Here on the one hand were the assembled ranks of the Great and the Good telling us that we had to worry intensely about the possibility of Saddam building the Bomb in his underground laboratories, and there on the other hand was Greg Cochran saying that a quick look at publicly available information shows that no way could Saddam afford to build a Bomb. Now, I reasoned, obviously, Greg is smarter than the average big shot in government and media. In fact, he might be smarter than anybody in government and media. But is he smarter than all of them put together?
As we know now, when it came to the great question upon which the history of this decade hinged, the answer was: Yes; yes he was.
Michael Blowhard of 2Blowhards thinks we ought to try to learn from how Cochran figured it out, and is conducting a two part interview with him. Here's an excerpt from the first part:
2B: When did you start to make sense of the current mess?
Cochran: I knew enough about nuclear weapons development to make my own estimate of what was going on in Iraq. It was obvious to me that Administration was full of shit back in late 2002, either lying and/or totally deluded.
2B: How did you know that?
Cochran: I looked at freely available evidence. For example, when the Feds started telling us that Iraq was a nuclear menace, I knew that the hardest step in making a bomb is obtaining fissionable materials, and I knew what the four ways of making those fissionable materials were (breeder reactors, gaseous diffusion plant, centrifuge, calutron), their costs and difficulty, and it seemed to me that none of them were possible (while remaining undetected) in Iraq, considering sanctions, inspections, aerial recon, negligible local talent, and being stony broke.
Since I read the paper every single day, I knew roughly how much oil Saddam was smuggling out by truck and how big a kickback he was getting on the oil-for-food exports. A horseback guess said that the whole Iraqi state was running on a billion dollars a year. Took about fifteen minutes of Googling to determine that. Not much to pay for an army, secret police, palaces out the wazoo, and an invisible, undetectable Manhattan project. Which was right on the money, as later laid out in reports by Duelfer and Paul Volcker.
I'm told that the CIA doesn't do this kind of capacity analysis, why, I dunno. I've also heard that they had only one guy in the entire agency who knew enough to do the technical-capacity analysis I just mentioned and that he was working on something else. They don't have a lot of physicists, partly because they pay peanuts, partly because it's a hateful place to work where you need a key to go to the bathroom. Sheesh, they don't even play "Secret Agent Man" in the elevator. There were plenty of people at DOE who could have done that kind of capacity analysis -- but the Administration refused to listen to the technical experts.
2B: What do you hear from your friends in the field?
Cochran: They tell me that there's not one political appointee in the government who could do that analysis. Likely true. That must always have been the case. However, the Bush people seem to pay no attention to technical expertise, ever. They don't believe in it. As far as I can tell, their position is that everything ever said by anybody is propaganda. Projection? Ad Hominem rules ok, there is no other argument. Steve Sailer calls it "marketing-major post-modernism."
2B: How did your reasoning proceed?
Cochran: When I began to hear people claiming that Iraq was a big backer of international terrorism, in particular, anti-American terror, I knew that every single article touching upon this subject in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal over the past twenty years said otherwise. When I checked later, official US-GOV statements did too, up until late 2001. The stories I remembered had Saddam down as the fourth-largest funder of the one of the main Palestinian organizations and, once upon a time, a backer of one of the less memorable factions in Lebanon, nobody you've ever heard of. Everything I'd ever heard said that the Mukhabarat spend most of its time looking to whack Iraqi exiles.
In other words, never a big player in that game, too busy with the Iran-Iraq war in the '80s, too broke in the '90s. Everybody knew that the Baathists had been a spent force, nothing that would attract any young and coming hothead, for at least thirty years.
When I heard people talk about how civilized and secular and educated Iraq was, I started out remembering how they'd torn the Hashemite royal family to bloody pieces in the streets back in '58. As I said, not a real middle East aficionado, but that incident is hard to forget. When Wolfowitz talked about literacy, I looked it up in the online CIA Factbook: 60% adult illiteracy, worse than any of their neighbors. When he said they didn't have pesky holy cities as in Saudi Arabia, I thought to myself "Karbala? " -- I guess I did remember something from those medieval histories.
And of course I noticed when the IAEA inspectors followed up about 30 of our tips and every one came up dry. I figured our entire case was wrong, a product of fantasy.
Judging from the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, I figured low-level guerrilla resistance in Iraq was more likely than not. Partly came to that conclusion because of recent examples in the Middle East, partly because of what I've read of the long-running story of nationalism and anti-colonialism over the last hundred years and more: books like Alistair Horne's "A Savage War of Peace," accounts of the Boer War, the Philippine Insurrection, Maximilian in Mexico, Portugal's endless colonial wars in Africa, and Vietnam of course.
2B: What are some of the reasons so many observers went so wrong?
Cochran: I think that most people writing about international politics don't have much useable history. They keep making the same two analogies (everything is either Munich or Vietnam) because they simply don't know any other history, not that they really know much about Vietnam or WWII either.
I also think that they have zero quantitative knowledge. Comparisons of Saddam's Iraq and Hitler's Germany used to bug me, since Germany had the second largest economy in the world and was a real contender, while Iraq had the fortieth largest GNP and didn't have a pot to piss in.
I once assumed people were deliberately lying, but now I think that they simply don't have any quantitative picture of the world at all. One, two, three -- many! In the same way, people who equate the dangers of jihadism with that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union really don't know big from small, don't know anything about the roots of national power. I think most writers and columnists are innumerate, just like the average American. Perhaps more so. If they could count, why the hell would they have gone into opinion writing?
2B: Is everyone involved in the great game inept?
Cochran: I think that some of the Washington lifers know what they're doing, particularly in less-technical areas. There are plenty of people in DOE -- Los Alamos and Livermore and Sandia -- who know exactly what they're talking about. As for the generals, a mixed bag. Some knew what they were talking about, some were downright dense. I'd say that Tommy Franks was effectively stupid. So was Sanchez, so was Odierno, who is still there as #2. In different ways. I'm not sure that any commander we've tried is what you'd call smart, in the sense that Sherman, Grant, Nimitz and Spruance were smart. Since Bush wanted people who "believe in the mission," it was hard to get good execution, considering that mission is and always was stupid.