Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Shadowland: Confidence Game, 10 Jan 2006

The above photograph and much more about Iranain nukes at

Iraq has taught us that 'unknown unknowns' make lousy targets. Will Washington heed that lesson when it responds to Tehran breaking its nuclear seals?

By Christopher Dickey
Updated: 4:40 p.m. ET Jan. 10, 2006

Jan. 10, 2006 - Lest we forget amid all the second-guessed accusations and explanations in the air these days, the Bush administration did not launch its invasion of Iraq some 2,200 dead Americans ago because it knew Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It invaded because it did not know. We went to war—and remain mired in that war—because of a hunch.

Remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous little discourse on "unknown unknowns" in the summer of 2002, just as Washington and London were secretly committing themselves to invasion? He'd been asked about claims that Saddam's WMD arsenal and links to terrorists were worse than many analysts thought. Undeterred, Rumsfeld explained that lots of intelligence only comes to light years after the fact, and that proves you just can't know everything. "There are no knowns," he said. "There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."

Rumsfeld insisted on this point, because it was central to the arguments, public and private, for going to war. If we couldn't trust Saddam—and based on his track record, no one could—then we couldn't live with a situation after September 11, 2001, in which we just didn't know what he had. "Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn't exist," said Rumsfeld. "And yet, almost always, when we make our threat assessments, when we look at the world, we end up basing it on the first two pieces of that puzzle rather than all." That is to say, we should make judgments that factor in what we do not know. (Yes, I've published this extended quote before but the lyrical lunacy of it bears repeating, I think.)

That such recitations could pass for leadership, and that the American people would reinstate such a government in 2004 when the extent of the Iraq debacle already was apparent, frankly baffles most of the rest of the world and, belatedly, a growing number of Americans. But that's the past. What worries me now is that hints of the same logic are applied to the Iranians and their off-again-on-again nuclear program.

Do they just want to generate electricity, as they claim? Or are they building The Bomb? "This is a matter of trust," said White House spokesman Scott McLellan earlier this week. "They have shown in the past they cannot be trusted." And if that's the case, then what? McClellan added "that's why these negotiations are so important," with a nod to Europe's diplomatic efforts. But leaks seeping into the press suggesting the United States or Israel—or both—might be planning military action could be testing public opinion, or preparing it. When the Bush administration concluded it just couldn't trust Saddam with those unknown unknowns, the invasion scenario came to seem inevitable....

The early mail about this column is largely negative. Some who didn't read it all the way through seem to think I'm buying the Iranian arguments. Others think I'm too easy on the Bush administration about Iraq. They remain convinced that it knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, and therefore flat-out lied to get us into war. I think that's a hard case to make. I think in the end they just didn't care if there was evidence undermining the case for WMD -- and no hard evidence to support it. They believed what they wanted to believe, as do many readers.

I've visited the Iranian nuclear issue several times in the last few years. Some links to earlier articles:

Article: Iran's Nuclear Lies, 2 July 2005

Interview: Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency, 2 July 2005

Shadowland: Writing Lolita in Tehran, 31 May 2005
Iranian bloggers have harnessed the subversive power of the Web to express themselves politically--and also to find dates in a society that curtails public courting.

Article: The Spying Game, 14 Feb 2005
Washington calls the MEK a terrorist group. But some administration hawks think its members could help provide intelligence on Iran's quest to develop nuclear weapons.

Shadowland: Sandbagged in Baghdad, 21 Jan 2005
As bad as things are in Iraq, the Americans can thank Iranian influences for preventing a total collapse. Why, for better or worse, Iraq's elections have to be held on time.

Shadowland: Countdown Iran.16 Oct 2003
The United States finally won a diplomatic victory in the United Nations. But Washington and Tehran are moving toward war. How far will they go?

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