 23:52 | #10

    I’ll stick my hand up for recognising pre-war, the beacon of light(BOL) fervour in the Anglo coalition(particularly pointing to some of Blair’s media comments)I’ll agree the Coalition drove hard on the WMD threat, but in all fairness I think it had to use the KISS principle for political expediency. As it transpires it chose unwisely and could rightly be accused of intemperance.

    Step back pre-war and assume the Coalition brains trust believe Saddam should be removed 40% because of WMD, perceived and future threats, 40% on BOL considerations and 20% weighting for other considerations(eg more stable world oil supplies, humanitarian grounds,strong signal to other dictators,removal of support for Palestinian terrorism,etc). They believe firmly that Saddam remains a major impediment to peace and rue the day he was left in power after Kuwait, particularly when they thought an internal coup would do the job. Now clearly this last view was felt even before Sept 11 by the Clinton Admin with its planning for a hypothetical Iraq invasion. Basically, post Sept 11 the Anglos believed that taking out Saddam was an urgent priority, as long term sanctions would fail. To get their democracies to go to war for a compound problem was always going to be difficult. Would an electorate swallow a strong BOL argument for war? Probably not, so they chose a simple one liner- the threat of WMD which they believed in also. If you ask me now, I believe the electorates(particularly the initially reluctant UK and Aust ones)have an intuitive understanding of this sort of behind the scenes reasoning.

    I’d just make the point that in our hypothetical weighting of reasons for war, take away the WMD false reasoning and you may still have a positive reasoning for war. On the other hand, if WMD were found , but the war aims failed on all the other counts, the invasion could not be justified on balance. In the end our arguments about just or unjust war may simply be about our personal weightings. Does the summing of these weightings allow us to ethically judge by majority? Not necessarily, but it will be final.

  11. observa
    February 3rd, 2004 at 00:01 | #11

    …err, until the next time of course!

  12. Michael Burgess
    February 3rd, 2004 at 12:03 | #12

    Observa’s comments about using the WMD argument to jusitify war – as getting democracies to go to war for a compound problem was always going to be difficult – is spot on. Moreover, Bush et al are not alone in exagerating certain aspects of an argument as a means to an end. Take, for example, the way environmentalists, almost always, greatly exaggerate the extent of the environmental problems being faced to justify the (often highly utopian) alternative policies they advocate. In any case, the views of most opponents of the war are powered by naive anti-Americanism rather than any deep principle.

  13. Dave Ricardo
    February 3rd, 2004 at 15:16 | #13

    “environmentalists, almost always, greatly exaggerate the extent of the environmental problems being faced to justify the (often highly utopian) alternative policies they advocate.”

    “Almost always?” That is a big statement. But suppose it’s true. Surely we are entitled to expect higher standards from our political leaders, especially on a matter as grave as declaring war on another country, and then killing tens of thousands of its citizens.

    “In any case, the views of most opponents of the war are powered by naive anti-Americanism rather than any deep principle.”

    Another sweeping statement. But suppose it’s true. How does that invalidate the views of those who are motivated by a deep principle?

  14. Michael Burgess
    February 3rd, 2004 at 16:37 | #14

    I was not suggesting that it does invalidate the views of those who are motivated by a deep principle? A small number of critics of the war have certainly articulated reasoned arguments. However,as a long time member(until very recently) of Amnesty International and other NGOs, I can attest to the fact that most arguments against the war are short on reason and long on slogans and smug self-righteousness etc.

    As for your comments regarding the killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens A) People often do get killed in defence of democracy B) Most of the killing currently taking place is by remnants of the old regime and by Islamic crazies C) Most secular and democratically inclined Iraqi’s supported western-intervention D)Many westerners are currently dying in Iraq and, in doing so, showing more moral substance than the vast majority of their critics E) There is something sickening in the eagerness with which critics of the war herald every drawback – basically many of them want intervention to fail and don’t give a shit about the people of Iraq or those who will continue to be tortured or murdered by dictators if the kind of stance favoured by the French and Germans etc was to dominate.

  15. John
    February 3rd, 2004 at 16:47 | #15

    The fact that people didn’t articulated their reasoning very clearly is not proof that they were unprincipled, particularly when, as you yourself noted, they are responding to a case for war that shifted its grounds from day to day, while always producing the same conclusion – that we had to go to war.

    I think you need to ask yourself why (as observa noted in the Monday Message Board) people who supported intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Solomons etc. opposed it in this case.

    The most important single reason is that international law was clearly violated. Resolution 1441 called for inspections, Iraq acceded, then Bush and Blair went to war anyway on the basis of a mixture of wishful thinking and deliberate lies. Even if the result is beneficial on balance to the people of Iraq (still unclear), such a breach of international law is bound to have bad long-term consequences.

  16. observa
    February 3rd, 2004 at 19:57 | #16

    Is international law being violated in North Korea, Cuba and Zimbabwe John? What are mother countries like China and Russia, who nurtured these regimes, doing about them through the UN? Are they volunteering for some heavy lifting on behalf of the UN there? France would support intervention in Kosovo because of regional self-interest, but Iraq might upset its ethnic muslims. The UN club would leave Britain and the US to enforce the sanctions in Iraq for how long? Whoa don’t get impatient fellahs. Let Saddam cry wolf one more time. International law where some jack-boots are considered softer than others depending on what brand they are. For some of us there are far too many and they all sound the same on innocent bones.

    I suppose you could say that after all the international politicking, arguments and poor judgement over Iraq it might have turned out to be a case of ‘Who cares wins.’

  17. John
    February 3rd, 2004 at 20:47 | #17

    As I recall the mother country of Zimbabwe, that has nurtured the regime is the United Kingdom. Zimbabwe was only thrown out of the Commonwealth a few months ago.

    But the problem of what to do with states of this kind was one on which the world was making gradual progress before the Iraq war. There was developing agreement that the international community had the right to prosecute crimes against humanity like those of Saddam, Mugabe etc, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The most notable step in this direction was the International Criminal Court

    The Bush Administration said it would have nothing to do with such violations of national sovereignty and justified its war on the basis of spurious claims about WMDs. Now that they haven’t panned out, they want to retrospectively use a crimes against humanity rationale. This isn’t working for the reasons that critics of the war set out before it started.

    The world is too dangerous to allow vigilante justice in which one country decides some other is badly governed and it will take over. Only some sort of collective process like that of the UN could work. Blair seemed to understand this but he buckled and went along with Bush.

  18. Andrew
    February 3rd, 2004 at 22:19 | #18

    Given the truly awesome potential for mass death any modern war carries with it (ignoring nuclear options) I would much rather it is not entered into so lightly.

    Besides which, the waves left by any war take decades to die out and rise in the most unexpected ways in the most unexpected places (cf Soviet Afghanistan and Sept 11).

    It is these uncontrollable consequences that made me most nervous about the war.

  19. observa
    February 3rd, 2004 at 23:46 | #19

    I’m not so sure Blair buckled to Bush John. It was my hunch that Blair was the most ardent supporter of the beacon of light theory. Unlike Bush he faced more initial opposition to the war at home but Bush gave Blair the extra time to get the UN on board, when Bush probably thought it was a waste of time.

    As far as Andrews view that we shouldn’t rush to war I guess you could argue Saddam had plenty of time to do a Gaddaffi between Gulf Wars.

    At any rate the decision to sell the war on the threat of WMD, will most likely cost a majority, if not all of, the heads of Bush, Blair and Howard at their next elections. I wouldn’t cry for Howard too much. He’s had a good run and if he’s feeling a bit low anytime in retirement, for a real pick-me-up, he can always run that tape of Saddam getting checked for nits and saying aahhhh!

  20. February 4th, 2004 at 11:32 | #20

    Pr Q falls back on a refuted theory to defend the international legal system.

    such a breach of international law is bound to have bad long-term consequences.

    The US invasion of Kosovo did not get any kind of UN supporting resolution. Pr Q supported it because it had good consequences, independent of the process of authorisation.

    At least the US invasion of Iraq got a watereddown resolution 1441, one threatening serious consequences for failure to account for WMDs.

    The US venture in Iraq is failing because of an empirical, not ethical, error. Namely, the false inteligence about the level and intensity of Suuni resistance that was spread by the neo-cons. WMDs were only a pretext.

    The UN legislative can recover from occasional violations of it’s resolutions, and ignorance of it’s authority, particularly when it is the US executive which is the violator.

    So long as the intervention has moral utility, and the violation has no great strategic disutility, people will wear it, since victory has a thousand fathers.

    Pr Q forgets the systemic problem with the UN: it claims to mandate law, but it does not have the means to wage war.

    The world is too dangerous to allow vigilante justice in which one country decides some other is badly governed and it will take over. Only some sort of collective process like that of the UN could work.

    The US government is the world govenrment military executive. It is not above the Law, being the only effective power it is, in somesense, the Law itself.

    Unless, and until the consitutent states that compose the UN are willing to surrender their right to independently bear arms the UN will continue to rely on the US’s grace and favour for military execution.

    That is an untenable situation to build a global governance system, since it contradicts the US constitution.

    That being said, as a prudential ordinance, the US government should, as a matter of policy, commit itself to US collective veto of certain types of wars – wars of choice, rather than wars of necessity.

    THis is not because international law is sacred, or out of some silly fears about “vigilant justice”, but because international law respecting sovereignty embodies the wisdom of political property rights. WHy are we introuble in Iraq, because we invaded them. Duh!

    Also because UN multialteral forums represent a broader view of the general global interest, which has more validity than narrow partisan interests in the US admin.

  21. February 4th, 2004 at 11:41 | #21

    Pr Q falls back on a refuted theory to defend the international legal system.

    such a breach of international law is bound to have bad long-term consequences.

    The US invasion of Kosovo did not get any kind of UN supporting resolution. Pr Q supported it because it had good consequences, independent of the process of authorisation.

    At least the US invasion of Iraq got a watereddown resolution 1441, one threatening serious consequences for failure to account for WMDs.

    The US venture in Iraq is failing because of an empirical, not ethical, error. Namely, the false inteligence about the level and intensity of Suuni resistance that was spread by the neo-cons. WMDs were only a pretext.

    The UN legislative can recover from occasional violations of it’s resolutions, and ignorance of it’s authority, particularly when it is the US executive which is the violator.

    So long as the intervention has moral utility, and the violation has no great strategic disutility, people will wear it, since victory has a thousand fathers.

    Pr Q forgets the systemic problem with the UN: it claims to mandate law, but it does not have the means to wage war.

    The world is too dangerous to allow vigilante justice in which one country decides some other is badly governed and it will take over. Only some sort of collective process like that of the UN could work.

    The US government is the world govenrment military executive. It is not above the Law, being the only effective power it is, in somesense, the Law itself.

    Unless, and until the consitutent states that compose the UN are willing to surrender their right to independently bear arms the UN will continue to rely on the US’s grace and favour for military execution.

    That is an untenable situation to build a global governance system, since it contradicts the US constitution.

    That being said, as a prudential ordinance, the US government should, as a matter of policy, commit itself to US collective veto of certain types of wars – wars of choice, rather than wars of necessity.

    THis is not because international law is sacred, or out of some silly fears about “vigilant justice”, but because international law respecting sovereignty embodies the wisdom of political property rights. WHy are we introuble in Iraq, because we invaded them. Duh!

    Also because UN multialteral forums represent a broader view of the general global interest, which has more validity than narrow partisan interests in the US admin.

  22. gordon
    February 6th, 2004 at 12:17 | #22

    Oh, for heaven’s sake, people, it was and is all about oil. OIL. OIL!

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