Multiple rationales

by John Q on July 1, 2005

A piece by Noam Scheiber in The New Republic , prompted me to get to work on a piece I’ve been meaning to write for ages, not so much because I have new and original ideas, but because I’d like to clarify my thoughts, with the help of discussion. The piece is subscription only, but the relevant quote is a point that’s been made before

The problem with [criticism of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war] is that there’s a difference between expecting the administration to fight a war competently and expecting it to fight an entirely different kind of war than the one you signed onto.

My starting point, then, is the observation that, in the leadup to the Iraq war there were numerous different cases for war, some publicly avowed at different times, and some not. These included WMDs, the War on Terror, humanitarian intervention, democracy promotion, the strategic importance of Iraq’s oil and simple vendetta. It might seem that the more reasons for war, the stronger the case, but the problem is that different cases for war imply different strategies for the war, and especially for the postwar period.

The ostensible basis for the war, WMDs, implied the need to act fast, since Saddam might use his weapons at any time, and implied a simple success condition: once the WMDs and the supporting infrastructure were found and destroyed, the US could withdraw and leave the Iraqis (minus Saddam) to sort out their own problems. Roughly speaking, this was the war we were sold, and this was the war we got, at least until it turned it there were no WMDs, and an early exit wasn’t feasible.

Although the Iraq war seems to involve this problem to a high degree, it arises all the time. For example, there are a lot of different reasons for supporting reform of the House of Lords in the UK (the old structure was anachronistic, inefficient, anti-democratic, biased against Labour and so on), but they imply different kinds of reform.

Concern with democracy suggests an elected House, more representative than the Commons, where the first-past-the-post system turns minorities into majorities. By contrast, the main motive for the reforms around Blair seemed to be that hereditary legislators were bad for Britain’s image and occasionally obstructed Labour PMs – hence the preference for a weak upper chamber with appointed members.

I’m trying to think about a bunch of questions here.

* Are these problems more critical in relation to war than in other cases? I have a strong intuition that a decision to go to war should be based on a single sufficient casus belli, with any additional arguments being merely a bonus. So, as soon as it became clear, in late 2002 and early 2003, that the WMD case didn’t stand up, I opposed the war, taking the view that, if another case was to be made, the whole process had to be restarted. But I don’t have a clear view as to what it is that makes this requirement critical in relation to war.

* Is an analogy with criminal law useful? You can have a lot of evidence suggesting that X ought to be in jail, but we require proof beyond reasonable doubt of some particular offence.

* Do situations of this kind favour particular kinds of “lowest common denominator” solution, and if so how can we characterise them ?

* Has this question already been addressed? There’s not much in the parts of the decision theory literature with which I’m familiar, but that’s only a tiny subset.

Most importantly of all:

* When a decision is naturally posed in a binary form such as “War vs No War”, at what point do you decide that the multiple rationales problem is such as to undermine this, and draw a conclusion like “Not this war now”?

It’s probably pointless saying this, but I’d prefer to avoid a detailed rehash of the WMD issue and the specific arguments for and against the Iraq war.



Jake 07.01.05 at 5:42 pm

I think your first question needs to be elaborated. Is the buildup to which you are referring attempts to convince the legislature, the citizens, or the legislature via the citizens?

I also wonder to what degree this multiple rationales problem comes from the sense that the proponents are not being honest and hence you can’t make a trustworthy decision vs. more general confusions or the different perspectives of different proponents.


Bruce Wilder 07.01.05 at 6:25 pm

Realistically, wars are the continuation of policy by other means, as Clausewitz famously had it, and whether a nation fights a war, and the kind of war it fights, should rest, ultimately, on some grand strategy, envisioning a desirable, achievable objective. Ideally, it seems to me, the objective of war is peace, a peace in which the cooperation of others is secured on terms favorable to the victor.

One may well consider war so terrible and destructive, that it should require justification. Without rejecting such considerations, I tend to think that achievable objectives are critical, objectives, which inevitably include cooperation in some form with the vast majority of survivors. There is no necessary contradiction in the idea that Saddam’s hostile intent or putative WMDs were a provocation, and peaceful cooperation with an Iraqi democracy is an objective. Any war short of extermination, whatever the provocation, must have as an objective, peaceful cooperation with the survivors on some terms. These objectives do not need to be rationales, justifying starting the war; but they are necessities, following from the nature of war as a process of contention.

There is one sense in which Bush committed a crime, violating law, by starting an “aggressive” war, without substantial provocation. There’s another sense in which Bush committed a “crime,” by not planning adequately for the aftermath, for not choosing achiveable objectives and applying sufficient and appropriate resources to achieving those objectives.

Of course, we do not necessarily know what his objectives have been. If he was aiming at creating a permanent American military presence, and an Iraqi government weak enough to require the Americans remain, the judgement on his failure may be somewhat different from what it would be, if his objective was to create social revolution in favor of democratic modernization. Ultimately, though, as a practical matter, the actual course of events will overwhelm any earlier intentions.


jim 07.01.05 at 6:59 pm

I think you’re assuming a closer connection between war aims and casus belli than can be sustained. Consider the British entry into WW2. The casus belli was the German invasion of Poland. But the British war aims were clearly not confined to reestablishing an independent Poland. Perhaps did not actually include reestablishing an independent Poland.

Once a war starts, it creates its own environment, within which new war aims arise. Which is why it’s a bad thing to capriciously start a war.


roger 07.01.05 at 9:10 pm

Best CT post on the Iraq debacle yet. Yes, the initial and ineradicable confusions as to why we were invading, conflicting goals, incoherent means that were supposed to achieve incongruous ends (tear down Fallujah and enthuse the Sunni population about the upcoming election!)– ten year old boys building a treehouse could have done a better job. But I do wish you had added that the war game model that the Bush gang was using — neat video games — has been underestimated in the war planning. One guy can take on a whole army of enemies in a video game — so surely this must be true in Mesopotamia.


Glenn Bridgman 07.01.05 at 9:21 pm

Not quite. There is nothing inherently wrong with using multiple causes to justify war. A, B, and C may in of themselves be insuffecient, but together provide an adequate causus belli. What you mean to argue against, I think, is the [i]confusion[/i] of causes we got with the iraq war. A, B, and C is fine, A, no wait B, hrmm let’s try C is not. That is what causes the strategic incoherence, not simply having multiple rationales in the first place.


Winston Smith 07.01.05 at 9:37 pm

Great post, thanks. This is where Wolfowitz’s statement—and the explanation he offered for it—gets pretty interesting.

“for bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue – weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”


Purple State 07.01.05 at 9:49 pm

I think you’re on to something original here John. War is such an extreme reaction to a problem that it requires a proportionately extreme stimulus to be justified. The probability of having multiple extreme stimuli is low, so one should be suspicious any time a nation needs to “build a case” for war by piling up multiple lesser offenses. In fact, you might argue that war should only be triggered if there’s a casus belli that rises to the requisite seriousness, and no number of lesser causes can be added together to provide adequate justification. In other words the quantity of reasons isn’t important, only the quality is. One reason of sufficient quality (to fend off an unprovoked attack, for instance) is enough, but no quantity of lesser offenses will suffice.


Syd Webb 07.02.05 at 2:06 am

Good points, John.

It’s like a trial. The prosecution tries to prove a case against the accused. If the case fails, the defendant should go free, notwithstanding he’s a Bad Man(tm).

The USA’s case against Saddam Hussein at the time of the invasion was that he had WMDs. The USA even said at the time that if he gave them satisfaction over their concerns – which he didn’t – they would call off the invasion.

Using the court of law analogy, having discovered the WMDs are no-existent, the USA should declare a mis-trial, reinstate Saddam and pull out. But I suspect that too much pride is on the line, and due process so debauched, for this to happen.


Jack 07.02.05 at 3:42 am

As others have said, the more reasons to go to war, the better of course. The problem in this case is how few reasons were given in two important senses.

Something is only a reason for going to war if it is sufficient to explain going to war> If the same resons are true of another case where there is no war there must be another reason.

There was also no clear official reason for going to war stated clearly enough to hold anyone to account.

The problem is clearly not confined to War but is celarly exposed there because the consequences are so much more immediate and obvious than in many other situations.

The binary decision point is interesting and it has always seemed to me that the next development in thinking about such an issue is far more likely to reverse the prevailing conclusion than to confirm it. However it is far from obvious that we were faced with a binary decision except in so far as the Bush administration chose to present us with one.

The UK is in a similar situation with its ID card debate.

Once the reasons are fixed around policy it becomes almost impossible to have effective public accountability which must be the discippline holding the executive to account.

In the context of Syd’s point above I’m saying that the WMD rationale was allowed to prevail at the time and some pronouncements are good evidence to support this but it was not made explicit or official enough to hold politicians to account afterwards. Nor is it obvious that WMDs were a reason to invade because there were so many other countries with WMDs that were not invaded and it is not clear that the USA made reasonable attempts to determine whether or not there were WMDs.


James Wimberley 07.02.05 at 4:43 am

Since Iraq was, for most CT readers, an unjust war, a better test case is the US Civil War. Lincoln was careful, in the crisis leading up to the outbreak, to put the issue as one of the maintenance of the Union, not the abolition of slavery – though the former would inevitably lead to the latter. Similarly, the South stood formally on the rights of states, though slavery was the real point. Abolition became so for the North with the Emancipation proclamation.

Many, if not most, wars, show a gap between the formal casus belli and the real one; think of the first and second World Wars (for Britain and Australis, if not the United States), the War of the Spanish Succession, Henry V and the tennis balls, and Thuycidides’ analysis of the causes of the Pelopponesian war. The extreme case is the Prusso-Danish war of 1864. Lord Palmerston once described the Schleswig Holstein Question as so complicated that only three men had ever fully understood it — one being Prince Albert, who was dead; the second, a professor, who had become insane; the third, Palmerston himself, who had forgotten it. But Bisnarck’s motive was a straightforward power grab.


Nell 07.02.05 at 4:44 am

Wars are so terrible, destructive, irreversible (hence completely un-analogous to trials) and create their own dynamics to such an extent that the best practice is to admit very few justifications for war in the first place. And to place the burden of justification heavily on those who want to go to war.

The U.S. interventions of the 1980s and 1990s created a poisonous brew of half-assed rationales for war that laid the groundwork for the Bush administration’s mass of shifting arguments. (In some very real sense the war on Iraq never ended after the 1991 invasion.)

I hold liberal interventionists responsible for failing to hammer the administration on its primary justification — because they bought into the secondary ones and figured the removal of a weapons threat, if it existed, would be a nice bonus.

The all-volunteer armed forces, a concept I support, has had an unfortunate side effect of enabling this proliferation of acceptable reasons to go to war. When everyone is potentially affected, questions about justification come into much sharper focus. When it’s someone else’s children, “democracy promotion” sounds just fine.


abb1 07.02.05 at 4:58 am

Actually, the original reason for war was a bit more coherent than you make it out to be. The reason was this: they didn’t like the regime. And, IIRC, that’s what they were openly saying every day at the time.

Obviously the WMD by itself couldn’t be the reason because they don’t invade Pakistan or Israel.

Obviously the oil, in and of itself, couldn’t be the reason, because they don’t invade Saudi Arabia.

Obviously humanitarian intervention couldn’t be the reason because there wasn’t any humanitarian emergency in Iraq at the time.


So, it’s simply that they didn’t like that particular foreign government, they wanted to change that government and they thought the easiest way to do it was a military invasion. And they thought that new Chalabi-led government would be beneficial for them in various respects, including oil, support for Israel, strategic location for US military bases, WMD, etc.

So, it clearly was an unprovoked war of aggression.

To initiate a war of aggression is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

— the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal


soru 07.02.05 at 5:46 am

It’s like a trial. The prosecution tries to prove a case against the accused. If the case fails, the defendant should go free, notwithstanding he’s a Bad Man™.

I think if you are going to use the analogy of criminal law, which works very differently from just about every other area of human decision making, you need to ponder what it is about the nature of criminal activity and state power that makes that solution a good one in those circumstances.



bad Jim 07.02.05 at 5:47 am

What other outcome could have been expected with this crew, even if its intentions had been pure, which they weren’t?

Never mind. Given the weapons at hand, even if they’d had the best of intentions, how much different would the results have been?

The armed forces of the U.S. have distinct and extraordinary skills which are now on display in a theater singularly unsuited to them.

George Bush needed to be a war president. The capability of his army and the exigency of September 11, with who knows what managerial finagling, gave us this nice little war and this ugly occupation.

(Yeah, almost anyone else wouldn’t have tossed aside the plans for the aftermath, but we still didn’t have enough boots.)


Kevin Donoghue 07.02.05 at 6:04 am

It may help to contrast criminal law with the way we conduct elections. It is quite usual to raise all sorts of doubts about a candidate’s business dealings, military record etc., whereas in a criminal trial the judge won’t allow that. The difference is that in an election the burden of proof is on the candidate, who must convince us that s/he is trustworthy.

In the case of the House of Lords a conservative would say that the burden of proof is on those who demand constitutional change. This is ye olde Burke v Paine argument. In the case of a war most of us feel that the burden of proof is on the pro-war faction. War suspends normal moral laws so necessity, which knows no law, must be shown.

It isn’t really a matter of having one reason or many, I think. It’s just that trotting out lots of arguments and jumping from one to another is bad faith. Again, the analogy with a criminal trial helps: you can bring as many charges as you want, but you must prove them individually. If the sheer length of the indictment is supposed to sway the jury then what you are holding is a show trial.

But it’s a moral question. If you think of it as some kind of high-risk investment then the burden-of-proof approach doesn’t come into it. You just have to argue that the expected return is adequate. The Romans seem to have thought that way at times and it is noticeable that America’s keyboard warriors are fond of Roman pseudonyms.


Brendan 07.02.05 at 6:38 am

I think a lot of the posters above have hit the nail on the head, especially as regards the comparison with the trial and the need for a causus belli. The key point about a trial of course is that there is a ‘default’ position (innocent) and the question of ‘on whom does the burden of proof reside’ is already sorted (the burden of proof lies on the prosecution.

Now it’s interesting that some (a minority) on the pro-war side actually argued that the burden of proof lay on Iraq. In other words, that if Saddam could not prove that he did not have WMDs then war ‘must’ result. But of course, this brings us to the nature of the UN resolutions which he was accused of breaking. You could argue, for example, that in the case of Sudan this argument might actually work. After all, the Sudanese are actually killing people. But all Saddam was accused of was possessing WMDs. He was actually, of course, killing people as well, but that was never used (in the context of the UN) as a reason for war, although it was used in party propaganda, the blogosphere etc.

Given the scale of the two options, therefore, that no deaths RESULTED directly from Saddam’s breaking the security council resolutions (assuming he had in fact done so, which of course we now know he hadn’t), and that deaths would INEVITABLY result from war (and, contrary to what was implied, the potential cost of the war, in terms of lives, was always greater than the potential acts of anything Saddam could do, considering we have nuclear weapons and he didn’t) then the burden of proof FOR war MUST have lain on us.

Therefore, it wasn’t us, but Saddam who was innocent until proven guilty. We would have had to PROVE, beyond reasonable doubt, that Saddam possessed WMDs before war, or else, no war.

But another point is even more fundamental and it’s this. This question is much simpler: who was the aggressor, and who was the defender? Or, as children might put it, who started it? Without defending Gulf War 1 it was at least theoretically justified. Saddam attacked Kuwait, and Kuwait had a right to defend itself. Whether we should have involved was another question, but something clearly had to be done.

The situation is very different here. Saddam had not attacked anyone. Nor had he threatened any of his neighbours (or the US, or the UK) with WMDs, or, for that matter, with conventional weapons. Nor, as we now know, did he have any plans to do so. No plans for a rocket attack on Jerusalem, or a join al-qaeda operation to use chemical weapons on Washington, have come to light since the war. The most probable reason is that no such plans existed.

This is what i meant by a causus belli, a reasonably expectation of an attack. It is invariably forgotten in discussions of World War 2 that the Allies’ behaviour as regards the beginnings of wars (whatever one might think of their behaviour in other respects) was exemplary. The Americans were attacked at Pearl Harbour (and a few hours later the Japanese declared war). Germany declared war on the US, not the other way round.

Likewise, Britain joined the war because she had a legally binding treaty of military co-operation with Poland and Poland had been attacked. Sure she could have (illegally) ignored it, but that would have been madness, as Hitler’s behaviour made clear. Likewise the USSR was attacked by Hitler, not the other way round.

My contention here is very simple: that the definition of a just war is very simple, and the only logical and coherent one.

A just war is a defensive war.

Offensive wars are always illegal and immoral.

You should only respond if directly attacked (or, to stretch a point, you have reasonable grounds to think you will be attacked within a reasonably short period of time, and ‘reasonable’ here does mean ‘reasonable’, not fantasies about WMDs and collaborations with Al-Qaeda).


Brendan 07.02.05 at 6:43 am

One last point I think that has to be hammered home again and again and again and again, to the armchair warriors, which is (assuming they are aged between 18 and 40 more or less and in reasonably good health) that nobody believes them. I simply do not believe they actually support the war.

If they supported the war they would join up.

They haven’t so therefore they don’t support the war.

End of story.


Barry 07.02.05 at 7:35 am

Winston Smith: “6.
Great post, thanks. This is where Wolfowitz’s statement—and the explanation he offered for it—gets pretty interesting.
“for bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue – weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.”“”

IMHO, Wolfowitz is lying. WMD’s (and ties to Al Qaida) were hyped because otherwise, the American people would not have supported the war. If, in October 2002, the administration’s publicly stated position was to sweep through the Middle East, imposing democratic and pro-Israel governments on a number of countries, the new Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress would have put the kibosh on that.

There are reasons for an act, and then there are reasons politically sufficient for that act. Something that the administration supporters have been trying to obscure since May 2003.


Kevin Donoghue 07.02.05 at 8:34 am

Suppose, for the hell of it, you have some kind of welfare function into which you plug all the expected costs and benefits of a war, discounted for risk in some way. At the risk of being unkind, you could call it a Geras function. Then multiple rationales are not a problem (of course they complicate the calculations). Regardless of the number of variables, if the function is positive you go to war. I think the only way you can have a problem with multiple rationales is if you say that it is not permissible to reason about war in that way.

This topic has cropped up in a number of John Quiggin’s posts. I can’t resist a bit of long-range mind-reading. I think his problem is that as an economist he can’t help thinking in terms of welfare functions, but as a civilised human being he resists the application of such thinking to war. It reminds me of the epitaph James Meade composed for himself: “He tried to be an economist, but common sense kept breaking in.”


paul 07.02.05 at 8:38 am

Does a case for war based on multiple reasons use “+” for its operator, or does it use “AND”?

Everyone seems to be assuming that simple addition (or perhaps something just a little more stringent, so that not even a billion unpaid parking tickets suffice to justify invasion) is what should be used, but I think that’s fallacious, because the validity of a case for war (as of some criminal cases) rests on the probity of the would-be prosecutor of same as well as on the transgressions of the proposed invadee. Even one clearly bogus justification casts doubt on the good faith of the entire enterprise.

(Yes, there are cases where the probity of the would-be prosecutor doesn’t really matter, but these are generally ones where there’s one overwhelming casus belli, such as invasion of sovereign territory — even slimeballs can’t necessarily be invaded with impunity, although the world community has often taken its sweet time to mildly suggest otherwise.)


Dave B 07.02.05 at 10:06 am

To start a war you need ONE sufficient cause. If you have none (which turns out to be the case in Iraq), then war is illegitimate.


jet 07.02.05 at 10:25 am

This part was of course the most thought provoking

When a decision is naturally posed in a binary form such as “War vs No War”, at what point do you decide that the multiple rationales problem is such as to undermine this, and draw a conclusion like “Not this war now”?

But when we put this into the context of the period when the go ahead for the invasion was given, things become a little clearer. The UN inspectors had been removed from Iraq and they only returned after 250,000 US soldiers moved to the Kuwaiti border and remained on red alert. Before the Saddam/Bush game had reached this point, there was still a chance for no war but once Saddam removed the inspectors and Bush moved the army to Kuwait to restore the inspectors, there was only one possible result, not the three you might have assumed which were these. Bush leaves soldiers on alert, inspectors remain, this is the status quo for years.Inspectors are given the run around, Congress pressures Bush to do something, Bush stands down the army, at which point Saddam possibly removes the inspectors or not, but everyone is left believing Saddam is hiding WMDs.Bush invades IraqThe reason war was inevitable and we weren’t left with the first scenario is who believes the action oriented US public would leave soldiers on Saddam’s border for years just to ensure UN inspectors continued to get mocked as Saddam’s pawns by the world media? The only decision theory worth talking about is how we got to the point where Bush built up forces on the Kuwaiti border, since once that was done war was inevitable.


Kevin Donoghue 07.02.05 at 10:45 am

…once Saddam removed the inspectors….



Kevin Donoghue 07.02.05 at 12:26 pm

This is an interesting problem. Mulling over the analogy with criminal law, I went googling for the reasoning which led Blackstone to say it’s better for 10 guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to suffer. Landsburg says there wasn’t any reasoning and goes on to present the kind of theory that gives economics a bad name. My paraphrase: assume we have a can-opener parameter, the risk of false conviction, which we can set at an optimum level. Setting it high means high costs due to wrongful convictions but, by assumption, costs due to crime are reduced. So with a bit of calculus we locate the minimum point on the total cost curve.

Exploring the reasons why we don’t want economists like Landsburg on the bench may shed some light on John Quiggin’s problem. To me, the most obvious flaw is that as you put more innocents in jail you undermine confidence in the system, incurring externalities which don’t fit neatly into Landsburg’s framework. But I suspect JQ has looked at that sort of thing already so I won’t bother. It does seem that there is a similar problem with shifting the burden of proof for war: confidence in the decision-making process itself is undermined as leaders are seen to be more trigger-happy.


roger 07.02.05 at 4:13 pm

On the legal analogy — it seems to me that the argument about Iraq is too taken up with the just war theme, and not enough with negligence and due diligence. John’s tracking of the different war motives is most illuminating by seeing the motives in the light of their pragmatic reach — and that is what one would want to prove in, say, a case of criminal negligence.

There is, presumably, a tighter tie between justification and practice in a democracy than in a dictatorship. The false justification that Hitler used to invade Poland was not the type of thing that determined the methods and goals of the invasion, nor did it matter to the Germans — after all, that was a minor instance of Hitlerian tyranny. But in a democracy, the kind of fight that one wages is much more dependent on the kind of fight one justifies. So the confusion as to just why we were invading Iraq — rather than, say, waiting for the weapons inspectors to adjust our pressures on Iraq – reached into the occupation itself, lending it those confusions (between, say, the immediate goal of turning Iraq over to an Iraqi political elite, Garner’s idea vs. treating Iraq as a colonial protectorate; or the goal of integrating the Iraqi army into the project of a sovereign Iraq vs. disbanding it all together) which, cumulatively, wrecked every one of Bush’s goals, the malign ones (exploit Iraq’s oil) and the benign one (treat Iraq to an American style New Deal). There is one macro-feature, here: the real constituency for the occupation was not the Iraqis, but the Americans. Winning the hearts and Minds of the Americans comes way ahead of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqis in the conduct of the war. Since the Americans are never going to live in Iraq, speak the language there, drink the water there, get married there, or the thousand and one acts that are embedded in a culture, the American constituency naturally responds to what interests Americans: rhetoric and the drama of soldiering, held at some bearable distance.


Barry 07.02.05 at 4:24 pm

Kevin, it’s common for right-wingers to lie about recent history. One of the classic lies is to pretend that inspections couldn’t be done, due to Saddam. They have to do this because the fact was that inspectors were going through the suspected sites, with little practical interference, and (almost always) showing that the US’s claims were false. Which demolishes the Bush administration’s case for war.


John Quiggin 07.02.05 at 6:24 pm

“I think his problem is that as an economist he can’t help thinking in terms of welfare functions, but as a civilised human being he resists the application of such thinking to war.”

Kevin, your long-distance mindreading skills are very impressive! This is pretty much the theme of my next unwritten post on this topic.

I might pinch the Meade epitaph as a catchphrase for my own use.


stormy 07.02.05 at 10:11 pm

It might be interesting to ask the question this way: Under what circumstances is attacking Iran justified?

I ask this question for obvious reasons. The drums of war are slowly starting to grow louder.


Thomas Palm 07.03.05 at 2:28 am

Quiggin claims the war USA fought in Iraq was designed to rapidly find and destroy WMD:s, at least in the start. IMHO, that is false. US forces never seemed to take looking for WMD:s very seriously, which is why much of the remains of the Iraqi nuclear program has gone missing, (if we are lucky it got snatched up by Iran rather than Al Quaeda) why the building where Iraq kept there documentation of the UN inspections weren’t guarded so that it could be looted and the documents lost (not in the days of the invasion when some confusion might be understandable, but considerably later). From the behavior of the military I think one can conclude that fear of WMD:s were never high on the US agenda.

I’d go even further and say that I don’t think USA would have invaded at all if they really had thought that Iraq had any large stores of WMD:s. The risk of things going seriously wrong would have been too great. How woould the world have reacted if Saddam had decided to bomb cities in countries supporting the war with nerve gas? What if instead the stores ended up in the hands of terrorist groups? USA hasn’t invaded North Korea, after all.


John Quiggin 07.03.05 at 2:33 am

The search for WMDs was a bit of a puzzle. In some respects, they were taken seriously (extensive precautions against gas, lots of stories fed to Judith Miller et al) and in other respects, as you note, very haphazard.

I infer a combination of routine incompetence and the fact that some in the Administration were in on the joke, while others were not, leading to mixed signals.

Still, I think that the key features of the war were those implied by its ostensible rationale.


abb1 07.03.05 at 3:18 am

…humanitarian intervention…

UK aid funds Iraqi torture units

British and American aid intended for Iraq’s hard-pressed police service is being diverted to paramilitary commando units accused of widespread human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings, The Observer can reveal.
The investigation revealed:

· A ‘ghost’ network of secret detention centres across the country, inaccessible to human rights organisations, where torture is taking place.

· Compelling evidence of widespread use of violent interrogation methods including hanging by the arms, burnings, beatings, the use of electric shocks and sexual abuse.

· Claims that serious abuse has taken place within the walls of the Iraqi government’s own Ministry of the Interior.

· Apparent co-operation between unofficial and official detention facilities, and evidence of extra-judicial executions by the police.


abb1 07.03.05 at 3:32 am

…humanitarian intervention…

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is calling on the United States to investigate three new cases of journalists killed in Iraq over the past week – all of them at the hands of American soldiers.
The IFJ in a statement noted that this brings to 17 the number of journalists and media staff killed by US soldiers since the invasion of Iraq.
…Also Saturday, authorities in Switzerland said a Swiss citizen of Iraqi origin was shot and killed in Iraq. According to Swiss media reports, the 49-year-old was apparently killed after being accidentally shot by a U.S. soldier.
Iraq’s UN ambassador has accused US Marines of shooting to death in cold blood his unarmed 21-year-old cousin’s son in western Iraq and demanded an immediate investigation.
The younger brother of the dead engineering student was dragged by his hair into a corridor and beaten while the rest of the family was told to wait outside, he said. When the Marines left the house about an hour later, the interpreter told the mother that her son had been shot and killed, according to Sumaidaie.

He said the family found him dead with a bullet to the neck.

“The mother led off a deafening cry of anguish but the Marines were smiling at each other as they were leaving,” Sumaidaie said. “In the bedroom, Mohammed was found dead and laying in a clotted pool of his blood.”

How often should these things happen – for an UN ambassador cousin’s son, Swiss citizen and 3 journalists to be murdered within one week?

A hundered murders a day? Three hundered? Five hundered?


soru 07.03.05 at 5:41 am

Using the court of law analogy, having discovered the WMDs are no-existent, the USA should declare a mis-trial, reinstate Saddam and pull out.

When an analogy leads you to a conclusion like that, most people would say that perhaps there is something wrong with the analogy. Even sane economists tend to be aware of the limitations of treating every sphere of human activity as if was pork belly futures.



abb1 07.03.05 at 5:59 am

That’s pretty much what happened in Kuwait in 1991 – not to mention a couple of billion dollars in reparations. Did it seem so ridiculous to you back then as well?


Sebastian Holsclaw 07.03.05 at 10:13 am

“That’s pretty much what happened in Kuwait in 1991 – not to mention a couple of billion dollars in reparations. Did it seem so ridiculous to you back then as well?”



abb1 07.03.05 at 12:07 pm

Understandable; I remember my girlfriend at the time felt the same way.


J Thomas 07.03.05 at 12:39 pm

For any decision that you take on pragmatic grounds you want to look at what results you expect from the various choices you could make. And you want to take the uncertainty into account — if one choice has a tremendous range of possible good or bad results, while another is sure to come out reasonably good, the cautious pragmatist will go with ‘pretty good’ rather than accept big risks.

The war was inevitable given our majority assumptions at the time. First, look at the WMD argument. If Saddam wanted nukes, and if he had no nuke program at all, and if the sanctions were relaxed, iraq would have nukes in 5 years. They had the trained physicists and engineers. Without sanctions they’d have money and imports.

If nukes for Saddam in 5 years was unacceptable, then the best time to stop it was immediately. Once the sanctions stopped, Saddam would have a lot of money, and he’d have a lot of new conventional weapons, and he’d have a lot of great propaganda. Iraqi poets and novelists etc would go around the world. They’d write about what life was like under sanctions, and it would look like a warcrime during peacetime. Literate women would publish stories about their babies dying of uncontrollable diarrhea because they weren’t allowed to buy medicine. Our chance of getting the rest of the world to agree to invasion or even new sanctions would be nil, even if we had dependable proof of a nuclear program.

So the WMD argument doesn’t actually depend on any existing WMDs or even an existing WMD program. We believed that Saddam wanted nukes. Unless we did something immediately he’d have them 5 years after the sanctions stopped. And we couldn’t persuade the rest of the world to continue the sanctions.

Then there’s another assumption that people today forget. At the time, americans were generally agreed that we were all-powerful. We were the only superpower. Our military spending was as much as the rest of the world put together. We could do what we wanted and nobody could stop us. So the general assumption was that if we invaded and it turned out that somehow we were doing the wrong thing, iraqis might suffer from it but we wouldn’t suffer. It would be their problem. If they didn’t do what we wanted it was their own fault if they suffered the consequences.

A lot of americans were disgusted by the attitude that we had to continually pay attention to what a bunch of kibitzing weak nations wanted. What could they do if we didn’t go along with their pansy-ass ideas? Americans are dynamic people who get things done, and a lot of us thought it was time to throw our weight around and get things done. It wasn’t just iraq, we were getting sick and tired of the whole arab problem. We’d take iraq first, and then we’d use that as a base to take iran and syria, and we’d liberate lebanon, and egypt would do whatever we wanted, and if libya didn’t go along we’d just take them real quick, and we’d clean up the whole region. Throw out the unrepresentative governments and set up liberal democracies, and if the arabs didn’t like it we’d just educate them until they did like it.

And if they kept making trouble for us we could just bomb them. Green glass from arabia to pakistan. Serve them right. And anyway don’t we deserve some rewards for being strong? We were the ones who made the sacrifices that defeated the USSR. The europeans tried to appease them, and if it wasn’t for us they’d be part of russia now. They owe us bigtime.

I didn’t hear responsible people talk this way, but I heard it a lot from people who didn’t have to watch what they said. Likely a lot of people who couldn’t talk openly like that still believed it. We had the power, we could do whatever we wanted, and it was time to settle the arab question. Arabs did 9/11 and until we cleaned up the arabs and the muslims they’d keep doing it.

And remember, right after the successful invasion Cheney and Rumsfeld came out and warned syria and iran that they were next. This isn’t something you do to an enemy that can make meaningful preparations. You don’t give them 2 years warning that you’re going to invade. You threaten weak enemies who’re so intimidated they’ll make big concessions now and keep making concessions as delaying actions until they’re obviously too weak to stop you at all.

At the time it looked like we couldn’t lose. People who objected did it on the grounds that it wasn’t right. It was possible to claim that we’d get in trouble — I made that claim myself — but I couldn’t get a hearing for it. Everybody knew that we were the Hegemon, that what right or wrong, for good or evil, what we decided was what would happen.

And that’s a lot of why it’s hard to pin it on Bush. A whole lot of americans were dead wrong about it, and they don’t like to be reminded. Even worse, they *liked* it a lot better back in 2003 when we were on top of the world. They want those days to come back. They don’t want a dose of modern reality, they want the fantasy to be real. If you tell them we’re losing they think you’re a traitor. And in a way you are. A lot of these people will be able to say on their dying day “I have been true to the dream.”. If you tell them it isn’t true, they’ll get the idea you don’t *want* it to be true. And why should they listen to somebody like that?


JRM 07.04.05 at 9:28 pm

An argument I don’t see on this thread, but which I think was probably the major justification for war in the minds of the Bush team:

The US has shown over the last couple of decades, including the Marine Barracks, Gulf War, and any number of other Islamic radical attacks, that it will offer only a wimpy response such as firing a few cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away into compounds in Afghanistan, or withdrawing marines. It was necessary to disabuse certain parties of this notion. Sadaam was evil, was surely connected to terrorism (though not 9/11), and weak. A functioning and reasonably civilized government in Iraq will change the entire dynamic in the Middle East. Hence, it is worth the effort.


European 07.05.05 at 12:18 am

Interesting post, J.Thomas. From outside the USA it reads like a powerful indictiment, do you realize that? Evidence that being part of a superpower, or believing your country all-powerful, is bad both for the character and the judgement. (Just as well that my own country is too small to be able to do so much heedless harm.)


John Quiggin 07.05.05 at 1:59 am

JRM, in response to your argument, I would have thought the obvious response to an attack by terrorists based in Afghanistan would be to invade Afghanistan in sufficient force to kill or capture them.


abb1 07.05.05 at 2:57 am

…the obvious response to an attack by terrorists based in Afghanistan would be to invade Afghanistan in sufficient force to kill or capture them.

This is not obvious at all; in fact you’re way off here. I think for most people the obvious response would be to follow procedures provided by the international law. That’s what Nicaragua did when it was attacked by the US.

To follow your logic, only powerful countries should be able to respond to an attack and they can attack less powerful countries with impunity. It doesn’t make sense.


John Quiggin 07.05.05 at 5:34 am

abb1, the US did follow international law and got a Security Council resolution demanding the handover of Bin Laden. The Taliban failed to do this.

As my comment suggested, this was pretty much the opposite of the sequence of events in Iraq.


Syd Webb 07.05.05 at 7:36 am

J Thomas wrote:

If nukes for Saddam in 5 years was unacceptable, then the best time to stop it was immediately.

A telling point, J. The problem is that Iraq is not the only foreign country. Countries like Sweden, Canada and Japan have the capability to develop nukes in 6 months.

So while it might be necessary to invade Iraq, by invading Iraq first this Administration has shown an inability to prioritise.


abb1 07.05.05 at 7:44 am

I suppose legality of the Afghan war is a much less of an issue than that of the Iraq war, although I don’t think it’s necessarily cut and dry either. I seem to remember a lot of weird ‘we have the proof but we wont show it to anyone’ talk at the time; not too judicial and not too helpful if what you want is to avoid a confrontation.


Kevin Donoghue 07.05.05 at 9:13 am

I think “European” may be doing an injustice to J. Thomas, whose comment sheds a bit of light on John Quiggin’s problem. While I can’t see why having multiple rationales is bad in itself, it does tend to corrupt the debate and hence the decision-making process. Different groups buy into the decision for different reasons and nobody really knows which rationale is shaping the planning, not even the planners.

It’s a bit like the problem you can have at a business meeting when there are too many items on the agenda and decisions on some items have a bearing on others. Somewhere on the web you will find a sad little work called The Plan with the punchline: This is how shit happens.


Kevin Donoghue 07.05.05 at 11:58 am

Made a mess of my HTML tags. I was referring to this bit of scripture:


abb1 07.05.05 at 12:18 pm

J Thomas:

So the WMD argument doesn’t actually depend on any existing WMDs or even an existing WMD program. We believed that Saddam wanted nukes. Unless we did something immediately he’d have them 5 years after the sanctions stopped. And we couldn’t persuade the rest of the world to continue the sanctions.

This (or very similar) thoughtful argument is well amplified in this editorial. Enjoy.


joejoejoe 07.06.05 at 1:50 am

I think the important point in a democracy engaging in war is not the multiple rationales for the war itself – candidates and policies are supported all the time for multiple and contradictory purposes. The hurdle that must be cleared for most voters involves the sacrifice end of the equation – how much will all this cost in blood and treasure? Donald Rumsfeld estimated 6 months of violence on the outside and Paul Wolfowitz testified that Iraqi oil revenues would finance the entire operation. Is that what is driving support down or the missing WMD, peace, democracy, etc.? The idea that any real sacrifice would be necessary was at best one throw-away line in each speech. Playing leap frog Rationale A to B to C is far less the problem than each Rationale is costing far too much and far too troublesome. Even if Saddam had WMD and links to Al-Qaeda (he had neither) I’m not confident the Iraq War would be any better received at this point all other things being equal. It’s just far too costly politically, financially, and morally. It’s a complete botch.

If you are trying to walk the decision making process back for the United States in this particular war I think it would be productive to look at the various expectations of cost (blood and treasure).

I don’t think the ever changing rationales are causing concern among US citizens – I think it’s that objectively by each successive argument the US is losing. Check this excerpt from a 1999 Washington Post article (see link) discussing acceptable casualties in a hypothetical Iraq War:

“Collectively, these results suggest that a majority of the American people will accept combat deaths–so long as the mission has the potential to be successful. The public can distinguish between suffering defeat and suffering casualties.”

Multiple causes are only troublesome if they all fail.


J Thomas 07.06.05 at 7:08 pm

European, That sort of thing happens to people sometimes. I used to wonder how it happened that the germans were ready to take on the whole world in WWII. They had the best-trained army in the world, and the best technology, but how could they hope to take on russia and the USA? Did they really think their U-boats could neutralise us long enough?

And in 2003 I saw it happen here. A lot of americans were ready to take on the entire world (if necessary) because they were sure we were strong enough. Even today the Senate cafeteria labels their fried potatoes “Freedom Fries” because back then we were mad at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and nobody’s told the cafeteria staff they can change it back. “Punish france, ignore germany, forgive russia.” It’s extra easy to believe you’re right when you have all the power.

And we still have some power. As long as nobody can damage our aircraft carriers we control the world’s blue-water oceans. We can nuke anybody in the world and most nations can’t nuke us back. our army can defeat essentially any army in the world provided we have a year to preposition supplies. These three things would be irrelevant in a sane world. But it’s US sanity that’s the issue. We can make them relevant. We hate to lose. And if the time comes that those are the only three cards we have to play, we’ll play them.

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