Beauty of Gray

Thursday, September 19, 2002


There’s been a lot of sound and fury surrounding this essay over at the USS Clueless. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, I’ll explain. No, it’s too much. I’ll sum up: Den Beste argues that Arab cultures are structurally flawed and doomed to failure, which is turn leads to resentment. He argues that the societies are not capable of reformation, so that the only choice to change the status quo is to invade and conquer most of the Middle East, and impose reforms from above, remaking their culture in opur own image as we did in Japan. Dragging them kicking and screaming into the 17th century, as Den Beste puts it. The alternative is continuing the current situation in which the Middle East is a cauldron of hatred, generating terrorists who will continue to attack the US, both conventionally and, eventually, with WMD’s.

This position has been harshly criticized by Atrios, Hesiod, and Demosthenes, who characterize it as cultural genocide, and the Protocols of the Elders of Islam. They focus on his prescriptions for action and claim that they amount to something like genocide (or even genocide itself.)

But I think they’re missing the point. I disagree with the USS Clueless, but I think the real argument here is not about Den Beste’s conclusions, but about his assumptions. If you accept his assumption about the unreformability of Arab culture, then the choice is between ongoing terrorist attacks against the US (and Europe) and some sort of massive attempt at reconstruction, as Den Beste argues for. Simply arguing that his prescription for action is terrible, without at the same time accepting the other horn of the dilemma—strong likelihood of WMD attacks on the US—is a bit duplicitous. If you refuse to accept that choice yourself, then your disagreement is not with Den Beste’s proposed action, it’s with the logic that led him to that choice. (It’s also unproductive to take potshots at him for advocating genocide, without yourself coming out in favor of his proposed alternative, WMD attacks on America.) I’ll say that, if I accepted his premises, I’d accept his conclusions as well.

But I don’t agree with them. And neither does Hesiod and possibly some of his other critics, although that’s not clear from the main posts on the subject. (In Hesiod’s case, I know from reading his responses in various comments sections.) I’ve argued before that the best approach for the US is via cultural imperialism rather than military imperialism. In this sense, the US really is the Great Satan, seducing the populations of the region (and elsewhere around the world) to our way of life. Den Beste argues that the failures of those countries inevitably breeds resentment and hate. To some degree, but I think it also breeds envy and a desire to emulate our success and our way of life. It’s simplistic, but it’s more fun to go out ot a disco and dance the night away with beautiful women than it is to stay in, never see a woman not wearing a burqa, and hope to get a BJ from another truck driver.

I do support a war against Iraq for reasons of short term security, but in the long term I think our best policy is one of slow, steady erosion. Continue to let our culture—books, radio, TV shows—filter in to the country, seeping through the foundations. Support democratic movements and oppose tyranny. Over the course of time, this will produce the liberalization and change that Den Beste wants to accomplish via military occupation.

I also think this is the only option that has much chance of succeeding. Since this debate seems to involve dueling historical parallels (post WWII Japan, appeasement of Hitler, the Crusades), let me suggest another one: the Roman Empire. It dominated its territory militarily, politically, and economically just as completely as the US could hope to dominate the Middle East after a military conquest. But, despite consistent official opposition and occasional brutal repression, they were never able to prevent the spread of Christianity, much less contract it.

The examples are numerous throughout history—religions are not easily repressed by government or military action, up to an including massacres far beyond anything the US would contemplate. Look at the entire history of the Jews, the various Christian sects in the Byzantine Empire, the religious wars in Europe. I simply don’t see that a US occupation of the Middle East would be likely to suppress and destroy the well established Arab religious culture. If anything, such an organized attempt at repression would harden resistance and make the culture more resistant to change rather than more open to it.

Oh, if you've made it this far, I'd recommend you also read Eric Raymond's measured response to Den Beste's piece.

Update: A second piece over at the USS Clueless clarifies some things in his previous piece, and makes it clear that we don't disagree nearly as much as I thought when I first made this post. It's more a matter of degree than of kind--he thinks more military action will be necessary than I do, but both of us see gradual cultural transformation (via Barbie, as he puts it) as the main solution. Basically, it seems that I think the culuture is healthier and more capable of change on its own than he does.

Jane Galt also posted a nice response to my piece agreeing at least in part with the Captain (or at least playing Devil's advocate) that military action is a necessary precursor to cultural transformation, since the despotic governments in the region are able to resist outside influences by controlling the media. I still think enough seems to be getting through to effect change, but ulitmately am not qualified to make a firm judgement, since what I know is solely from secondhand news reports. And these are especially likely to be misleading in attempts to capture cultural moods and zeitgeists. If a journalists wants to write a story, he can. If you look for examples of Western cultural influence, you can find them, just as you can find examples of simmering resentment and dislike of the West.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:33 PM

Wednesday, September 18, 2002
Can inspections work?

Brink Lindsey (link via Instapundit) recently wrote a nice column detailing some of problems which inspectors would face in Iraq, arguing that the likely resistance put up by Iraq would doom any inspection regime to failure. While I find that argument fairly convincing, I wonder just how effective an inspections regime could be even if Iraq did give them free access to anywhere they wanted to go.

Remember that the initial inspections didn’t just fail, they failed spectacularly. While some of it can be attributed to Iraqi intransigence, the inspectors were completely in the dark about the e4xtent of Iraq’s chemical weapons capabilities until a defector told them about it. Iraq had literally tons of chemical weapons that they had produced and stored, which the inspectors had no idea existed. And they still never found them, and had to trust that Hussein destroyed them. So right off the bat, given this history, I think there’s a reason for skepticism. Tons of material are an awfully big needle to miss in this haystack. Given that bio weapons can be stored in quantities several orders of magnitude smaller than a useful stock of chemical weapons, and it’s hard to see what inspector could do, even if they were allowed to go anywhere they wanted.

Iraq is a huge country, and Hussein has had years to build secret facilities and to try and hide and disperse material all over the country. In fact, a recent report from a defector said that he was doing just that with his nuclear program. Anticipating the possibility of inspectors or spying, he’s split it up into dozens of small labs, each of which can operate out of a basement or small building.

So, let’s do some simple math. Assume an inspector team can travel at 30 miles per hour and detect any WMD’s within 50 yards of their travel path on either side (erxtremely generous assumptions.) Assuming a random search, simple search theory can tell you the probability that a given hidden facility will be detected. In this case, assuming the entire area of Iraq as the search area, and a single inspector team operating 24 hours a day (or 3 teams each working 1 shift), it would take a mere 2827 days to find half of Iraq’s hidden facilities. (Assuming I did the numbers right--I checked them but might have made an error somewhere. For those of you scoring at home P = 1 - exp(-S*t/A). P = prob of detection, S = search rate, t = time, A = area to be searched.)

OK, that’s not so good. But a lot of Iraq has been independent, so let’s halve the total area to be searched. And let’s put in 3 times as many inspectors (9 teams.) That makes things a lot better. Now you can find 50% of Saddam’s facilities in only 472 days. Better, but still far from reassuring.

Obviously, this is an unrealistic calculation. You could argue that the entire area of Iraq isn’t the real search area, but on that I’d disagree. As I mentioned, Saddam has had years to disperse and hide his WMD facilities, so they literally could be anywhere. Another factor is that there would be at least some intelligence helping the inspectors know where to look. On the other hand, Saddam will be moving stuff around trying to keep it from being found, so these two factors at least partially cancel out.

But, while there’s certainly a lot of error in these rough calculation, in my opinion, what this means is that even if inspectors are allowed unrestricted access to Iraq the only way we’re likely to find anything in Iraq is if someone defects and decides to tell us about it. How likely is this? I don’t know, but the inspections had been going on for several years before the previously mentioned defector came across and spilled the beans about Saddam’s chem. stockpiles.

If I were Saddam, I’d be stalling just like he’s doing now, for as long as possible, and then finally cave in. Let the inspectors in, and let them search where they want. They’ll find a lot of stuff, but they won’t find everything. Act contrite, let them declare victory and go home. The sanctions are lifted, and two weeks and a few hundred petrie dishes later you’ve got just as large of a stockpile of bio weapons as you ever had. And the designs for nuclear weapons still exist in your engineer’s heads, so inspections would do little to hurt the nuclear program. The problem after inspections will be just the same as it is now—getting enough fissionable material. Chem weapons might be lost or tough to remanufacture, but they’re not that nasty anyway.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:38 PM

Tuesday, September 17, 2002
Thoughts on Flight 93

Instapundit has linked to a couple of stories about the last minutes of Flight 93 a couple of times over the past few days. There's this story, which says there's a 3 minute discrepancy in the cockpit tape the FBI has released--that it ends 3 minutes before the actual crash time. This has fueled speculation that the plane was actually shot down, and that after a missile hit, it damaged the electrical systems enough that the black box stopped recording. Then, today, he linked this article which shows that the airplane was largely intact at the time of the crash, as proven by seismic data. This, it is claimed, disproves the shootdown theory.

A few quick notes. First, a missile hitting a jetliner would not necessarily blow it into pieces. Missiles, particularly air-launched missiles, don't have warheads that are that big. The warhead on a sidewinder is only 20-25 pounds. This makes sense--the heavier the warhead, the more fuel it uses to get up to speed, and hence the shorter the range of the missile. A bigger missile also weighs down a plane carrying it more. So you want a missile warhead to be just big enough to shoot down an enemy plane, but no bigger. (The tradeoff calculation is not the same for a land-based SAM, since land vehicles can easily carry much larger weights. So you can "afford" the cost of a bigger missile more easily.)

Anyway, the 20 pound warhead on the sidewinder could blow off a wing or the tail aerofoil, but probably wouldn't be large enough to shatter the main fuselage of the plane. It’s also a heat seeking missile, which means it would hit one of the engines, which on the 757 are located under the wings. It might take a wing off, but would be far enough from the fuselage that it would blow it into pieces. So the plane would probably still be largely intact at impact, even if it had been shot down. (Of course, this sort of fatal but not catastrophic damage might not be enough to shut off the black box either.)

Now, let's examine that 3 minute time lag. Does that make sense as a falling time for a disabled airplane? I don't know the terminal velocity for an airplane, and frankly I'm too lazy to track down all the data I'd need to calculate it. However, I do know that the terminal velocity for a skydiver, with arms outstretched, is about 125 miles per hour. That's a person maximizing their drag, while a plane is designed to minimize drag, so I think this should give us a lower bound on the terminal velocity. At 125 mph, in 3 minutes a plane would travel a little over 6 miles, or 33000 feet, to be exact. That’s pretty high, the full cruising altitude for a jetliner.

I don’t know the exact altitude of the jet in its final minutes, but this interesting report (which also corroborates a struggle in the cockpit or a pilot trying to knock people off their feet) from a piper pilot has him seeing the plane and able to make out banking movements and even see the United colors. Pipers don’t fly that high, so if the pilot and passenger could see it that well, I don’t see how the plane could have been flying above 15,000 feet or so, and was possibly much lower. This report also indicates that the plane dove significantly before its final moments. From these pieces of information, it seems to me that the plane would have been much lower than 30,000 feet. Even if you assume a final dive angle of only 45 degrees, in 3 minutes at terminal velocity, the plane still would have descended over 20,000 feet.

So, the 3 minute lag in the tape is not, by itself, evidence for a shootdown. The 3 minute mark doesn’t match up with an expected time for the plane to fall, so it doesn’t fit neatly in with a theory that the plane was hit by a missile at that point, shutting off the black box recording. On the other hand, there might have been some other information on the tape that the FBI didn’t want to get out, or maybe that 3 minute mark was a convenient cut-off for the tape. If they wanted to chop an end that might indicate a shoot-down, you need to find some other point to stop it at—maybe the 3 minute mark made a good break point.

To my mind, the best evidence for a shootdown is the nature of the debris fields, with large debris found in one or two remote locations from the main crash site, in a discontinuous pattern. This debris includes one of the engines, consistent with the idea that a missile hit one of the engines (or the wing.) This could blow the wing off, or damage it enough that it was quickly ripped off, which in turn would result in a quick crash for the plane. (Here is a comprehensive site detailing support for the “conspiracy” theory.)

Now, Glenn goes on in his article to state that:

I've found the shoot-down / coverup theory rather flimsy anyway. I don't see how to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense. Why would the government lie about shooting down the plane? They were getting flak, readers may recall, for not shooting down the others.

I completely disagree with him here. I think the shootdown/cover-up story makes perfect sense. The government wouldn’t have wanted to admit to anything right away. They weren’t releasing any information at first. And the choice of shooting down an airliner was, while correct, pretty catastrophic and probably not information they’d immediately volunteer. Remember, right after Flight 93 crashed, they weren’t even officially admitting it had been hijacked.

But we know that, by that time, the president had authorized the shooting down of any hijacked planes. And fighters had been scrambled to intercept the airliners. They missed the flight that hit the Pentagon by a matter of minutes. A short time later, it's likely they would have intercepted Flight 93. If they were going to shoot it down, they’d want to do it in an isolated location, like the area where it did go down. So all that information is consistent with a shootdown theory.

However, information soon began leaking out about the heroes of Flight 93 and their fight for control of the plane. At that point, the story was simply too good, and too inspirational, not to go along with. The nation was in deep shock and for many, the acts of the passengers on Flight 93 were inspirational and helped to get us over the shock of the attacks and on to determination to get those responsible. “Let’s roll.” Once that story came out, there was no way the government could admit to shooting down the plane. If they had, it would have pulled the rug out from under the American people who had been inspired by the passengers, as well as opening the government up to massive criticism for shooting first, and dooming the heroes on the flight before they could save themselves (if they could have.

So there was definitely a real motive there. However, I'm not sure a cover up could have worked--there would have been too many people in the loop most likely. I think that is the best evidence against a shootdown--that too many people would know for it to be kept a secret. You're still left with the odd debris field, but that might have come about through break-up of the plane or even a bomb on board. So I'm confidently uncertain about what really caused flight 93 to crash.

But regardles of what actually happened, it doesn't take away from the heroism of the passengers on the flight. Even if they didn't force the plane down themselves, or if they failed in their attempt to retake the plane, they still provide us all with a wonderful example. Because they made their choice and fought back. In less than 2 hours, they took in the information they had and made a decision to fight. That is still heroic, and still inspirational, no matter what actually happened to cause the flight to crash.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:10 AM

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