against war: I

Thomas Nephew makes a case for war. What I respect about it, is that it represents the ideal of super-rational thinking: take facts, apply reason to them, draw a conclusion. Your beliefs and your principles play an important role in this and their effect are not separable. And two separate super-rational thinkers may in fact take the same set of facts and yet arrive at a different conclusion. This is the case with my position regarding war on Iraq.

This will be a series of posts, which I will continue to refine as I receive feedback. I intend to attach a comments section to each sub-topic of the post to try and keep things more organized and focused, to assist me in refining my ideas. Please do leave your comments about each section individually, I look forward to being critically challenged as this must be an ongoing process of evaluation.

To begin, I eschewed Thomas' method of looking at all various pro- and anti- arguments separately and then tallying them in the "agree" or "disagree" column to attempt a cost-benefit analysis. I also reject others' assumptions that the issue of whether we go to war is analogous to a Prisoner's Dilemma or any other kind of game theory model (which is also implicit in Thomas' approach). I instead look at the issue from the simplifying perspective of are the stated reasons for going to war defensible and justifiable?

In order to get a feel for those stated reasons, I had to turn to the dominant pro-war blogs. To that end, some months ago, I demanded of Steven Den Beste a list of bullet points that summarized why we should go to war in Iraq. My assumption is that his analysis is equivalent to or inclusive of the rationale of the Bush Administration, since SDB draws his inspiration from the same ideological pool as the current neo-conservative network that dominates the President's foreign policy and military advisors (all of whom were recruited from well-known think-tank circles when he took office). Steven was good-natured about my insistence, and responded with the following:

  1. First, we are moved to urgency by the fact that Iraq may be close to developing nuclear weapons.
  2. Second, we need to conquer Iraq so that we can rebuild it and make it more prosperous so that all the other Arabs around it will see that it isn't just heathen Americans who can become successful, and that Arabs can do it too. And in particular, we must free the women of Iraq, to show the women in neighboring nations that they don't have to be treated as animals.
  3. Third, we need to conquer Iraq to put the "fear of God" (as it were) into governments of all the neighboring Arab nations where the traditionalists still hold sway, so that they will be much more likely to permit the few initial reforms we require from them which will start the process of cultural change moving
  4. Fourth, we need to conquer Iraq because the "Arab Street" only respects power.

Steven adds that each of those alone is sufficient to justify conquering Iraq. But is that true? Looking at these points, I see that they represent: 1. Non-proliferation. 2. Liberation. 3. Fear. 4. Power. I'll address each of these (though not neccessarily in that order), and then discuss the fifth reason: 5. Iraq is in material breach of UN Resolution 1441.

about war rationale.


The overriding pro-war argument in this category is that we must keep weapons of mass destruction (WMD) out of the hands of terrorists. This is a relatively new aspect of non-proliferation - previously we only worried about what "rogue states" like N. Korea would do if they acquired nukes (keep worrying!). After 9-11, terror organizations demonstrated that they could use our own civilian infrastructure against us as a form of WMD, adding a new dimension to the threat ("asymmetrical warfare").

There are two types of WMD that we are concerned about in the context of Iraq as a potential supplier. The first is nuclear, the second is biological. Though pro-war arguments blur the distinction, these are two completely separable issues, allowing independent analysis.


Iraq has a design for a nuclear device. The only element missing is the actual fissionable material. This material normally requires large uranium enrichment plants or dual-use nuclear reactors, such as this one in Yongbyon, N. Korea, which has restarted production of enriched uranium. Such plants are massive, highly visible, non-mobile behemoths which are essentially indefensible against attack (such as Israel's strike against Osirak in 1982).

There is a "basement" alternative however to enrichment plants, namely using gas centrifuges and/or laser isotope separation. Iraq is known to have purchsed mass quantities of aluminum tubes, which were claimed to be for rockets, but were machined to an extremely high precision (well beyond that used in American rockets). Despite reports in the press that the Iraqi alibi was believable, experts agree that the aluminum tubes were probably "dual-use" and that Iraq intends to produce enriched uranium clandestinely. If Iraq were to be able to setup a centrifuge-based enrichment system , it would only be able to produce enough material for about one device a year.

Essential documents, required reading for anyone desiring to discuss Iraq's nuclear program (pro- and anti-war alike) :

The specific nuclear scenario that the pro-war camp invokes is that of a nuke, smuggled aboard an unflagged freighter, detonated just offshore to a major American port such as Miami or Houston (my home, BTW). This scenario assumes that Iraq is able to 1. complete its nuclear program, 2. transport the nuke to the Persian Gulf ports, 3. install it onto a freighter, and 4. get the freighter close enough to an American target. All without arousing any suspicion or notice from the vaunted (rightly so) observational power of JSTARS, AWACS, SIGINT, satellites, HUMINT, CIA SOG, etc. - not to mention UNMOVIC.

To put it mildly, this Nuke Boat scenario is wildly implausible. It is pure speculation about a worst-case scenario solely to advance an a priori policy decision. These are the implicit assumptions neccessary for it to be credible:
  1. Iraq can maintain a nuclear development program and suceed at producing a nuclear device, even while under the intense scrutiny of the US and UNSCOM.
  2. Deployment of such a device from Iraq would be completely stealthy, taking none of our existing resources or surveillance capabilities into account.
  3. The device could be delivered successfully within range of a vulnerable target.
Essentially, the NukeBoat scenario completely ignores the "development" and "deployment" phases of a hypothetical nuclear device and idealizes the delivery phase of an off-shore freighter.

The new proposal by France and Germany (FG) for an aggressively expanded WMD inspection team would significantly erode Iraq's ability to complete the development phase. Again, there are solidly persuasive arguments as to why the FG proposal would not be effective at detecting Iraq's current arsenal of chemical weapons. But hiding an existing store of weapons is a far simpler task than completing a nuclear-development program, in the face of an aggressive inspections task force. However, it is at least plausible that Iraq could complete the centrifuge infrastructure and have a bomb ready in a year and a half at the soonest (according to Iraq's most optimistic/our most pessimistic timetable). The possibility must be recognized as remote but non-zero.

A modest military force and muscular blockade/inspection of Iraq's port on the Persian Gulf would effectively negate the deployment phase threat - the USCGC Boutwell has already been deployed to the Gulf, for example, and Steven Den Beste gave an impressive summary of its capabilities in a recent post. Deployed in tandem with an aggressive weapons-inspection program, the NukeBoat threat can be effectively neutralized at the deployment phase.

Proponents of the NukeBoat theory, when faced with these counterarguments, often retreat to a moral accusation: "Do YOU want to risk a mushroom cloud over [city of your loved ones] ?" and then argue that the risk, even if negligible, is still non-zero, thus requiring action. I call this the "Urgently Avoid Risk" gambit. This is an unwise rhetorical tactic, because it exposes them to the counter-example of N. Korea. While N. Korea's nuclear program is not in and of itself a reason NOT to go to war to remove Iraq's nuclear potential, it does severely undercut the logic of applying the rationale to Iraq. N. Korea has no inspectors and is free to refine it's nuclear designs without interference. N. Korea already has nuclear designs and has restarted full-scale uranium enrichment. N. Korea has long-range ballistic missile technology for delivery of nuclear warheads, without any need for complex NukeBoat scenarios.

As a result, the Urgently Avoid Risk argument can also be applied with greater vigor to N. Korea - and by following the internal logic of that argument, N. Korea should be prioritized ahead of Iraq (not to mention the nonzero risk from asteroids hitting the earth. Another topic). Insistence on Iraq, therefore, must mean that proponents of Urgently Avoid Risk are using it as a rhetorical device only. Thus we can discard fear-mongering about mushroom clouds over Miami and return to a dispassionate assessment of the phases of the NukeBoat scenario.

about Iraqi nuclear WMD.


Even the worst-case scenarios of chemical/biological weapon attack pale in comparison to the threat from nuclear devices. Iraq's current arsenal of biological agents is not a significant threat to the United States. Conventional pro-war arguments take these agents into account only to demonstrate material breach of Resolution 1441, not as part of the cost-benefit risk assessment scenario. Moral arguments about Sadam's possession of these weapons are blatantly hypocritical, given that Saddam had support from the Reagan Administration even after using them on the Kurds. Therefore the outrage is purely self-serving and not founded in principle.

To date, the only successful chem/bio attack against the United States has been the anthrax mailings immediately post-9-11. The FBI and CIA found that the most likely culprit was a domestic terrorist, using agents from the US's own weapons program. Prior to this, the Tokyo subway attack was much more deadly, again carried out by a domestic group. It's clear that the threat from chemical and bioloical weapons is much more distributed than that from nuclear weapons. As a result it should not factor into deliberations about Iraq specifically.

about Iraqi chemical/biological WMD.

link to terrorists

Any suggestion that Saddam Hussein would give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups is wildly speculative. The most recent Al Qaeda video (supposedly from OBL) re-affirmed Saddam's status as infidel to the Islamic fundamentalists. Any alliance between the two would be tenous at best. WIthout more data from those who argue this scenario, it can't even be analyzed critically, it's just a statement of opinion.

about the link to terrorists.

(my analysis will continue in subsequent posts)

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