The ontology of the ‘Unknown’

Errol Morris’ documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, “The Known Unknown,” was accompanied by an extraordinary series of interview-essays in The New York Times where the filmmaker acknowledged that he felt he now knows less about the former twice-serving Defense Secretary and White House chief of staff than he did before he made the film. Rumsfeld’s clear pleasure engaging in verbal and semantic sparring, combined with a maddening lack of concern for concrete truth and that opaque Cheshire grin of his, made for an utterly compelling subject but brought no more illumination to his character or the matters of state that he influenced during his tenure.

I always felt that in the great “mystery” — John Keegan’s words — of the Iraq war, the political, strategic, and tactical dynamics of the conflict hinged on any number of key individual decisions and judgments. Had the French been convinced early on to join the Coalition and adopt the latter U.N. Security Council resolution authoring the invasion. Had the coalition force package been doubled or tripled for the invasion. Had the Iraqi Army not been disbanded. Had more time been allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors. The war would have gone very differently, and we would think about very differently. And so on.

The most important variable in the conflict were the weapons of mass destruction. If they had existed, and if they had been found, the political understanding of the conflict would be irreparably altered. (That may not have affected the insurgency afterward, but perhaps it would have if a larger, U.N.-backed coalition were on the ground.) This is, of course, the largest question involved in Morris’ Times essays, and yet unfortunately he forgets to mention (although this may be in the film, which I have not yet seen) perhaps the most important aspect of these weapons — that while they did not exist, Saddam Hussein acted as if they existed, and the fear of these weapons was just as important to the survival of his regime as their existence.

This ontological paradox is examined in one of the post-war CIA reports on the intelligence failures. It notes, in effect, that the CIA had little ability to interpret what looked like a cover-up of something as a cover-up of nothing because Saddam needed to appear to have weapons that had been destroyed in 1998 to deter internal threats rather than outside attack. This is at least as a complex puzzle to solve as any verbal jujitsu Donald Rumsfeld engaged in from the podium at the Pentagon.

But to unpack it also requires something that neither Rumsfeld really demonstrated during his years at the Pentagon nor what Morris (or, for that matter, many political observers during those years) manifests in his articles: keen analytical judgment. The conventional history of the “intelligence” about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq says it was made up entirely by those looking for a pretext for invasion. But that’s not entirely the case.

I worked for a nonproliferation nonprofit at the time of the invasion. I knew about Iraq’s chemical weapons program and had studied deeply Iraq’s crash nuclear weapons program prior to its destruction after the 1991 Gulf War. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, I felt it was highly unlikely that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program because of the intense capital development that would require. But I also knew how well Iraq had hidden their nuclear weapons development program prior to 1991 — and the lengths to which the regime went to deceive weapons inspectors — and felt that it was possible it had hidden a chemical weapons program about as well since then. Not having any access to classified information, it was reasonable to assume that the Administration had better data. Many people in our coalition made the same assumption. Indeed, I think there was a broad presumption that Iraq had something, but our political position was to force Iraq to submit to U.N. inspections that would eventually uncover it. In other words, our judgment was faulty, too.

If there were others out there putting together the pieces and drawing the opposite conclusion — that Saddam had no clothes, that he had no weapons of mass destruction — I don’t know who they are. But that is the nature of good, keen judgment — facing incomplete information (especially when “incomplete” actually means absent, an abstract point about which Morris and Rumsfeld argue) and drawing the most accurate conclusion.

Morris is so disturbed by Rumsfeld’s deflection and penchant for argument that he wonders if there is anything substantial behind the quip and self-satisfied grin. Maybe there’s nothing more beyond the clever debate team captain’s tricks, he argues, and a mind made up to invade Iraq. Maybe there is no actual mind there capable of pure reason and problem-solving; no mind dedicated to, never mind interested in, concrete truth in the actual world.

It would seem from Rumsfeld’s record that Morris would be right. A mind like his is designed for and honed by a life in politics — arguing a point, driving a cause, giving no quarter, relentlessly in pursuit until he wins. The winner defines the political reality and that was how his political career evolved. But the one reality he could not shape was Iraq after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 and he did not have the imagination (a term he used relentlessly and with great irony prior to the invasion) to comprehend what was happening nor the ability to find a way out of the debacle he created. He fell back on the tools that had served him so well for so long, which were mostly language. But at a point early on those tools failed him — when his language no longer had any connection to the reality of the chaos in Iraq.

Morris doesn’t write about this, either, and Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to have been humbled by his experience.  Morris appears amazed by this, and perhaps we are, too, given the experience he and we had with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rumsfeld doesn’t give us the satisfaction of McNamara’s comeuppance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his experience and judge him for it.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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