Monday, March 08, 2004

The amazing thing about the recent debates over intelligence issues regarding Iraq is not the differences of opinion about “what the intelligence said”- the fact is, everyone saw the same intelligence information, including John Kerry. When our new pompous JFK is quoted saying “Bush lied to lure us into war!” it is time to snicker. Once more, he is on both sides of an issue at the same time, as even the NYT is beginning to notice.

The right question is not what the CIA said regarding Saddam and his mass civilian murder weapons, it is the utter lack of any discussion about the way rational executives, such as the Harvard-MBA-trained Bush, deal with decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Tom Lifson dealt with this in detail at American Thinker (, discussing how MBA candidates are trained to address risk and uncertainty rationally, depending on the relative risk tolerance of the entity involved. I went throught the same exercises in grad school, and have to address such issues almost daily now.

The puerility of the Iraq WMD sound-bite debate, prompted by the Democrat candidates and their lazy lackeys of the mainstream media, can be illustrated by two prominent examples of cost versus risk: automotive airbags, and “global warming”.

From a 2001 student paper on risk management at a major university, we read:
“During 1996 there was an amazing amount of car crashes, and those car crashes totaled up to be about 6.8 million. A third of those accidents actually resulted in serious injury or at least some type of injury and 1% ended up being fatal.” Ignore the lousy syntax and what that says about college students and ability to communicate in English (“an amazing amount of car crashes), and dissect the numbers.

Where roughly 1% of 2.3 million crashes results in a fatality, we end up with 23,000 people in the US being killed in traffic accidents each year. To determine accurately what your own probability of dying is, it would require a lot of added data, driving mileage distributions, locale information, weather data, and so on. But, for the sake of argument, let us make a few assumptions and think parametrically (in a manner that would get us thrown out of any course on probability theory and risk management, but might at least provide an order of magnitude comparison).

There were 191 million licensed drivers in the US in 2001, according to “Info Please” ( It would be better to be able to factor in the number of cars owned by each driver, and so on, but we live with what we have. Very roughly, about 23,000 of 191 million drivers are killed each year on the road, so the simplistic probability of one particular driver being killed is .00012 (just over one in ten thousand). To mitigate that possibility, every new car manufactured in the US costs about $1,000 more to pay for inclusion of at least two airbags, and no one complains all that much. Are there cheaper ways to reduce the fatality risk? Sure- buy an SUV, take the bus, drive slower, and so on. But the airbag is the major decision we have embraced. For a fatality probability of roughly one in ten thousand, we pay an extra $1,000 for the car.

This example describes to some degree our individual tolerance of risk. But we are a collective society, and what we need to do is also look at societal risk as a total issue, since we tend to think that way; we did not grieve for the victims of 9-11 because we feared that we were next so much as we felt collectively violated by the evil perpetrated on some of our own in our own yard. Even though we may not have personally known a victim, they were mostly American, so they were our brothers.

What about the risk of terrible consequences arising from anthropogenic global warming? This is a reasonable collective measure, since we also feel it when our citizen brethren are hit by hurricanes and floods. Well, the lead author of the scientific portion of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report says that the most likely worst case increase in temperature over the next century is one degree, and the best study of the costs by the Clinton Department of Energy estimated that the GDP would decline by 3%-4% per year as a result of trying to achieve Kyoto carbon dioxide reduction targets, which themselves by the most optimistic estimates could at best reduce temperature averages by a third of a degree. And the possible worst consequence of a one to three degree temperature increase in global average temps is by no means particularly problematic, as Patrick Michaels documents in The Satanic Gases. So, we have the entire left wing of US politics eager to reduce US GDP by 4% a year on the off chance that it might have a 30% effect on a remotely possible temperature increase, which is itself identified by some of the best authorities as being far less than 10% probable, the effect of which is as likely to be beneficial as negative (so call the impact 50-50), and, even if negative, still not likely to cause significant problems, maybe a 5% chance that a temp increase could lead to trouble. So we get a $400 billion cost per year, against a .0075 (3/4 of 1%) chance of a slow developing problem that might affect a very few people on our coasts if the worst case occurred and led to some areas of coastal flooding caused by melting glaciers.

Fine. We are obviously risk-averse, both collectively and individually. It is obvious from just those two examples that we are willing to pay a lot to mitigate the consequences of bad outcomes.

So. Regarding the terror threat, especially as represented by Iraq in early 2003, we had the following known threats:

1) 30 years of progressively increasing-scale terrorist attacks that killed hundreds of US citizens prior to 2001 (think Marine barracks, Khobal Towers, USS Cole, multiple airline hijackings, and so on. Probability (i.e., certainty of occurrence): 100%
2) Sept.11, 2001 murdering more than 3,000 innocents. Probability: 100%
3) Multiple fatwas issued against the Great Satan encouraging terror groups to murder US citizens at every opportunity. Probability: 100%
4) Saddam Hussein having himself reported to the UN very large stockpiles of chemical weapons. Probability: 100%
5) Saddam Hussein with a documented record of using chemical weapons against Iranians and Iraqis. Probability: 100%
6) Saddam Hussein paid off terrorists for conducting successful homicide bombings. Probability: 100%
7) Saddam Hussein offered safe asylum and medical care for international terrorists such as Abu Nidal and Al-Zarqawi. Probability: 100%
8) Saddam Hussein permitted construction and establishment of a sophisticated terrorist training facility at Salman Pak just outside Baghdad, complete with aircraft fuselage to practice hijacking techniques, and had his secret intelligence services help train new terrorists. Probability: 100%
9) Iraqi agents provided critical support and assistance for the terrorists who attempted to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993. Probability: 80%
10) Thus far, despite finding multiple violations of the 17 UN resolutions ordering him to disarm, the larger WMD stockpiles that Saddam Hussein self-reported to the UN have not been located, and some credible authorities believe that those stockpiles may have been destroyed, leading to some question whether the WMD threat was as great before Operation Iraqi Freedom as had been believed. This leads to some question about the accuracy of CIA pre-war intelligence estimates and the attendant potential threat to the US. Probability: 50%
11) There is a history of cooperative relationships between Saddam Hussein and active anti-American Islamofascist terrorists, based on multiple sources and events, such as was summarized by DoD’s Douglas Feith to the Jojnt Intelligence Committee. Probability: 90% (we allow here for an amazing set of coincidences and the possibility that multiple witnesses have lied in a coordinated manner)
12) Chance that Saddam could pass WMD capabilities to active al Qaeda-type terrorists for use against US interests, including inside the US: Probablity? You choose- certainly more than 20-30%, most likely at least 50%.

If we take the lowest conditional risk probabilities identified above, we get 50% times 90% times 50%, which is 22.5% as a rough parametric risk probability of an attack on the US originating in Iraq as ruled by Saddam Hussein. That is about 25 times as great an imminent risk as is posed by the worst speculative cases associated with global warming if indeed you subscribe to that scenario, which most trained climatologists do not. (The major supporters of apocalyptic climate scenarios tend to be chemists- e.g., Clinton’s IPCC leader, Bob Watson.)

Now, these last data are somewhat overcome by the fact that the inexact science of CIA estimates usually does not cause them to err in the direction of overestimating threats; that is, variability is bilateral, causing us to underestimate at least as often as we overestimate. As Mort Zuckerman recently wrote in US News and World Report, “We underestimated the Soviet nuclear program in 1949, China's in 1964, India's in 1974, and Iraq's in 1991. The list goes on: North Korea in 1994, Iraq again in 1995, India in 1998, Pakistan in 1998, North Korea in 2002, and Iran and Libya last year.” What we see here is that most often in recent years, including with regard to Iraq within the last decade, and just a couple of months ago regarding Libya, the CIA underestimates the threat.

With that comparison of relative risk profiles and the associated costs and benefits, it is clear that any US president who pursued the Kyoto Treaty would be irrational, and any president who failed to deal effectively with Iraq would either be grossly incompetent or grossly negligent. You are left to decide which description fitted Mr. Clinton; I fear that a third category applies to Mr. Kerry and his compatriots.


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