No medical test is infallible. Sometimes a test indicates that a disease is present when it is not--a “false positive”--and sometimes the condition is missed –a “false negative”. I suspect that most people, as do I, want medical tests to err in the direction of the false positive, so that at least everyone who has the disease is identified and treated. Accepting more false positives means that there will be more patients who will be needlessly alarmed and for whom additional tests will be needlessly performed.
After September 11, 2001, the United States realized that it had grossly underestimated the threat of terrorism. 3,000 dead, thousands more injured, and hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect damage to the American economy were the penalties for missing the danger signs. Our intelligence apparatus produced a false negative: before September 11th, terrorism was not believed to be a disease serious enough to merit strong action. With the benefit of hindsight it is now said that warning signs from terrorists were plain for all to see, and that if a similar situation again arose, the United States would initiate events and not be their victim.
Over the past twelve years Saddam Hussein had emitted strong signals that he posed a danger to Iraq’s neighbors, the West, and the United States. He invaded Kuwait in 1991. He used poison gas and chemical weapons on civilians to suppress rebellion. He reneged on agreements he made after the Gulf War, his actions culminating in the expulsion of United Nations weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998. The combination of Saddam’s past behavior, stated intentions, and capability caused the Clinton Administration
to declare regime change to be the explicit policy of the United States toward Iraq.
It has become a cliché to say that September 11th changed everything. Not only did it galvanize us to action, it also changed our attitudes. We are more inclined to cut short endless analyses—because we will never have perfect information—and act. The consequences of a false negative (not detecting and preventing an attack) are greater than a false positive (believing we will be attacked when such is not the case). I agree with the Bush Administration’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime by force. If a second attack on U.S. soil resulted from terrorists using Iraqi-supplied weapons, and if the Bush Administration failed to prevent it because it did not take earlier action, President Bush would not only not be re-elected, he would deserve to be impeached for not performing the President’s primary duty as Commander-in-Chief
Believing there to be stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--and then not finding them--is the second major intelligence failure of the past three years, the first, of course, being the failure to detect and prevent the attacks on September 11th. Because it happened on his watch, President Bush should rightly be criticized for the poor performance of the intelligence agencies. It is possible that he knew how inconclusive and incomplete the information was, and, weighing the consequences of war versus inspections, false positives versus false negatives, decided to go to war.
September 11th caused many of us to revisit first principles. I suspect that President Bush, who is a simple man (not
simple-minded--there is a difference), returned to the oath of office (Article II, Section 1, clause 8 of the Constitution
) to guide him in what he should do:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
"Preserve, protect, and defend".....whatever you may think of President Bush, he takes his promises very seriously.
© 2004 Stephen Yuen
From the San Mateo side of the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge on a cold, clear day