Archive for the ‘rationality’ Category

The chatter is building up that a serious change in policy in Iraq is afoot. Supposedly, there is talk of an ultimatum to the Iraqi government to do various defined things or face undefined sanctions (this is an old John Paul Vann idea from South Vietnam), but there are also reasons to imagine that the Americans are preparing themselves to accept a break-up (see the Harpers’ story), and Des Browne told the BBC today that British forces might be out in 12 months because “planning was under way to hand over to Iraqi security forces”.

To quote Vann, “Damn, I’m an optimist. I think we can hang on longer than that!” More seriously, at the same time we saw the SCIRI-led Iraqi police being run out of Amara by the local Sadrists, who sealed the deal by destroying the police stations after seizing them. The last we heard, the Queen’s Royal Hussars group was standing by in case the order came to retake the place. Given the strength of the local Mahdi Army – it was this lot who fought Camilla’s Killers through August, 2004, and who mortared the QRH out of Abu Naji camp a couple of months ago – this would have been a very bloody business.

The Sadrists pulled something similar just down the road a day later, and some of their leaders are on record as boasting that the next objective is Basra. The entire incident was a demonstration of two things – the increasing Shia/Shia split between SCIRI and Dawa on one hand, and Sadr on the other, and the progressive loss of coalition control between Basra and Baghdad. The British security perimeter in the south is shrinking – the Sadrists used a supposed 800 men to storm Amara, a force the size of a battalion with better recruitment rates than most of ours. That kind of movement should have been spotted, if all the crap about drones was true.

Apparently the US government is considering eight options, these being as follows:

1. British out now.

2. Everyone out now.

3. Phased withdrawal.

4. Talk to Iran and Syria.

5. Remove Nuri al-Maliki in favour of a “strongman”.

6. Break-up of Iraq.

7. Retreat to “Super Bases”.

8. One last push.

Well, if those are your options… Close examination suggests that some of these options are actually double-counted. For example, 3 is only another way of saying 2, as it’s more than one day’s work to get from Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border, so any withdrawal will be in some sense phased. Even a British unilateral departure will involve at least a move back to Basra and Shaibah before the final evacuation. 1 won’t solve the problem on its own, but it will require 4 if 2 isn’t going to be immediately brought about. And a phased withdrawal, even more than a straight dash for the exits, will need coordination with the neighbouring states.

Further, talks alone won’t solve anything. The ex-officers of the New-Old Iraqi Army and the Sadrist street kids are not controlled by a state-sponsor Dr Evil and cannot just be switched off. Talking to Iran and Syria is only useful if the discussions involve some course of action, like 1, 2, 3, 5 or 6. It’s a necessary, not sufficient, condition. Speaking of 5, I see they are yet again parading the ragged corpse of Iyad Allawi’s credibility through the streets, trying to make it look like it’s alive. Look, the last time he had to deal with the Shia they ran him out of Najaf beating him with their shoes on live television. He’s only still alive because he spends as much time in London as possible. And what is he meant to do?

There is, of course, always Saddam, although I suspect if it ever looks like he might be sprung the SCIRI will shoot him first. This is only partly a joke: see Nibras Kazimi on the strange case of the former Electricity Minister.

That brings us to option 6, the break-up of Iraq. I’d argue that it’s already happening and we have little control over it, but anyway. If it looks like happening, 2 is top priority – the last thing we want is to have 140,000 troops in the middle of the break-up – and 4 is urgently necessary to consider how to limit the damage. Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have serious interests in Iraq, and could all become embroiled. After all, the Syrian army could get to Baghdad in three days, there being no-one on that particular route who would fight them, and park its tanks in Dora, where they might even be greeted with flowers, until/unless the SCIRI arrived to greet them with RPGs, car bombs, kitchen sinks etc (in that scenario, the Sadrists’ position would be very ambiguous indeed).

7 is easily disposed of. Ever since 2003, every time casualties spike, George Bush has promised that the US Army is being pulled out of the cities to secure bases out in the desert. US lefties are obsessed by “permanent bases!” And, in fact, the US army did indeed move into big fortified camps on desert airfields. They can’t do it again. And it’s not cost-free – it’s precisely living in land submarines that denies them useful intelligence and orientation. Check out this post (and Slate article) of Phil Carter’s about the problems caused by living in the Balad “super base”. Moving into them leaves the country and the population to the enemy. In the worst case scenario, they become insurgent magnets; without the Euphrates valley main supply route, they become so many besieged fortresses dependent on their capability to suppress mortar or rocket fire to keep the runways open, and their garrison’s ability to keep the SAM template clear to prevent the planes being shot down on approach.

8 is frankly ridiculous – even if it is possible to improve the operational situation by a further effort, what is the strategic aim? With the “push” complete, we would just be facing the same list of options. And what would such a “push” look like? The only halfway sensible scenario is something as follows – we do X in order to get the mayhem down to a tolerable level, so we can then hand over to a stronger Iraqi government (i.e. option 2 or 3). But I can’t see any kind of discrete operation in prospect that would do that.

The inclusion of option 8, though, does serve a purpose. If all the options were negative, the report would be rejected out of hand. Including 8 and 5, though, permits its authors to show that they have considered all options and that their recommendation is “sensible”, “moderate”, “reasonable” etc. Further, it makes all options short of 2 look like a happy mean and hence be more thinkable. I sense the formidable political abilities of James Baker at work here.

Apparently if Iran gets a nuclear weapon,

A nuclear Iran is likely to give or lend nuclear weapons to terrorists, resulting in an undeterrable nuclear strike against an American city or cities.

And the answer to this dread scenario? Why,

a credible threat of force.

Eh? Employing a credible threat of force is only useful if the party you threaten cares about it – in which case they will either be compelled to do something or deterred from doing something. Which adds up to the same thing. If they are undeterrable, a credible threat won’t cut it – only the force itself will. Deterrence is a way of seeing strategy that assumes a world of realpolitik. In the title of the classic textbook, it’s all about people, states and fear.

Traditionally, this is why the Realist school of thought loves deterrence. There is a lot to be said for Classical Realism, even though this does not make one popular on the left (ask Justin of Chicken Yoghurt fame) – for a start, one of the key insights from it is that starting wars is usually very stupid. Another really important point about realpolitik is that the crucial assumptions are that people and states are actually very alike. We are all human, fallible, and terrified. And we all seek to be less terrified.

Compare the worldview in which there are some people who not only cannot be appeased, they cannot even be deterred. That is to say, they don’t even share the human emotion of fear. Even Hitler was deterred from a few things – he didn’t use chemical weapons on London or the Red Army, chiefly for fear that we’d “drench Germany with poison gas” in Winston Churchill’s words, and he didn’t attack Malta, though it would have been a big strategic gain, for fear of losing the Parachute Corps.

There’s a long tradition of this stuff – people who have no respect for their own lives, Asiatic hordes, barbarians, ultramontanes. Mao even applied it to his own side. Blue ants, he said. What a lot of the historical instances have in common is that it usually comes before an attempt to exterminate the people so described. After all, if they are a horde without fear, who cannot be deterred, they aren’t really people..are they?

Iran, for its part, already has a strategic deterrent capability. It’s called oil. As well as its own exports, it has a very significant missile capability (to say nothing of all those hordes of suicide bombers the war party claims) designed to sink tankers and attack Saudi and Kuwaiti oil loading infrastructure. In current market conditions, I would seriously wonder whether a 2 kiloton or so nuclear explosion would not do less damage to the West than an extended disruption of Gulf oil shipments. There’s also an operational level deterrent – remember those 140,000 US soldiers and marines in Iraq? They are mostly concentrated around Baghdad and to the north-west, with a main supply route running out of this concentration through the Shia heartland parallel to the border with Iran. The US Army and Marines in Iraq are formed to a flank operationally, and heavily dependent on the British Army down south to hold the line and the SCIRI to stay quiet.

But the war party does not seem to be worried by this. Why aren’t they deterred? They are irrational! Maybe we should..

Another point, in passing. Why would anybody think that a state, having just achieved a gigantic national project employing the best of its scientific-technical elite, the undivided attention of its military-industrial bureaucracy and vast sums of money, in the teeth of the world’s great powers – would instantly give the thing away? States don’t behave like that. No states do. Pakistan didn’t. Neither did North Korea, and if you think North Korea is any less crazy than Iran..

The North Koreans are attention-seeking again, flaunting the possible launch of some sort of rocket that possibly might be the putative Taepodong-2 ICBM. And, apparently, the US government is thinking of shooting it down with their ballistic missile defence system. Well, system. Experimental test rig would be more accurate.

This is incredibly stupid. Fortunately for the world, the story is in the Moonie Times of WMD-to-Syria craziness fame, so the bullshit adjustment factor is quite large. But if we briefly suspend disbelief, what would be wrong with trying to shoot the thing down? For a start, the North Koreans are not going to point it, if indeed it’s an ICBM, anywhere near the United States. That would risk bringing the real missile defence into play – that is, the nuclear deterrent. Not even Kim Jong-il wants to do that.

So not only would it be not very pointful, it would be indefensible in international law (like they care) – it’s not illegal to have rockets, and it’s not illegal to test-fire them through space. And if it’s not aimed at you, it’s not self-defence. This may seem a minor point, but there is a more important one in there – ever since the high Cold War, there has been something almost amounting to a norm of customary law that satellites are not interfered with as they pass over sovereign territory – even the other side’s recce satellites. (John Lewis Gaddis used this as a pirmary example for his thesis that the Cold War was really the Long Peace) Space is therefore akin to the high seas, which is excellent news for anyone who uses weather forecasts, telecommunications, or satnav, to name but three. The US derives a lot of economic value, and far more military value than anyone else, from the free use of space. It would be very foolish to encourage interference with other people’s space activities, as the technology needed to build an ASAT missile is now much more available than it was in the 1960s.

That aside, what would shooting it down achieve? It would certainly slap down North Korea, and set them building as many decoy warheads as possible. Not a great payoff. Unfortunately, the poor performance of the BMD system so far suggests it won’t hit the rocket. And the consequences of trying and failing would be really desperate.

The reasoning behind a small “son of star wars” system is as follows: even if we can’t hope to deal with a strategic-level nuclear strike, that threat is covered by MAD. The danger comes from proliferation, from small numbers of rockets launched by (presumably) deranged rogue dictators who don’t care about being nuked back. (Can you see the logical flaw yet?)

Even if it’s not perfect, some BMD would be nice because it makes it much less certain that an enemy missile will get through, and hence the enemy will be less likely to risk it. (If you can’t see a logical flaw yet, you’re probably Ann Coulter.) This is all based on the assumption that the other side is pursuing a minimal deterrence strategy. Minimal deterrence, as theorised by the French and Israeli defence establishments and by the UK with regard to the “supreme national interest” non-NATO role of its deterrent, argues that the degree of devastation brought about by even a small nuclear strike is so horrific that it is enough to deter anything less than a suicidal attacker – no war of choice in the Pacific would be worth Los Angeles or Seattle, to put it concretely. So, just a small force would be enough to provide credible deterrence for most purposes.

Clearly, this obviates the argument that the threats of today are irrational and therefore impervious to deterrence. BMD is meant to defeat minimal deterrence by making it uncertain whether or not the bomb would get through. Given that this time we know there is no bomb, it’s very stupid indeed to run the risk of missing and thus destroying the uncertainty created by the BMD project.

Update: as always, any post with rockets in means comments action. Here’s a nice little map courtesy of Chris “Chris” Lightfoot.

Update the second: here’s an even cooler map courtesy of Armscontrolwonk.com

The North Koreans are attention-seeking again, flaunting the possible launch of some sort of rocket that possibly might be the putative Taepodong-2 ICBM. And, apparently, the US government is thinking of shooting it down with their ballistic missile defence system. Well, system. Experimental test rig would be more accurate.

This is incredibly stupid. Fortunately for the world, the story is in the Moonie Times of WMD-to-Syria craziness fame, so the bullshit adjustment factor is quite large. But if we briefly suspend disbelief, what would be wrong with trying to shoot the thing down? For a start, the North Koreans are not going to point it, if indeed it’s an ICBM, anywhere near the United States. That would risk bringing the real missile defence into play – that is, the nuclear deterrent. Not even Kim Jong-il wants to do that.

So not only would it be not very pointful, it would be indefensible in international law (like they care) – it’s not illegal to have rockets, and it’s not illegal to test-fire them through space. And if it’s not aimed at you, it’s not self-defence. This may seem a minor point, but there is a more important one in there – ever since the high Cold War, there has been something almost amounting to a norm of customary law that satellites are not interfered with as they pass over sovereign territory – even the other side’s recce satellites. (John Lewis Gaddis used this as a pirmary example for his thesis that the Cold War was really the Long Peace) Space is therefore akin to the high seas, which is excellent news for anyone who uses weather forecasts, telecommunications, or satnav, to name but three. The US derives a lot of economic value, and far more military value than anyone else, from the free use of space. It would be very foolish to encourage interference with other people’s space activities, as the technology needed to build an ASAT missile is now much more available than it was in the 1960s.

That aside, what would shooting it down achieve? It would certainly slap down North Korea, and set them building as many decoy warheads as possible. Not a great payoff. Unfortunately, the poor performance of the BMD system so far suggests it won’t hit the rocket. And the consequences of trying and failing would be really desperate.

The reasoning behind a small “son of star wars” system is as follows: even if we can’t hope to deal with a strategic-level nuclear strike, that threat is covered by MAD. The danger comes from proliferation, from small numbers of rockets launched by (presumably) deranged rogue dictators who don’t care about being nuked back. (Can you see the logical flaw yet?)

Even if it’s not perfect, some BMD would be nice because it makes it much less certain that an enemy missile will get through, and hence the enemy will be less likely to risk it. (If you can’t see a logical flaw yet, you’re probably Ann Coulter.) This is all based on the assumption that the other side is pursuing a minimal deterrence strategy. Minimal deterrence, as theorised by the French and Israeli defence establishments and by the UK with regard to the “supreme national interest” non-NATO role of its deterrent, argues that the degree of devastation brought about by even a small nuclear strike is so horrific that it is enough to deter anything less than a suicidal attacker – no war of choice in the Pacific would be worth Los Angeles or Seattle, to put it concretely. So, just a small force would be enough to provide credible deterrence for most purposes.

Clearly, this obviates the argument that the threats of today are irrational and therefore impervious to deterrence. BMD is meant to defeat minimal deterrence by making it uncertain whether or not the bomb would get through. Given that this time we know there is no bomb, it’s very stupid indeed to run the risk of missing and thus destroying the uncertainty created by the BMD project.

Update: as always, any post with rockets in means comments action. Here’s a nice little map courtesy of Chris “Chris” Lightfoot.

Update the second: here’s an even cooler map courtesy of Armscontrolwonk.com

Back in the 1990s, before foreign fighters and eye-catching initiatives, one of the catchcries of the Labour Party as it arrived in government was “evidence-based policy”. This meant, as far as anyone knew, that the government’s activity would be subject to review on the basis of results, and that choices would be made according to (usually) statistical principles. It sounds an excellent idea, so what happened to it?

Certainly it didn’t catch on. Perhaps the classic exhibit is drugs policy—according to the Senlis Council, the world’s governments spend every year rather more than the final value of world illegal drug sales on trying to stop them being sold, with no discernable reduction in the availability or popularity of the drugs. There is clearly a case for a review of the evidence, and such things have been done by third parties like the Council, which concluded that it would be better if the enforcement budget was used simply to buy the complete opium crop, supply the pharmaceutical demand from this stock, and burn the rest.

Not that any government, especially not ours, has listened at all. Another example is this blog’s old friend, the Home Office, which in pursuit of one set of numerical targets (to achieve a net increase in monthly deportations) succeeded in missing a whole selection of other aims (to keep various criminals confined, for one). What’s going on, then?

Chris Dillow likes to talk in terms of managerialism versus technocracy, and I think the failure of evidence-based policy is closely connected with this. More specifically, the huge expansion of what looks like evidence-based policy, centrally defined numerical targeting, to be specific, in government has in fact been an exercise not in policy-making but in management. Most of the targets public servants are expected to hit are not ones that define a goal, but instead some sort of intermediate process. It’s not about-for example-reducing the rate of heart attacks, but instead of achieving X prescriptions for low-dose aspirin.

This is a key point, because it defines both the information that the statistics provide and the use to which it is put. Rather than measuring the problem and using that information to decide on a course of action, this is measuring the action. And the main purpose of this sort of information is to check the obedience of subordinates. The question of what to do, whether the activity is useful, is external to the model.

That is to say, it is assumed that somebody, the somebody whose desk the stats land on, knows what the best course of action is and has prescribed it. This also fits in with the British civil service’s deep play; there is a traditional, ingrained divide between “policy”, which is high-status and concerned with cabinet papers, and “administration”, which is Siberian-status and concerned with processing business. Guess which is going to have stats collected on it? Anyway. The problem is therefore to ensure compliance, which fits rather well with the narrative of “modernisers” and “reform” and confronting a cosy blah blah blah. The problem is not treating sick people, educating children, catching lawbreakers-the problem is the public servant, who must be treated like a servant.

Technocrats, much though there is wrong with ’em, are better on this score because they at least believe themselves to be technical, which suggests that the policy is determined by realities and can be altered in response to the results of experiments. (This is of course also a myth. Not only do scientists develop a tribal attachment to their discipline, it’s even quite possible for engineers to become nationalistic about different radio encoding schemes.)

A canonical example of these problems occurred in the mid-1980s in British monetary policy. The Thatcher government started off by declaring its adherence to Monetarism, and putting this into practice by setting a target value for M4 broad money supply growth. Unfortunately, over the next few years, it was discovered that controlling M4 was extremely difficult. Rather, it was futile. Once the value of M4 was persuaded to decline, the values of its sisters M2 and M3 shot up as the suddenly growthful financial business, itself something the Tories were much in favour of, discovered means of getting around the policy. So, the scope of the policy was reduced, using more restrictive definitions of money like M2. M4, predictably, went up. Eventually they targeted the monetary base, that is to say cash. You’d think they could control that, but the fraction it made up of the total made the effort to control it pointless.

Eventually, Alan Walters persuaded Thatcher of this, over Patrick Minford’s protests, and the policy was replaced with an exchange rate target. The whole affair is an example of Goodhart’s Law, coined in 1975 by Charles Goodhart of LSE and the Bank of England, which states that to control is to distort. Broad money targeting failed, he argued, because it was like driving a car by reference to the speedometer alone. The policy itself created the feedback that was meant to guide the policy-maker. Goodhart went on to argue that, as a principle, targets should be “final goals” like inflation, unemployment, or the exchange rate – the best measure of problem-solving efforts being whether the problem was, er, solved.

In 1997, he eventually won, with the UK’s monetary policy being redesigned on the principle of rules. Inflation was the measure of counter-inflationary policy, with a 2.5% RPIX symmetrical target, and interest rates the means. And the control of them was in the hands of a committee including, surprise surprise, one Charles Goodhart. (This probably makes him the UK’s most influential academic of the last 30 years. Being an economist remains a good way to avoid fame.)

Now, let us consider what happens if the goals themselves are not static. If we are working from rules, using the evidence to decide the policy, it’s difficult to go careering off after the latest headline in the Sun – unless One Punch Monstrosity Wade’s current mood is part of the data set, naturally. But if the goals are assumed, being set by the presiding genius – well, then the whole “evidence-based” apparatus is rather like the great clock installed by the “Protector of Aborigines” of Western Australia, A.O. Neville, to enforce discipline on the souls dragooned into his camp, which to them was a weird torture engine operating on principles they couldn’t guess.

Bruce Schneier Sterling agrees:

Society, having abandoned the scientific method, loses its empirical referent, and truth becomes relative. This is a serious affliction known as Lysenkoism…..

Politics without objective, honest measurement of results is a deadly short circuit. It means living a life of sterile claptrap, lacquering over failure after intellectual failure with thickening layers of partisan abuse.