TCS Daily

Blame Game

By Duane D. Freese - October 29, 2003 12:00 AM

"Using very meager resources and military means, the Afghan mujahidin demolished one of the most important human myths in history and the biggest military apparatus. We no longer fear the so-called Great Powers. We believe that America is much weaker than Russia; and our brothers who fought in Somalia told us that they were astonished to observe how weak, impotent, and cowardly the American soldier is. As soon as 80 American troops were killed, they fled in the dark as fast they could, after making a great of noise about the new international order. America's nightmares in Vietnam and Lebanon will pale by comparison with the forthcoming victory in al-Hijaz."


So spoke Osama bin Ladin in one of his recruiting tapes found in Afghanistan after America responded to 9-11.


Subsequent history in Afghanistan and Iraq has demonstrated that Bin Ladin underestimated the courage of American fighting men and women. But the real target of his remarks -- particularly those about Vietnam and Lebanon -- was that America, its politicians and its people, lack the resolve to see a tough situation through. And on that score, there is room to wonder.


Washington Blame Game


Currently, Washington is in blame game mode over Iraq. This despite the fact that, so far, things in Iraq haven't gone as badly as key critics of the war initially estimated. Saddam didn't blow up all the oil wells. He didn't unleash his weapons of mass destruction. He couldn't sustain an urban war plan. Indeed, none of the worst-case scenarios painted by critics of the U.S. disposal of Saddam's regime has come to pass.


Occupation, peacekeeping and reconstruction costs are falling in line with the lower estimates made by William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, in his brief last fall, which set a range of $105 billion to $605 billion for those tasks.


But things have not gone as well as the Bush administration had initially hoped. Ongoing insurgencies, as the bombings over the weekend demonstrated again, are proving difficult to put down. Soldiers are being killed every other day. Humanitarian workers and civilians are being targeted as well, demonstrating that Saddam's supporters are nothing if not thugs.


All this likely would be tolerated, though, if the invasion had produced what everyone -- including even most of the critics -- thought Saddam had: weapons of mass destruction. Oddly enough, the quick victory over his army and the low casualties were in part a result of the fact he didn't have them. So, on that level it was a blessing.


Americans, though, hate ambiguity. And the discovery of WMD would have put the invasion in an unambiguous light.


So, the Bush administration and the nation's intelligence community are being chastised for toppling a despot and not finding what even French and German intelligence believed to be significant threats.


The Change in Counterterrorism

But it's worth noting that the Bush administration was hardly the first administration to lower the standard of proof necessary to require action against threats. As David Schenker, a research fellow at the Washington Institute wrote in 1998 after President Clinton ordered the bombing of bin Ladin's training facilities in Afghanistan,

"For some time, U.S. counterterrorism policy has taken a 'law enforcement' approach, aimed at collecting evidence in order to prepare a case against suspected terrorists that could gain conviction in an American court. The attack on bin Laden would indicate a more pro-active policy, presumably with a lower standard of proof necessary to pursue and punish suspected terrorists.

"In the new policy, guilt is determined by intelligence data, which is normally incapable of meeting the standards required by a court of law; military force is how punishment is meted out."

Now, if you have that kind of policy, you want and need the best intelligence possible to inform your military actions. Otherwise you may bomb a baby formula factory instead of chemical weapon site.

So, getting improving national intelligence capability is a constant need. But unfortunately, improving intelligence can take not weeks or months, but years, and in developing good human intelligence, even decades. And how do you assess threats in the interim?

One way to measure a threat is by looking at previous actions of the suspect party. On that score, Saddam's regime scored as a large one. Not only had he gassed the Kurds in Northern Iraq, he had invaded his neighbors on more than one occasion. Further, he had been found to have made huge investments in developing both chemical and biological weapons, and also in pursuing nuclear weapons capability.

Another way is to look at current attitudes. On that level, too, Saddam measured up as dangerous. He had kicked inspectors out in 1998. And even after letting them in last fall at U.S. and U.N. insistence, he had played games hiding things -- even though those things, at least thus far, have proven less than threatening.

Now, within a law enforcement context, a guy who had killed his kids and attacked and brutalized his neighbors, would in most cases have been sent to prison, or been put to death, long ago. Hussein got a light sentence. He was put under house arrest, but was told to come clean on what he was doing with WMD or face the consequences.

He didn't. He even kicked out the parole officer, and then when the parole officer returned, proceeded to badger him and hide what he was doing. A parole officer would infer such a felon was up to no good. He'd not only get a search warrant, but have the guy dragged in for violating his parole. He'd go to prison permanently, even if nothing were found, for playing games with the police.

And that is essentially what happened with Hussein. He got a light sentence only if he demonstrated he'd reformed. Intelligence officials had little they could do but infer by his actions that he was trying -- if not succeeding -- in building weapons to threaten his neighbors, his own people and possibly us.

Now, they could have just kept him under house arrest, as France and Germany wanted. It was the preferred approach of critics of the war. But that meant playing a waiting game that would last forever, with this country never knowing whether Hussein might succeed in building weapons and dispersing them to terrorist allies.

So, while the blame game plays out, don't forget Saddam. And at the same time remember things could be worse for Iraqis and American troops. Saddam could still be in power and we would still be ignorant of what he was doing in regards to weapons of mass destruction. Now we know he's doing nothing. And that's useful information. Furthermore, whatever aid and comfort Hussein might provide bin Ladin is gone, too, as long as America keeps its resolve to battle terrorism and the states that support it.


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