Wednesday, September 25, 2002

SHALL WE GATHER AT THE TABLE, THE BEAUTFUL, THE BEAUTIFUL TABLE.

20 year ago in IT, there was a saying: “no-one ever got fired for buying IBM”. Today many have taken the values this represents, and transferred it to international relations. “No-one can fault you for calling for caution/cool head/more negotiations”.

Large slices of sloppy thinking seem to be able to substitute talking for action, and status quo for change. There is an assumption that any negotiation is preferable to force, and thus represents the superior path. The negotiations are not required to lead anywhere; like children, trees and flowers, the negotiating table has an a priori worth that is not up for questioning.

Even stranger, this new form of negotiations, being an end to itself, is not required to have an “or else” behind them. Any suggestion of force as an alternative to talking is an admission of failure, of vulgarity. It would be a tacit acceptance that killing people and breaking things has a place at the beautiful table. Since this is unacceptable to a vocal minority, and in reference to the above axiom, it is safer in career terms to counsel caution.

For the first time if history, international diplomacy will be attempted without the threat of force to back it up. This is not performing without a net; this is performing without a trapeze, catcher, or a ladder to get back down.

I will quote from the Good Ship USS Clueless
There are three choices:
1. Do nothing
2. Act with UN approval
3. Act alone.

The Left is split between 1 and 2, depending on loopiness. Choice 2 is what’s known as outsourcing responsibility. You can appear to be reluctantly dragged into conflict at the behest of the International Community. And if the Community knocks you back, hey you’ve done all you can, not your fault.

There seems to be little in the way of thinking past Choice 2. Considering the amount of demands for “what happens after Saddam” plans, it is surprising the UN advocates have not spelled out their alternatives apart from ruling out Choice 3.

So here’s the question, plain and simple: What happens when Saddam tells the UN to get stuffed, and the Security Council will not authorise force? All negotiations are finished, all avenues tried, all diplomacy exhausted. There is no more talking left to do. What then?

Doing nothing is a policy. It has to be debated, dissected defended. If status quo is your preferred option, justify why it is a better choice. Show the world why it will produce a superior result than what has gone before. Explain why this time, more of the same doesn’t get more of the same.

There are risks to stasis, and those risks do not remain constant. Risks are cumulative. Assume the probability that Saddam has bioweapons as ten per cent. Given past form this is lowball estimate. He would have achieved the majority of this progress in the four years since he booted the inspectors out. This means he is doubling his capacity every year or so. With three to five more years of status quo, he could have a fifty per cent chance of having ebola, botulism smallpox and plague systems ready for action.

Thought Experiment.

Write down the names of six of your family and friends on slips of paper. Draw them one at a time at random, laying the names in a line.

Now imagine you have a revolver with one chamber filled. You put it to the first name, and pull the trigger; nothing. Dry fire. Then the next. Still dry. The next. Nothing.

You now have three friends left, and two empty chambers. The next will face a one in three chance of dying through your choice. Those are better odds than I described above. How do you feel about making the choice of who’s next, especially knowing that if this one lives, the next one goes to fifty-fifty.

You’re getting a glimpse into military contingency planning. Next time you think Bush and Wolfowitz are gun-totin’ cowboys keen to see if their shiny toys work, remember how you felt facing a three in one pick.

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