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Decisions and Context

The nature and severity of the intelligence failures leading to the Iraq war have been discussed extensively and will continue to be discussed well into the future. But, in all that discussion, there is a point of view which seems to me fundamental to the issue and which I have yet to hear.

One such discussion occurred on the New Hampshire Public Radio program The Exchange on the day that the first investigating committee report on those failures was to be released. I sent this letter to the producer in hopes that in subsequent discussions that point of view might be considered. I have still not heard it either on The Exchange or anywhere else.

9 July 2004

I listened to this morning’s show in the car, so I couldn’t call in, and I kept waiting in vain for one particular point to be raised. If, in the future, you do a follow-up show on this subject — perhaps after hearing what is in the report to be released this morning, or perhaps after the next report on the political use of the intelligence is released later in the year — please keep this in mind and bring it up in the discussion.

In all the criticism I have heard about the analysis and use of the Iraq intelligence, and especially about the political decisions based on that intelligence, the one thing that never seems to be mentioned is the context in which that analysis and decision-making was taking place. We talk about it as if the analysis and decision-making process were a matter only of political consequence, or as if the option to do nothing implied zero cost so the only question to answer was whether doing something — that is whether going to war — would make things better or worse. But that is not the environment in which events unfolded.

The question we should ask is:

“What was the potential consequence of being wrong?”

One might argue — and I would bet the Bush administration would make this argument if anyone in it was articulate and incisive enough to realize that the argument needed to be made — that the question was a primary consideration in how we interpreted the weak and unreliable intelligence we had.

So far, the media and administration critics have focused on the down-side of the choice we eventually made: if we wrongly assessed that Iraq had bad intentions and dangerous capabilities, then we would pursue a war that could have been avoided; some number (at this point over one thousand) American soldiers would die needlessly; several thousand Iraqi citizens would die needlessly (or perhaps not; Saddam Hussein was quite efficient at slaughtering his own citizens even without our invasion); the intensity of terrorism, at least in the short-term, would be increased and refocused on our military forces in the Middle-East; we would generate ill-will among our allies and enmity among neutrals and enemies, thus making future diplomacy more difficult.

But what if we had been wrong in the opposite sense? What if Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been within reach of deploying weapons of mass destruction and had made an arrangement of convenience to cooperate with Al Quaeda in pursuit of a common goal of diminishing the power of the West? What if we had decided to ignore that possibility because the intelligence was not strong enough unequivocally to support that conclusion? What would have been the down-side of making that mistake? A chemical attack on New York City that killed hundreds of thousands and disrupted our economy for years? A suitcase nuclear bomb detonated in Washington D.C. that killed millions and toppled the government?

That is an extreme scenario but given the doubts about our intelligence, it was unlikely, not impossible. And, as a downside, it trumps by orders of magnitude the difficulties we now face in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

It is comfortable and academic to argue about whether the analysts at the CIA and the Pentagon and the State Department — and the journalists and politicians looking over their shoulders in hindsight — were comfortable or uncomfortable with the conclusions drawn from the intelligence estimates by the President and his advisors. But, in the end, those analysts and reporters and politicians were not responsible — politically or morally — for making decisions about which risks were acceptable and which weren’t.

George Bush did have that responsibility and his decisions were made in that context. I, for one, cannot fault him for choosing to err on the side of minimizing the maximum potential damage. You may disagree with that judgment and, in hindsight, it may not have given us the best possible outcome.  But you cannot argue that it was either reckless or nefarious.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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