Apparently irrational behavior by the powerful

No, Saddam Hussein didn’t believe he had WMDs. He resisted inspections because he thought, accurately, that the inspection teams included people who were trying to overthrow his regime, or even to kill him.

George Bush and David Vitter have something in common. Each has done something so bizarrely reckless that you think there must be something more to the story than shows on the surface. (When a clever enemy makes an apparent blunder, says Machiavelli, suspect a ruse.)

Bush is claiming executive privilege with respect to the Pat Tillman scandal. The claim is so unpersuasive, and so potentially suicidal politically, that it would make sense only if some of those White House emails contained real smoking guns, that must remain hidden at all costs.

Vitter, by contrast, having admitted (euphemistically) having paid for sex in Washington, flatly denies having paid for sex in New Orleans. It seems inconceivable that he will get away with it, given the number of his reported liaisons and the fact that one of the women and the Canal Street madam have both fingered him publicly. If in fact he has a child by one of his commercial romantic partners, that can be demonstrated by DNA testing.

While his admission to multiple “sins” would have made today somewhat more painful, the long-term damage might not have been profound. But if the latest story falls apart he’s really up the proverbial polluted estuary with no present means of propulsion. So the logical inference would seem to be that his denial is the truth, and in particular that there’s no child to perform a DNA test on; otherwise, his actions make no sense.

But the alternative inference in each case is that the person in question (or in Bush’s case the organization in question) has simply parted company with reality, acting on a completely false, and even inconsistent, picture of the world and of the likely consequences of various actions. Or the same results could arise from an extreme present-orientation, where the person or organization acts (as Richard Zeckhauser once said about Richard Nixon thrashing around as Watergate unfolded) as if the relevant discount rate were 100% per day.

In developing this thought, I used Saddam Hussein as an example. His interference with inspections seemed to make sense only if he actually had WMDs to hide, but in fact he didn’t. It has been speculated, in retrospect, that perhaps he thought he had more WMD capacity than he actually had, because none of his subordinates dared to tell him the truth.

My reader Jonathan Schwartz, who has paid careful attention to the WMD question, tells me in a polite email that the Saddam Hussein example was poorly chosen:

I’ve followed this story very close for some time, written a lot about it, actually bet someone $1000 that Iraq had nothing. It’s actually not very complex or confusing; it just seems that way because critical facts are generally left out of discussions in the US.

There was always an obvious explanation for Saddam’s obstruction of inspections during the nineties that had nothing to do with Iraq possessing any banned weapons. It was that the US had infiltrated CIA personnel onto the inspection teams whose goal was to overthrow Saddam, and Saddam was aware of this. Just as we wouldn’t let Iraqi intelligence personnel trying to stage a coup wander around the White House, so too the Iraqi government wasn’t eager to have the equivalent occurring there.

I assumed before the war that this was the basis of Saddam’s behavior, and we know now that was the case. For instance, one of the justifications the Clinton administration gave for Desert Fox in 1998 was that UNSCOM hadn’t been permitted to enter a Baath party headquarters. The CIA’s Duelfer report explains that they were barred because Saddam was actually there at the time, and was worried that if the inspectors knew his location they would call in air strikes

and kill him.

Finally, the idea that Saddam mistakenly thought Iraq had WMD is just something that was made up by people like Pat Roberts when it became clear they had nothing. There’s never been any evidence for it &#8212 in fact, just the opposite. Saddam sometimes worried that his underlings were disobeying his orders not to develop WMD.

I stand corrected.

Footnote Blogging reminds me of my first job out of grad school, as a Congressional staffer.

I discovered then that lots of people who really knew the technical arcana around obscure but important issues would cheerfully spend their time teaching me as much about them as I was capable of understanding, or perhaps just a bit more than that.

Bloggers often get the same treatment, without even asking. It’s one of the big perks. Really, there aren’t many thrills in life equivalent to going from pig-ignorance to workable competence in a hurry, being able to ask an intelligent question today about a technical point (whether in stratospheric chemistry or Islamic theology or civil procedure hardly matters) that was mere gibberish to you yesterday.

The key to enjoying the process is not minding having been wrong, as long as you’re right now. It’s the intellectual form of the yoga of non-attachment; if I knew how to teach my students that, I’d be a happy camper.

Schwarz, and my other teachers, have my heartfelt gratitude.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com