September 9, 2007

2Blowhards interviews Gregory Cochran on Iraq

As I've mentioned before, although I was highly skeptical of the Iraq Attaq in 2002, my big mistake was that I didn't trust my friend Greg Cochran's assessment that Iraq had no functioning nuclear weapons program. (Here's an email from Cochran that Jerry Pournelle posted on his website on October 14, 2002.)

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.


My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

How can one take anything seriously when the world is this ridiculous? People run the world without reading a f***ing book. How do you not just despair?

Anonymous said...

You're a lucky guy to have been friends with Greg Cochran before all of us. The Kristols of the world need to be fired so a big heaping dose of Cochran can be served to the chattering classes.

I don't know why Greg doesn't have a blog of his own yet, but as long as you're filling up your blogroll, I've just started one of my own at

Anonymous said...

Steve --

Cochran is both right and wrong. Right about Saddam's lack of ability after being caught several times (including the infamous sons-in-laws incident) AFTER the 1991 Truce to do much in nuclear weapons development. But dead wrong on WHY everyone in the CIA, Clinton-Bush White Houses, Congress, and every Western intelligence agency got Saddam's nukes wrong.

1. They'd been fooled by Saddam repeatedly. They missed the invasion of Kuwait (which shocked everyone), they missed his ballistic missile and chemical and nuke progams which shocked everyone during inspections in 1991. And they missed his continued development during the period 1992-94 including calutrons hidden in various warehouses, which were only exposed when his sons-in-law defected briefly after run ins with Uday, and dropped the dime on what he had hidden there (in blatant violation of his truce agreement). [His sons-in-law were later induced by false promises by Saddam of amnesty to go back to Iraq, where they were tortured and executed. That was Saddam.]

EVERYONE: Bush 1, Clinton's people, the CIA, all Western intelligence agencies had gotten it wrong so many times before on Saddam. The IAEA and UN had limited ability to inspect Iraq, had gotten kicked out several times, and had ZILCH human intel in Iraq. Spy satellites had missed the warehouses filled with primitive calutrons (cause they just looked like warehouses) and Saddam used couriers not electronic communications. Technical intel could not fill the gaps. NO ONE wanted to get fooled AGAIN and look like an idiot.

2. The CIA is filled with people like Valerie Plame -- Washington social climbers interested in hobnobbing with "important people" in places like Paris and London (ditto State Dept.) NOT scrounging around in places like Amman Jordan talking to exiles (in their native language) and developing sources. Their goal is to go to really important Washington parties and get appointed Undersecretary of Nothing instead of actually finding out what people are doing. NO ONE was willing to do the scut-work of scrounging around exiles who actually knew something to figure out what was going on.

[Cochran of course misses the revenue stream of Saddam's Iraq considerably -- Oil-for-Food had tens of billions coming in to him THAT WE KNOW OF NOW from kickbacks, mostly from the UN (like Annan's son), and sanctions were being busted left and right. Relying on inaccurate news reports by lazy, stringer-dependent reporters for information is like using chicken entrails for divination. One thing was clear: support for sanctions was falling apart through Saddam's widespread bribery of the UN and France, Russia, and China. Chirac is mired in a bribery scandal related to that episode.]

Cochran is dead wrong about Saddam's on-the-record of cozening terror. Clarke and others (no friends of Bush) worried about Osama taking Saddam up on his offer of sanctuary in 1998. Osama was INDICTED by Clinton's Justice Dept. for collaborating with Saddam to kill Americans (through WMD manufacture in Sudan) that same year. Saddam gave refuge to Abdul Rahman Yassin, complete with paid apartment and salary in Baghdad. Yassin remains to this day the last at-large 1993 WTC bomber. Khalid Sheik Mohammed (9/11 Architect) AND nephew Ramzi Yusef were connected to Saddam's intelligence Agency. Saddam's head of intelligence in Kuala Lumpur escorted a 9/11 plotter-pilot through Malaysian customs to a planning meeting where he took part (according to sworn CIA testimony to the 9/11 Commission). Saddam gave another paid apartment and salary to the Achille Lauro mastermind (who he had shot days before the war).

This should not surprise anyone: the ME terror networks like everything else there works on kinship and long-time friends. The same people (the KSM-clan, various Palestinian clans, Yemenis, Saudis, Pakistani clans) end up working for the same people: Osama, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (since merged with AQ), the GIA and successors, Saddam, and Assad. There's only so many people who will fund and supply that sort of thing. They all want to push the US out of the ME so their interests are allied. [What to do about it is another thing, but this is reality.]

Cochran seems in denial about the basic reality of our post-Cold War world. Lots of people can come to the US and kill thousands of Americans. Non-state actors and deniable cutouts means the old MAD model of deterrence is not functioning now. Governments that "allow" terrorists to kill thousands of their citizens don't stick around. Being weak and non-responsive to aggression only gets more aggression. People don't like to go to work and get blown up. Or run that risk. Or see the WTC collapse. Regardless of how much the looney left thinks it's "morally good for us."

Cochran is also dead wrong about the military: Petraeus for example has a Phd from Princeton, the Marine Corps in particular has spent a lot of time studying guerilla conflicts. The military in general is more highly educated than the general population, with higher IQs. What's notable is that ALL the functions of the State Dept. have had to be done by the military. Civil reconstruction, setting up elections, city administration, etc. Partly because the AQI-JAM-Mahdi Army etc. know they can simply KILL civilians like the UN or State Dept people and they'll all leave. Partly because State was not interested in being in dusty, dangerous places.

Cochran is frankly an idiot when it comes to National Security -- it would be like me advising him on genetics. An expert in one field is not an expert in another. We don't have (absent China) conflicts with strong states, rather weak ones that act as shields for hostile non-state actors like AQI to act/organize with impunity. And are driven to aggressive acts by internal instability and weakness.

Preemptive wars of course work: that's the history of US western expansion. Or the Reconquista. Or driving Muslims out of Sicily. Or the Russo-Japanese War. You simply have to pick your opponent and plan carefully.

Cochran is wrong about "letting" Osama escape. We didn't have the men or political will to risk war with Nuclear and WEAK Pakistan to get him. Hence unreliable proxies.

Cochran is right about it being very difficult to impossible to change Iraqi or Afghani society.

He's factually wrong -- the Iraqi Army simply deserted. It didn't exist. No one laid it off. It was foolish not to recall them and pay them off simply so they didn't blow stuff up, but it's important to assign the blame properly not stupidly. Iraqis themselves disbanded the Army.

The biggest indictment of the Bush Admin is it's adherence to PC and (like Cochran) desire to be "loved" by the world. I could care less if a Frenchman or Pakistani "loves me" because I know "love" won't make them stop a terror plot. But fear of the consequences will. The Bush Admin has failed to explain the conflict: Muslims don't like the modern world (being polygamists and tribalists) and want to kill us/it into submission. Bush has failed to respond by making Muslims around the world (because that's our enemy) understand that attacking America will have serious and undesirable (to them) consequences. Bush has failed to understand the danger (not states with Aircraft carriers but men using civilian tech to kill in mass quantities) much less address it.

Anonymous said...

I wish Cochran spelled out his sources, assumption and model so we could examine the rigor of the method behind his conclusions. I have many of the same observations and came to the similar conclusions independently in a less formal way I suspect.

One problem is that Cochran speaks about meta-trends in history, politics, etc. that require readers to be well versed in the background material in addition to being dispassionately clear thinkers which he not most Americas are not. Something of a Catch-22 for bright people, their most interesting thoughts are necessarily complex enough to fly well above the heads of John Q. Public.


Anonymous said...

I don't know about this innumeracy theory. Sure, most people can't count too well, but there's got to be more to it than that.

Cochran picks apart the details and analyzes them -- something he is very good at. His factual analysis of the situation in Iraq is indisputable. Although I also knew prior to the invasion that the WMD scare was a lie, I couldn't have explained it nearly so well on the material basis Cochran does. I knew it because of previous research into who the people spreading the lie were. Because of this I was familiar with their history of brazen deception as well as the methods they use.

Cochran gives them a pass by saying they just can't count. Isn't that a bit too exculpatory given the fact that they had already outlined their plans to invade the Middle East even prior to 9/11?

Scientists are genuinely bright people. I've got several physicists in the family, including one who works at Hanford and another who runs a reactor on a nuclear sub, so I am familiar with their impressive mental ability. However, I can't say I have been overly impressed by their political insight. They seem to have a naïveté concerning the motives of others, at times attributing acts of malice to mere incompetence or inability to find a clear solution to the problem, something scientists by nature always seek.

Cochran comes off as an exception to this general tendency; it is hard to imagine anyone who is so interested in history and politics being unaware of the primal, irrational motives that underlie the human hunger for power. But I'm not sure he can set his scientific perspective aside, and due to this his innumeracy explanation for the invasion, despite his factual accuracy, falls short of convincing.

Let's take another look at a classic case of a government acting in what seems to be a stupid, innumerate manner. China during the Cultural Revolution had gone crazy by all indications on the ground. Almost every policy was wrong-headed on the face of it. And this insanity followed the Great Leap Forward, another period of generally stupid policies and bad ideas.

After the dust had settled and the Cultural Revolution began to wind down, Mao's power was more secure than it had been before it began. He died on the throne, so to speak. Could one therefore say that the old man's actions were stupid?

The people who brought America into this war are not concerned about trifling details such as calutrons or fissile material. What matters to them is maintaining their power and influence, no matter what the cost is to us or others. The result of such hubris is simply incalculable -- the variables are too numerous.

All that said, Cochran is totally right about every fact he put out there. His theories are also really, really cool. Especially the one about Neanderthals. I have long suspected Europeans were part Neanderthal, but I think the mixing occurred in Central Asia rather than Europe. The Neanderthals in Central Asia were not as distinct morphologically as "classic" European ones.

Anonymous said...

The invasion of Kuwait didn't shock _me_ - I predicted it. I
talked about it for two weeks before it happened, annoying everyone at work.
I guess that just shows what a national security idiot I am.

And of course both the Duelfer report and the GAO agree with me on the money Saddam had available for weapons programs.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cochran, thanks for your work and analysis.

But it's no good to answer back to lunatic anonymous critics, like Anonymous above. They're moonbats. Just as some people like to play Dungeons & Dragons, so some people like to play "I'm Jack Bauer, Who Should We Kill Next?"

They sit in their underwear in a dark basement, tap tap tapping on the keyboard, projecting phantom threats from rag-heads infiltrating the Kremlin, etc. With the smell of stale farts and cigar smoke floating around...Cheese doodles spilling into their laps...the latest Ann Coulter or Victor David Hanson bestseller and issue of "Forward" Magazine beside them...occasionally a pop-up message flashes into their red eyes: "Your subscription to DEBKA is nearing an end! Pay now to continue getting top analysis!"...

A voice from above breaks the spell: "Honey - MOW THE LAWN."

Geoffrey Styles said...

Mr. Cochrane's estimate of the amount available to Saddam's weapons programs looks incomplete, because it only counts the hard currency earnings from subverting Oil-for-Food. The Volcker report ( tallies those at $12.8 billion over the 7 years involved, out of gross transactions of $100 billion. But Saddam didn't have to pay soldiers, scientists, etc. out of these funds: he could do all that in local, non-convertible currency, which he could print at will (with corresponding inflation of the Dinar.) You can hire a pretty big army when you're paying them the equivalent of $40/month of scrip.

So the question becomes one of how much imported hardware would Saddam have needed to buy for WMD purposes, and whether $13 billion would have covered it, less what he spent on palace fixtures, etc.?

The argument by anonymous above that we got WMD wrong because no one wanted to be caught napping again rings truer, on balance, than that everyone looking at it was a stupid, innumerate political flack.