March 21, 2003
The War's Unstated Assumptions

Every day or so, I get one of those Nigerian "419" e-mails, offering me my share of a stash of millions of dollars if I'd only team up with some African bureaucrat to transfer their stolen funds out of their country. You'd think that such an obvious fraud, delivered to my e-mailbox with such frequency, would be laughable to everyone. But the fact is that many people fall for this "advance fee fraud," enough people, apparently, to make it worthwhile for people to send out letters, faxes, and now, bulk e-mail.

What's not often commented on, is what these little notes say about the people who devised this scam. As some who've communicated with them have learned, they believe that Americans are gullible fools, and that we deserve to be taken. These little annoyances in my mailbox are someone's expression of contempt for the U.S., and an understanding by them that, despite the fact that we live in an educated, wealthy, developed country, some, if not all of us can be easily manipulated, in certain circumstances, by people who have an understanding of our desires and fears.

As the war against Iraq proceeds, as usual I'm trying to explain my gut reaction to it. Having been in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of Gulf War I, I feel a real connection to events, but at the same time, it's as if this sequel is running backwards, or upside down. Something feels terribly wrong, but what? Beyond the fact that the war proceeds without U.N. sanctions, beyond the possibility that the U.S. has now violated the U.N. Charter; these are all legalities, divorced from any real consequences. Something more basic seems to be missing here.

I had the radio on earlier today; some commentator was on CBS talking about Colin Powell's testimony before the U.N. Security Council. He was reiterating what Powell presented: tapes of phone calls about unknown things that are to be hidden, facilities that appear to be being cleaned out just before inspectors arrive. As always the inspectors find nothing, but all the activity suggests that something was going on.

After all these months, there still exists nothing but words. The accusation that Al Qaeda was supported directly by Iraq; that caches of anthrax and chemical weapons were never destroyed, so they must be somewhere in Iraq, poised to be used against the rest of the world; that a "reconstituted" nuclear program exists in Iraq, somewhere. I keep waiting to see something concrete that actually supports these accusations; where is it?

In the middle of all this are a bunch of unstated assumptions, which we all might think are sensible assumptions. But we all make certain assumptions about people's motivations; we often assume others are rational, with a rationality that we can understand. We may be wrong to believe that others, particularly in different cultures and in completely different circumstances, share our assumptions. And from those basic assumptions we form other assumptions about others' behavior, and if those basic assumptions are wrong, so will be our expectations of behavior.

The prevalent assumptions about Saddam Hussein's behavior include:

  • That he aims to destroy us and other countries if given the opportunity and means.

  • That if he didn't have weapons of mass destruction, he'd do everything possible to communicate that to others, including inspection teams and the U.S.

I propose a set of counter-assumptions:

  • That his primary aims are humiliation, disruption, and demonstrating that the U.S. and Western cultures cannot be trusted, in a way that will persist long after he's gone.

  • That, without the military resources to effectively defend or attack, the Iraqi strategy is to play upon the desires and fears of the United States and others, to accomplish other aims that express retribution for attacks on it during Gulf War I.

I offered the example of the Nigerian letters that play upon the desire for something unlikely to be true, as a means to manipulate and humiliate the mark while gaining something of value, and that's not necessarily always money. There is a similar dynamic at work here, with the expectation of the existence of WMD underlying U.S. policy and the American cultural response to the call for action against Iraq. Any action against Iraq has been predicated upon the existence of weapons of mass destruction and/or Saddam's willingness to use them; presumably, no war is necessary if those weapons don't exist, or Saddam is removed, depending on when you were listening.

What if this war is the product of an elaborate ruse on the part of Saddam Hussein to make the world believe that he possesses weapons of mass destruction, and is prepared to use them, when he actually has none? What are the consequences if, after the invasion is over, no weapons of mass destruction are found?

These are questions that I don't hear being asked. The impulse is to say that these are silly questions, that of course Saddam is dangerous and he's not irrational like that, so what's your problem?

But this war, so we're told, isn't based upon some vague idea of Saddam being a bad guy, a dangerous dictator who enjoys slaughtering his own people; there have been, and today are, plenty of leaders like that in the world. War was specifically predicated on the existence of WMD and his willingness to use them. Perhaps Russia, China, France and Germany were simply willing to quibble over this difference between assumption, and concrete evidence. If weapons of mass destruction don't exist in Iraq - though we've been fooled to believe that they do - the United States' credibility before the world will diminish; perhaps that's Saddam Hussein's ultimate goal. The United States will have proudly demonstrated that it's willing to attack other countries without clear justification, on the basis of a flimsy assumption.

Posted by Mike Doughney at March 21, 2003 07:46 PM | TrackBack
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