WMDs in Iraq and Syria

Tet­lock wrote in Su­perfor­cast­ers that the US in­tel­li­gence es­tab­lish­ment was likely jus­tified to be­lieve that it was likely that Iraq was hid­ing WMDs. Ac­cord­ing to Tet­lock their sin was that they as­serted that it’s cer­tain that Iraq had WMD.

When first read­ing Su­perfor­cast­ers I didn’t quite un­der­stand the situ­a­tion. After read­ing https://​​thein­ter­cept.com/​​2015/​​04/​​10/​​twelve-years-later-u-s-me­dia-still-cant-get-iraqi-wmd-story-right/​​ I did.

The core prob­lem was that Sad­dam lost track of some of his chem­i­cal weapons. His mil­i­tary didn’t do perfect ac­count­ing of them and they looked the same as con­ven­tional weapons. It takes an x-ray to tell his chem­i­cal weapons apart from the nor­mal ones.

The US in­ter­cepted com­mu­ni­ca­tions where Sad­dam told his units to en­sure that they had no chem­i­cal weapons that in­spec­tors could find. Of course, that com­mu­ni­ca­tion didn’t hap­pen in English. That com­mu­ni­ca­tion seems to have been mis­in­ter­preted by the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity as ev­i­dence that Sad­dam is hid­ing WMDs.

Nearly no­body un­der­stood that Iraq hav­ing chem­i­cal weapons and hid­ing them are two differ­ent sys­tems be­cause you need to know where your chem­i­cal weapons hap­pen to be to hide them. On the same to­ken, no­body pub­li­cally ar­gues that pure in­com­pe­tence might be the cause of chem­i­cal weapon us­age in Syria. We want to see hu­man agency and if a chem­i­cal weapon ex­ploded we want to know that some­one is guilty of hav­ing made the de­ci­sion to use them.
In a re­cent face­book dis­cus­sion about Iraq and the value of IARPA, a per­son as­serted that the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity only thought Iraq had WMDs be­cause they were sub­ject to poli­ti­cal pres­sure.
We have to get bet­ter at un­der­stand­ing that bad events can hap­pen with­out peo­ple in­tend­ing them to hap­pen.

After un­der­stand­ing Iraq it’s in­ter­est­ing to look at Syria. Maybe the chem­i­cal weapons that ex­ploded in Syria didn’t ex­plode be­cause As­sad’s troops or the op­po­si­tion wanted to use chem­i­cal weapons. They might have sim­ply ex­ploded be­cause some idiot did bad ac­count­ing and mis­la­beled a chem­i­cal weapon as be­ing a con­ven­tional weapon.

The idea that WMDs ex­plode by ac­ci­dent might be too hor­rible to con­tem­plate. We have to be bet­ter at see­ing in­com­pe­tence as a pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion when we want to pin the guilt for hav­ing made an evil de­ci­sion on an­other per­son.