Saturday, February 07, 2004


Rumsfeld Blusters

The New York Times reports his fervent defense of the Iraq War despite the obvious failures of intelligence:

Asked in a question-and-answer session afterward about apparent American intelligence failures in Iraq, he acknowledged that it was a question of crucial importance that would be examined by the commission appointed Friday by President Bush, but emphasized that the panel would look at intelligence successes as well as shortcomings.

Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks drew several pointed questions from the audience challenging how the administration could defend its doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against perceived threats when the precise intelligence needed for such a strategy apparently failed in the case of Iraq.

"If you're going to live in this world, and it is a dangerous world, you do have to have elegant intelligence," Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledged.

But he repeatedly defended the get-them-before-they-get-us doctrine in an age when terrorists are threatening to acquire and use biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as "something that has to be weighed and considered by all of us" given the possible catastrophic consequences.

If there were a knock down argument against the preemption doctrine, it would be Donald Rumsfeld. The preemption doctrine is a careful balance of two considerations: the need to prevent serious threats before they occur, and the danger of wasting resources, destroying human lives and damaging international relations if one guesses wrong. That is to say, although the point of the preemption doctrine is to prevent false negatives (times you should have attacked when you didn't) it only becomes a rational strategy if you also worry about false positives (times you were wrong to think there was a looming threat). Bad intelligence can hurt you in *both* directions, and greatly undermines the success of a preemption strategy.

Rumsfeld's arrogant (and alarming) performance suggests that the Administration is not too worried about false positives, other than as a potential source of (undeserved) bad publicity. But false positives can (1) bankrupt a national treasury, (2) stretch your military resources too thin and make you vulnerable elsewhere, (3) poison your relations with other nations, and (4) inflict needless suffering that you-- and not your enemy-- will get blamed for. If Rumsfeld is aware of these dangers, he does not seem to be willing to admit them in public. And his refusal to do so does the American cause no good:

Asked whether America's stature in the world had been diminished since the war, he acknowledged the Iraq war had taken its toll, but contended that it was more because of biased reporting by Arab media like Al Jazeera than anything the United States had done. "I know in my heart and my brain that America ain't what's wrong in the world," he said.

It simply will not do to blame Al Jazeera for mistakes of American intelligence. If we don't learn from the lessons of this intelligence failure, we will be sowing chaos around the world.

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