Sunday, November 20, 2005

Prewar Intelligence II

I should probably find the prewar intelligence issues more compelling than I do. After all, I certainly believed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and that he was determined to reconstitute his nuclear weapons, and was trying to find ways to do so. That was the administration position as I understood it, and I believed it even though I had (and have) no confidence in GWB's truthfulness. Nowadays, I think that much of what I thought was wrong. Am I upset? Not terribly. Have I learned a lesson? Yes, but it's of the "do your best, but sometimes you're just going to be wrong" variety, and I already knew that.

For me, the crucial item is from David Kay's Senate testimony (PDF) on page 24.

MR. KAY: Well, in interviewing the Republican Guard generals and special Republican Guard generals and asking about their capabilities and having them, the assurance was they didn't personally have them and hadn't seen them, but the units on their right or left had them. And as you worked the way around the circle of those defending Baghdad, which is the immediate area of concern, you have got this very strange phenomena of no, I don't have them, I haven't seen them, but look to my right and left. This was an intentional ambiguity.
What does that mean? To me it means that even if the CIA had a telepathic superspy on the ground and got her in to check some of Saddam's generals, she would come back with "General X believes that some of his fellow-generals in the Republican Guard have deployable chemical weapons." And you would say that's very very very solid, but maybe you would risk her on another general. "General Y believes it too." A third? "So does General Z." And at that point you'd feel, I think, that it was not worth risking your telepathic superspy any more -- the chemical weapons were real.

But they weren't. Nor were the "10,000 litres of anthrax" that the UN strongly presumed had not been destroyed and might still exist, as of UNMOVIC's March 6, 2003 Working Document (PDF).

I believed they existed, I was mistaken. Hmm. My belief didn't depend on GWB's truthfulness. I'd been a believer before he was elected, from items like those reported by the Washington Post in It Wasn't Just Miller's Story:

the Times, along with The Post and other news organizations, ran many alarming stories about Iraq's weapons programs before the election of George W. Bush. A quick search through the Times archives before 2001 produces such headlines as "Iraq Has Network of Outside Help on Arms, Experts Say"(November 1998), "U.S. Says Iraq Aided Production of Chemical Weapons in Sudan"(August 1998), "Iraq Suspected of Secret Germ War Effort" (February 2000), "Signs of Iraqi Arms Buildup Bedevil U.S. Administration" (February 2000), "Flight Tests Show Iraq Has Resumed a Missile Program" (July 2000). (A somewhat shorter list can be compiled from The Post's archives, including a September 1998 headline: "Iraqi Work Toward A-Bomb Reported.")

Similarly I believed that Saddam or his sons might well help bin Laden and others like him, with more than just the publically offered sanctuary. They had the same enemies, after all, including you and me. (They also had each other as enemies, I thought, but that would not preclude cooperation.)

Now, I believe that Saddam had no deployable WMDs or stocks thereof, and for all I know his nuclear developments may have all been literally buried in a garden. But his commitment was, I still believe, real; as Kay had put it some time before, in his Statement on the Interim Progress Report on the Activities of the Iraq Survey Group:

With regard to Iraq's nuclear program, the testimony we have obtained from Iraqi scientists and senior government officials should clear up any doubts about whether Saddam still wanted to obtain nuclear weapons. They have told ISG that Saddam Husayn remained firmly committed to acquiring nuclear weapons.
And of course we have Wilson's testimony that Iraq had (according to Niger) approached Niger, evidently about buying uranium, and that Niger hadn't followed up because of the sanctions.

I didn't believe in any "imminent threat" but then I didn't understand that I was supposed to; I thought we were all arguing about pre-emptive war, with me (not a blogger at the time) in favor. Two days before the war I wrote to my sister, describing the three basic options I then saw, being (a) leave Saddam and his sons alone to develop nukes, and (b) trying to continue the sanctions despite dead babies, opposition from France and Russia, and other factors, ending with

(c) "Regime Change"'s not a nice option, it will end us up in a big long-term mess, Bush is not a good President to be running it, but it looks to me a lot less bloody than (a) or (b), and the long-term mess is less clearly an utter disaster.
But maybe I shouldn't be putting this here, on a MistakesByTJM blog; I believe I was wrong about many of the details, but if I was wrong about anything really important in this area, I have yet to learn it. Well, maybe I will.

But I wish there were a President or Presidential candidate I could actually honestly support.

Prewar Intelligence

factcheck quotes the DIA in 2002:

"Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control."

This is given as a reason for doubt about Saddam's reported cooperation with al-Qaeda, especially as reported by al-Libi, in reports that were later withdrawn. In other words, it's part of an argument that Bush should have known that Saddam's threat was at least partly bogus -- which it was.

Both sentences are reasonable, but can be reasonably questioned. As to "intensely secular", consider Saddam's mosque-building spree, especially the Mother of All Battles Mosque, the "Mosque that thinks it's a missile site", in May 2002; take a look

...inside the mosque, where 605 pages of the Koran are laid out in glass cases.
The custodian said the entire text was written in Saddam's blood, which had been mixed with ink and preservatives, producing a red and brown colour with a tinge of blue. "He dedicated 24 litres of blood over three years," Mr Alani said. The calligraphy was the work of an Iraqi artist, Abas al-Baghadi.
In the middle of the mosque is a pool shaped like the Arab world - "Water has no political boundaries," Mr Alani said - and in the middle of the pool is a 24ft- wide mosaic blob: Saddam's thumbprint. Inside the thumbprint is a magnified version of Saddam's signature.
The mosque is one of three being built by Saddam in Baghdad. The Arahman mosque is due to be finished in two years and the Saddam mosque in 2015. The skeleton of the Saddam mosque is already up and it will be the third biggest in the world after Mecca and Medina.
According to Mr Alani, the Saddam mosque will be a replica of the Mother of All Battles mosque but five times bigger.
"intensely secular"? Well, there's something to be said for that point of view, but it's not clear that the DIA had checked all the facts. (Did Saddam actually donate any blood of his own, or was he just pretending? I don't know, but I suppose it doesn't affect "intensely secular" vs. not.)

And as for Baghdad being "unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control"... Did Baghdad control Bin Laden in 1999? Consider the CNN report "Bin Laden reportedly leaves Afghanistan, whereabouts unknown" from February 13, 1999:

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has offered asylum to bin Laden, who openly supports Iraq against the Western powers.

Given these and other reports, I didn't trust Saddam's secular separation from Islamists (even apart from money for suicide bombers) before the war, and I don't see that more recent data gives me reason to think I was wrong. Sure, al-Libi was lying, but the DIA reasoning looks weak to me, even if in this case it came out with a correct conclusion.

I still don't yet see why I should have believed that he would not assist al-Queda, if he saw a chance to use al-Queda to damage his enemies, including me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Alex Tabarrok reports at Marginal Revolution on the 1796 treaty with Tripoli, and in particular the famous Article 11 saying that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion...". He adds that this was "read aloud in the Senate and approved unanimously."

I would personally like this to be true, but at the moment I'm inclined to believe the story as told by the Yale The Avalon Project : The Barbary Treaties 1786-1816 which says that what was approved by the Senate was the "Barlow translation", and that

As even a casual examination of the annotated translation of 1930 shows, the Barlow translation is at best a poor attempt at a paraphrase or summary of the sense of the Arabic; and even as such its defects throughout are obvious and glaring. Most extraordinary (and wholly unexplained) is the fact that Article 11 of the Barlow translation, with its famous phrase, "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion," does not exist at all. There is no Article 11. The Arabic text which is between Articles 10 and 12 is in form a letter, crude and flamboyant and withal quite unimportant, from the Dey of Algiers to the Pasha of Tripoli. How that script came to be written and to be regarded, as in the Barlow translation, as Article 11 of the treaty as there written, is a mystery and seemingly must remain so. Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point...

So at the moment, I'm not buying it.

[UPDATE: A.T. replies that the "key point" is precisely that the Barlow translation with its "not in any sense founded on" phrase was approved, published in newspapers, &c, so that the mere fact that it wasn't part of the treaty as seen by Tripoli has nothing to do with his post. And he's right, and I'm wrong again. (And I have also committed and fixed several Javascript errors this morning. Mostly by moving tested code into more appropriate places with insufficient testing.) So it goes.]

[WHY? I want to think more about why I make particular mistakes. In this case, the correct reading is not a surprise, so I don't believe I was biased against it: I model the Founders mainly as a mixed bag of Christians (Adams) and quasi-Christians (Jefferson, with his miracle-free Bible) and Deists (Franklin) with occasional Jews and very few and quiet atheists. Anything monotheistic would be fine with them, and they would certainly accept Article 11. So why did I fail to read carefully? In this case, I was simply rejecting the whole thing as bogus: I remembered (from a year or three ago) that the Barlow translation was not the "real" treaty, and on recovering the Avalon Project passage that supported my memory, I simply stopped there. If I'd treated it as a program-design issue, tracing the values on each side of the translation, I would not have made the mistake--but I would have had to do some extra thinking. Well, it's a fair trade-off, as long as I'm not too easily embarrassed. Incidentally, I hereby conjecture that the Barlow translation is a correct translation of what the translator was given, and that an unimportant letter was then inserted in the Arabic as part of a plot to prevent possible friendship between moderate Muslims and the U.S. Hey, as long as I'm making mistakes, I might as well try to make interesting ones...

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Long-Run Global Warming and Other Things I Don't Worry About

I do take global warming seriously. I didn't do so, back when my elder brother the ornithologist/environmentalist explained it to me in the early 80s, and I was right not to do so but wrong about the outcome -- as a very junior comp-sci professor I was familiar with the reality of global warming effects and global cooling effects, and they're both real but the models were not then worth taking seriously. Now they are. Okay, and I worry a bit -- not panicking, but worrying -- about the high probability of major habitat loss and species shift and species loss over the next few decades, with a low probability of something big like ocean currents changing substantially in a short (several-year?) span. That's bad and we should try to minimize the foreseeable problems. But I don't worry about degrees C or F projected out to 2100 or 2300 or whatever.

My reason? If we make it to 2100, which we might not, then we will cool or warm the biosphere to whatever extent we want. Consider, just as one possibility which couldn't reasonably have been foreseen (by me, anyway) a few years ago, the new carbon nanotube sheets which "can be made so thin that a square kilometer of solar sail would weigh only 30 kilograms." Okay, what I want is, umm, a circle of solar sail at L1, the Lagrangian point that's about a million miles from us towards the Sun. If that circle is two Earth-diameters in diameter, then we'll be completely in its shadow: just imagine the similar triangles with apex at L2, a million miles in the other direction. (The Sun's diameter is 100x Earth's, and the Sun is 100x as far away as L1, so the Earth-diameter:L2-distance triangle of our shdow is similar to the 2x-EarthD:(L1+L2-distance) which is similar to the (SunDiameter:SunDistance) triangle.) My solar sail (parasol?) has radius 10K kilometers so its area is 314 million square kilometers so it weighs 10 billion kilograms or 10 million metric tons. Granted, the current version is described as transparent, but long before 2100 we will be able (with addtional weight) to set it up as a Fresnel lens to redirect or as a solar cell to extract whatever part of the energy (just a few thousand terawatts?) we feel like using for launching interstellar transport or turning Jupiter into a Ringworld or whatever. (The parasol will use a little of the energy to maintain its own stability.)

So, when somebody wants me to worry about the melting of the arctic tundra or retreat of too many glaciers and stuff like that, I'll worry somewhat. I won't support Kyoto, but I'll worry -- and I will support expenditures on more research, on geoexchange HVAC, on plug-in hybrids, bladerunner trucks, and so on. I'll even support an oil tax, though not a carbon tax. When somebody wants me to worry about, sorry. That's like asking a Roman in 0AD to worry about 2000AD, except that the Roman had a good excuse for not foreseeing exponential increase in technical progress, so he might think he had something useful to say about planning that far ahead.

UPDATE 2006-09-27: The Toronto Sun says

Manipulating our entire environment with giant orbiting mirrors to undo man-made damage may sound like science fiction. But it's not Dr. Roger Angel believes it's time to turn on Earth's AC. Imagine a world where trillions of sunshades orbit above us. Where a huge mirror stands between our planet and the sun.
and he's right. Well, it's time to work on it.