A joke too serious to be funny

The title of this piece at Stratechery — “If Steve Ballmer Ran Apple” — makes it sound like a one-liner, but it isn’t. It’s a very thoughtful analysis, and has a great closing paragraph:

“Ballmer did exactly what our capitalist system dictate he do: he maximized profits to the benefit of Microsoft’s shareholders. The implications of suggesting he was a failure are far more profound than most of his many critics likely realize.”

Well, there you have it:

According to Mr. Bush’s speech last night, Iraq is anywhere from one to five years before being capable of launching a strike against us. Which is why it’s so desperately urgent we hit them… um, tomorrow. {cough}

But the most disturbing thing about this whole scenario is how it plays out if you look at it logically.

There’re two axes here: Either Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or it doesn’t. And Iraq will either use them, or they won’t.

That means there’re four outcomes, one of which is impossible:

Iraq doesn’t have WMD, and won’t use them. For me, this is the most likely outcome. You can see it all over the place in our own planning, with the devil-may-care attitude we’re showing both about how long this war will last (over quickly enough for Tony Blair to stay PM a day or two, we hope), and the possibilities about retaliation. Then again, that means we’re about to send 300,000 combined troops over to a country looking for weapons that don’t exist. According to some polling data released during today’s Talk of the Nation call-in show, 80% of Americans think Iraq has WMD, and that disarming Iraq is a major criterion for “victory”. (Dear 80% of the US: Iraq is likely already unarmed, and you’re likely to get a massive disappointment.) Either that, or I would look really carfeully at the serial numbers of whatever WMD we “find” — especially after the fiasco of the forgery of the documents purporting to show Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger. Also, this is the scenario most likely to generate the previously predicted 1-14 vote in the Security Council calling for sanctions against the US (and maybe the UK, if they’re still in the game).

Iraq has WMD, and uses them. But if that’s true… then we’re sending 300,000 soldiers good and true to basically be burnt to a crisp so the Administration can then justify massive retaliation. And the Administration is doing this knowingly, with malice aforethought. Oddly, this doesn’t comfort me. (Marshmallows at the Reichstag, anyone?)

Iraq has WMD, but won’t use them. This appears to be the Officially Approved Plan. I hope Mr. Hussein has been properly briefed, and he sticks to the script. But it’s the only way to explain the combination of no obvious contingencies for the use of WMD against our trops, intertwined with no apparent hesitation about the fact that months of concentrated effort through inspection, espionage, satellite flybys, and surreptitious signals listening has turned up… radio chatter with nothing else to back it up. {ooh! aah!} Ruel Marc Gerecht appears to have gotten it right in The Atlantic back in July 2001 — our intelligence agencies appear to have about zero assets in the Near East region. Almost every breakthrough we’ve had appears to have been done by either the Israelis or the Pakistanis, with Our Boys brought in at the last minute for the photo op.

Iraq doesn’t have WMD, but will somehow use them. This is the outcome that’s logically impossible. Unless Mr. Hussein just rang up a massive credit card bill tonight. Or unless he just cut a deal with the North Koreans — who almost certainly do have WMD at this point, which is why the Cowardly Lion treats them with such shyness — to bomb us on his behalf.

Also in the mail bag…

…was a copy of the New Yorker.

Malcolm Gladwell has one of his think pieces, and as usual, it’s well done. It’s titled “Connecting the Dots”, and it talks about the difficulty intelligence services have in making forward predictions. In particular, the article talks about a pattern: Intel makes a prediction/recommendation. Some catastrophic event happens (in the article: the surprise attacks of the Yom Kippur War and Pearl Harbor, 11 Sept 2001, Germany’s attack on Russia). In the post-facto analysis, a “failure to connect the dots” — that is, an incomplete use of the information in front of the service in question — is damned as the reason the attack wasn’t seen as coming.

Gladwell’s big question about such a pattern is this: “Was this pattern obvious before the attack?” To quote a bit at length:


“This question — whether we revise our judgment of events after the fact — is something that psychologists have paid a great deal of attention to. For example, on the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, the psychologist Baruch Fischhoff asked a group of people to estimate the probability of a series of outcomes about the trip… As it turned out, the trip was a diplomatic triumph, and Fischhoff then went back to the same people and asked them to recall what their estimates of the different outcomes of the visit had been. He found that the subjects now, overwhelmingly, “remembered” being more optimistic than they had actually been… Fischhoff calls this phenomenon “creeping determinism” — the sense that grows on us, in retrospect, that was has happened was actually inevitable — and the chief effect of creeping determinism, he points out, is that it turns unexpected events into expected events.”

This fascinates me, because at the same time we keep hearing a mantra that somehow on 11 Sept., “everything changed”. The truth is, very little changed in general, even if much has changed in particular. What I mean is, the risk from terrorism is about the same today as it has been at just about every time since the fall of the Soviet Union (the former bankroller of the early Muslim/Arab terrorists). I was even in a series of posts about Iraq and Cuba on Slate. Here’s someone’s comment about Saddam and Castro, followed by my response, posted on 31 Aug 2001:

Saddam, Castro, and others like them are operating with a few bricks shy of a full load.

These types of people are the very definition of unstable. If this country drops it’s guard now it would only be a matter of days before the forces these facist leaders control will be on our door step.”

===

If they are a “few bricks shy” — which I agree with — how are they competent enough to be a threat? Both Saddam and Castro are barely able to control their own countries, and both have just about zero capability to project force, short of terrorism. Castro will soon be dead, and we’ll see what happens. Saddam is in power both because we haven’t removed him and because the Iraqi people are unwilling to remove him. (One dirty little secret about politics is that every regime, regardless of how oppressive it is, rules with the implicit consent of the governed. No army has ever been able to contain a sufficiently enraged population.)

Readers may have noticed I have an interest in politics. Over time, I’ve made predictions, based on what I knew at the time. Sometimes I’ve gotten them right (I predicted Gorbachev would be the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union. I was right, but my predicted reason turned out to be accelerated. I thought he’d live as long as Brezhnev, die, and then the USSR would implode because it was basically a paper tiger. Little did I know how flimsy the tiger was… But in the 1980’s, this put me at odds with just about everybody.). Sometimes I’ve been very wrong (Examples: I had no idea who would win the election of 1988, but I was convinced it couldn’t be George HW Bush. China would fall apart after the death of Deng Xiao-Ping, for similar reasons as the USSR. [I still think this likely, even though Deng’s death has already happened, and fear of falling apart is the biggest driver of China’s Taiwan policy — the Chinese can’t afford to budge an inch on their “one China” concept, or else the whole imperial quilt of nations and groups will unravel.] Jeb Bush was going to fail in re-election as governor, because 2000 was going to be as damaging to the Republican Party in Florida as Prop 187 (anti-immigration) was in California.)

But, in the spirit of fighting “creeping determinism”, herewith are my predictions about Iraq and Mr. Bush:

* Mr. Bush has made it clear we’re going. So, we’re going. Hard to tell what the justification will be, as that keeps changing every 15 minutes, but there you go.

* We’ll never find any weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraqi hands. That’s because there aren’t any.

* We may, however, a la the Rampart Division of the LAPD, plant some, so we can courageously “find” them.

* Mr. Bush’s approval ratings will be stated to soar. You’ll still know very few people who actually like the man or his policies.

* Iraq will be a pushover. Mostly because it doesn’t have anything to really fight with.

* North Korea, which does have WMD and an advance position close to one of our allies, will continue to be treated in the wimpiest way possible.

* Despite high ratings — and possibly even winning the 2004 election — sooner or later there will be a huge scandal showing Mr. Bush to be the hypocrite I’m pretty sure he is.

* A contributing factor to the scandal — speaking of “connecting the dots” — will be that knowledge is in the hands of one or more journalists right now that could blow the thing open… But it’s being held back.


Some sidelights about these topics:

First off, our friends at USAToday are good enough to leave their archives online without charge. This means you can read a very interesting article from 10 Dec 2002, “Saudis will stabilize world oil prices if Iraq war begins”. Here’s the key quote:

“Despite… doomsday predictions, a war in Iraq would have little impact on world oil prices…

Those who argue prices will soar assume:

{among other reasons} Saddam Hussein could launch unexpected attacks on other oil-producing countries.

This cannot be ruled out, but is highly unlikely. Iraq’s ability to extend its aggressions beyond its borders has been significantly reduced since the Gulf War, and the memory of Kuwait’s burning oil fields has not been forgotten by states in the region. The Saudi government, for example, has devoted about $500 million during the past two years to improve its oil facilities’ security and has set up defensive installations at key energy facilities in the eastern province. Even if some Iraqi attacks were successful, Saudi oil installations stretch over an immense area; the loss of a few would not cripple overall production.

This article is by… no, not anti-war activists. It’s by a pair of oil industry consultants: “Edward L. Morse, who was the deputy assistant secretary of State for international energy policy from 1979 to 1981, is the executive adviser at Hess Energy Trading Company, LLC. Nawaf Obaid is a Saudi oil analyst and author of The Oil Kingdom at 100. His forthcoming book is Saudi Arabia Since 9/11.”

Gosh… Think anyone in the Administration has ties to oil? {cough}


OK, Hal… If Iraq doesn’t have any WMD, why doesn’t Saddam just say so, and/or be more cooperative with the inspectors?

Answer: Iran.

Remember the Iran-Iraq War, if you will. Recall that it was a death struggle. Recall that Iran has a nuclear program of its own, one in which the Russians are helping.

Now, you’re Saddam Hussein. Do you really think the West will help you if Tehran begins lobbing nukes your way? Do you think you might want some uncertainty in the minds of other countries in the region, most of whom hate your guts anyway?

Just a thought.


And here’s a great big question for you:

If the Iraqis really do have WMD… Why is it Israel, who did do a pre-emptive strike against the Osirak reactor in 1981, which probably killed off Iraq’s nuclear program right there — Why is it Israel is doing and saying nothingnothing — about the problem right now? Even though they’re much more likely to be retaliated against than we are, come an actual shooting war?


There are other thoughts in my mind on this topic, but that’s long enough for now…