I was recently, in thinking about Syria, reminded of a classic blog post by Daniel Davies, that seems to have been first written in 2004. Maybe the single best blog post of its era and people who were reading English language blogs about the Middle East at the time likely will remember it.
Davies, unlike most Americans, did not expect that any weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. None, not a small amount, not something that could be arguably mistaken for weapons of mass destruction. Just no weapons, the government of the US was lying to the people of the country. Afterwards he explained how he knew that.
This is a bigger segment that I'd usually copy, but it is from what seems to be an archival website with no advertising and one that I had trouble re-finding years later. Here is the heart of the post. I could not recommend more strongly reading it in full.
Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I was first made aware of this during an accounting class. We were discussing the subject of accounting for stock options at technology companies. There was a live debate on this subject at the time. One side (mainly technology companies and their lobbyists) held that stock option grants should not be treated as an expense on public policy grounds; treating them as an expense would discourage companies from granting them, and stock options were a vital compensation tool that incentivised performance, rewarded dynamism and innovation and created vast amounts of value for America and the world. The other side (mainly people like Warren Buffet) held that stock options looked awfully like a massive blag carried out my management at the expense of shareholders, and that the proper place to record such blags was the P&L account.First I'd just like to repeat: "the futility of attempts to “shade” downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a “starting point”." I really like that language.
Our lecturer, in summing up the debate, made the not unreasonable point that if stock options really were a fantastic tool which unleashed the creative power in every employee, everyone would want to expense as many of them as possible, the better to boast about how innovative, empowered and fantastic they were. Since the tech companies’ point of view appeared to be that if they were ever forced to account honestly for their option grants, they would quickly stop making them, this offered decent prima facie evidence that they weren’t, really, all that fantastic.
Application to Iraq. The general principle that good ideas are not usually associated with lying like a rug* about their true nature seems to have been pretty well confirmed. In particular, however, this principle sheds light on the now quite popular claim that “WMDs were only part of the story; the real priority was to liberate the Iraqis, which is something that every decent person would support”.
Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make inaccurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to “shade” downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can’t use their forecasts at all. Not even as a “starting point”. By the way, I would just love to get hold of a few of the quantitative numbers from documents prepared to support the war and give them a quick run through Benford’s Law.
Application to Iraq This was how I decided that it was worth staking a bit of credibility on the strong claim that absolutely no material WMD capacity would be found, rather than “some” or “some but not enough to justify a war” or even “some derisory but not immaterial capacity, like a few mobile biological weapons labs”. My reasoning was that Powell, Bush, Straw, etc, were clearly making false claims and therefore ought to be discounted completely, and that there were actually very few people who knew a bit about Iraq but were not fatally compromised in this manner who were making the WMD claim. Meanwhile, there were people like Scott Ritter and Andrew Wilkie who, whatever other faults they might or might not have had, did not appear to have told any provable lies on this subject and were therefore not compromised.
* We also learned in accounting class that the difference between “making a definite single false claim with provable intent to deceive” and “creating a very false impression and allowing it to remain without correcting it” is not one that you should rely upon to keep you out of jail. Even if your motives are noble.
How does this apply to Syria?
For most of the summer we would get casualty reports every single day of ten or twelve people being killed in peaceful protests by the Syrian government. That is a lie. A straight up lie, it did not happen. People may well have been dying, but not in peaceful demonstrations every day for weeks. Especially not in demonstrations that weren't even generating images.
I've seen images of people wounded. I've seen images of damage done to structures. But none of people gathering peacefully at a square and shots ringing out. That certainly was not happening every day, and we were being told it was happening every day. We were being lied to.
Also, all of a sudden there were cities in Syria with no security force loyal to the government present. Non-violent demonstrations can't do that. Other things may have been true, but while we wait for evidence, we can be confident that many of the statements we've heard from US and Arab government and media sources have been lies. Because of that, we are safe assuming that every statement that we're reading, that we do not already have proof of, is a lie.
There is an important difference between the lies told about Iraq and the lies told about Syria though. Americans resent the lies told about Iraq because they led, most importantly, to 5,000 dead US soldiers, and also much less importantly to wasted money spent by the US government.
The lies about Syria are only leading to dead Syrians, who, like the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, matter very close to not at all for most Americans. Americans are quite racist and bigoted over religion. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, even George W. Bush are more sophisticated and understand the importance of disguising their disdain for Arabs and Muslims better than some of the commenters who have posted on this blog in the past several months.
The US colonies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding the campaign in Syria, so the Americans are not even feeling the loss of government revenues.
So we don't have proof that some the of the statements that have been presented to us in this campaign against Syria are false, but as Davies would say, we are making an important, common but avoidable error if we commit the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”.