The Moral of the NIE

I was all set to be the first Cabalist to post something about the latest NIE on Iran, announcing "with high confidence" that Iran's nuclear weapons program has been suspended since 2003, when Mike beat me to it. But I … Read More

By / December 4, 2007

I was all set to be the first Cabalist to post something about the latest NIE on Iran, announcing "with high confidence" that Iran's nuclear weapons program has been suspended since 2003, when Mike beat me to it. But I disagree with him, so rest assured, there's no echo chamber here.

As a preliminary, the let's keep in mind that this or any NIE is a joint report issued by 16 separate intelligence agencies ranging from the CIA, to the DoD, to the Department of Energy. This is important because, while it's fair game to question the accuracy or reliability of an NIE, to credit the oft-recycled, and seemingly universally applicable "dark suspicion" from the hawk camp that the Intelligence Community is deliberately slanting its assessments, one would effectively have to believe that there is a far-flung, yet tightly and masterfully coordinated conspiracy going on right under the president's nose to undermine him. (Indeed, Michael McConnell would have to be in on the act, and that is, to put it mildly, doubtful.)

On the other hand, NPod's paranoid spluttering is a pretty good indication that the most robust of the hawks' policy prescriptions — war — is off the table for the foreseeable future.

And given that an actual war is both militarily and politically impracticable, I'm left wondering what realistically implementable policy the hawks would recommend, and since none come to mind, I don't know how to make sense of their position as amounting to anything other than eschewing diplomacy pre-emptively (which is supposed to gain what, exactly?). So, in effect, they endorse doing nothing apart from some steely brow-furrowing. Similarly, while it's no surprise that all sides to the debate over Iran can claim some finding in the NIE as vindicating their pre-held views, the assessment that, e.g. "Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons" doesn't particularly damage the argument for diplomatic engagement.

The most salient feature of this NIE, therefore, is neither the factual assessment that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program, nor the (shocking!) finding that Iran might try to develop nuclear weapons at some point in the future, but instead the general moral that the Tehran regime acts rationally to satisfy its preferences. Which means that there are numerous compelling reasons to attempt a diplomatic resolution of our disagreements with Iran, and not one compelling reason not to.

Also, I have to take issue with the Max Boot post that Mike endorses. Let's start with the claim that "most of those key judgments are delivered with only 'moderate confidence.'" That being the case, why take the assessment seriously at all? In fact, the NIE contains eight assessments, some subdivided, which break down as follows.

A: Five separate sub-findings, three at high confidence, one at moderate-to-high confidence, and one at moderate confidence.

B: Low confidence

C: Two sub-findings, each at moderate confidence

D: High confidence

E: A statement of the difficulty of prediction, involving one high confidence sub-finding from A and one moderate confidence sub-finding.

F: Moderate confidence

G: High confidence

H: High confidence

So, in all, there are seven high confidence sub-findings, one moderate-to-high confidence finding, five moderate confidence findings, and one low confidence finding. The plurality of the NIE, therefore, is delivered with high confidence, pace Max Boot. More informative, though, than simply scouring the NIE for reflexive assessment of its own reliability, is breaking down the different findings qualitatively and looking for what kinds of findings are delivered with high, moderate, and low confidence. And indeed, on this analysis, what we learn with high confidence is that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program, deactivated its nuclear weapons program in response to international pressure, currently lacks the raw fissile material needed to produce nuclear weapons, but has the mechanical capacity and know-how to build nuclear weapons, which it could achieve sometime between 2010 and 2015 if it reactivated its program today, which it will not do. All of which is to say that Munich analogies and appeasement-baiting would be hilarious if they weren't so corrosive of efforts to create and sustain a rational policy toward Iran.

Lastly, there is something epistemically perverse about hawks flagging the Intelligence Community's very mixed track record. Yes, the IC has gotten things wrong in the past — though it's important to keep in mind that wrong analyses of the Iraqi WMD threat were conducted under significant duress and pressure from the White House — but how does that fact bolster the hawks' case? US and international intelligence estimates are the only evidentiary approximations we have of Iranian nuclear capabilities (and in this case, they are in agreement), so if we throw these out because of prior errors, is the idea supposed to be that we craft foreign policy on the basis of no evidence at all? On the basis of scary quotes N-Pod dug up from someone who's been dead twenty years, and which actually probably don't exist, and if they did and were suppressed as N-Pod now claims, only go to show the Iranian government behaves rationally? Or on the basis of what exactly?

I know I wouldn't want to have to rely on Max Boot or Stephen Hadley or George Bush or Dick Cheney's hunches, given their "consistent track record of being wrong in the past, especially about other nations’ nuclear programs."

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