October 26, 2004

Al Qaqaa in Perspective (Updated)

Josh Marshall presents a case that supposedly refutes NBC's story that the explosives thought to have disappeared from al Qaqaa were, in fact not there when the first US forces arrived. The trouble with Josh's case is that there's just not much to it. Besides the claim that the NBC team and others who support their version of things simply weren't sufficiently expert to have known what was or wasn't there, his primary argument is that the sheer volume of explosives could not have been moved without being noticed. The flaw in this argument is conceptual. It presumes 380 tons were moved against a placid background of inactivity, mirroring the conditions of our present fixation. It confuses time and circumstance in the classic self parody of the left's argumentative style. It unconsciously assumes that 40 trucks we retrospectively consider important would have been easily noticed, in the midst of 64,000 trucks frenetically transporting similar material of equal or greater importance all over the country of Iraq, during the fog of war.

First, it's important to note that Josh's case assumes two facts he doesn't bother to document. The first is that UN inspectors found the explosives in question on their last visit to al Qaqaa on March 8, 2003. If true that would have left a little less than a month for the 380 tons to have been removed, during a week prior to the invasion and three weeks after. Josh doesn't link or cite anything that supports this claim, but let's assume it for the sake of argument. The second is the claim that "skies were positively crawling with American aerial and satellite reconnaissance," especially during the week or so leading up to the invasion. I think we can assume that there was a good deal of recon going on, but the question is what were they looking for, and with how many eyes? "Positively crawling," isn't a quantitative term... and that's the central problem with Josh's scenario. It's not very sensitive to scale or magnitude.

Wretchard's War Plan Orange scenario presents a devastating obstacle to Josh's argument. Namely, it's that the sheer volume of the total tonnage moved in the period preceding, and shortly after, the invasion was about 1600 times as large as the small amount of high explosives that currently have us fixated. Josh is making the classic "Monday morning quarterback" mistake, that what is obvious now would have been obvious then. To quote Wretchard:

...the loss of 380 tons of RDX is similar to worrying about a toothache after being diagnosed with AIDS and Ebola. Some 600,000 tons of explosive are said to have been dispersed throughout Iraq prior to the conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In other words, the biggest problem with Josh's imagined scenario is that he presumes that the transport of the explosives would have taken place in high relief. But the fact is that it would have taken place in the midst of an environment so inundated with similar activity that it would simply have disappeared. To spot the transport of a mere 380 tons, in the midst of 600,000 tons of similar activity, would have literally been like finding a needle in a haystack.

One might say that this sort of cognative flaw pervades the arguments of the left. With impressive alacrity they mistake hindsight for foresight and confuse large with small. And we're supposed to have confidence that this provides evidence of competence during wartime. It's not unlike the notion that a professional dissenter is qualified to become Commander in Chief.

Update 1: Josh has posted a follow-up which relates an interview with NBC's embed to the effect that the "search" by the 101st Airborne was really just a 'pit stop" and that the US forces had previously verified the presence of the explosives in a prior visit, anyway. I would note that the latter claim is based not on any direct assessment of the contents of the site, but on the observation that certain cannisters of the right dimension had been obverved during the earlier "search" (which was also, undoubtedly no more than a pit stop). The upshot of all this is that giving Josh's latest argument the most liberal possible interpretation, we simply can't be sure whether the high explosives were there at the time, or not.

But one thing is certain: Compared to the total loss of material during the prolonged runup to the war, the loss of such a small amount of high explosive is just not momentous. And if Josh is wrong about the timeline and the benchmarks he has contrived, which isn't an unreasonable conjecture given the temporal confusion that pervades much of this rhetoric, the loss of this RDX "provides indirect confirmation of the preemptive dispersal of war materiel by the Saddam regime while the US was trying to negotiate UN permission to topple him for six months, compounded by Turkey's refusal to allow the 4ID to attack south into the Sunni Triangle" (Wretchard). This is hardly a case that Iraq was "the wrong war at the wrong time," except in the sense that it didn't take place soon enough.

Update 2: A Fox News reporter, Dana Lewis, was also embedded with the 101st Airborne, and backs up NBC's contention that the exlposives were gone by the time the US forces arrived. Lewis says that there was no sign of high explosives or of the IAEA tags that would have indicated their presence.

Update 3: Wretchard recounts further evidence that the missing explosives were already gone when US forces arrived. He goes further, however:

The accusation that America failed in its custodial duties has now been categorically denied, at least by some quarters. What plausibly remains to the critics is the charge that America "could have done more" to reach explosives magazines, which brings us right back to the missing 4ID and the bitter irony that the agency which did the most to prevent this powerful unit from reaching the scene, namely the UN, should now extend the finger of accusation for the absence which they caused.

(Simultaneously cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia, Anticipatory Retaliation and The Jawa Report)

By Demosophist at 12:52 PM | Comments |