WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Senate report says Osama bin Laden was unquestionably within reach of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora, when American military leaders decided not to pursue him with massive force.
You may or may not take this at face value (Republicans are already complaining loudly that this is a case of selective, partisan leaking, aimed at discrediting the Bush administration). But somewhere along the line, things did go pear-shaped. I'm inclined to blame a lack of evidence-based policy making and the loss of focus, once the Bush administration had decided to lead the charge against Iraq on the grounds of mythical and potent weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's practically non-existent links with Al Quaeda. At the beginning there were at least some evidence-based justifications for operations in Afghanistan:
- fact - Al Quaeda planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks
- fact - Al Quaeda were in Afghanistan
- fact - Bin Laden, head of Al Quada was there, too
- fact - the Taliban were aiding, sheltering and protecting Al Quaeda.
You can argue about tactics, but the man who planned and executed the world's worst terrorist atrocity was there and if the USA wanted to go after him and eliminate his organisation there was a pretty clearly defined mission there. Now, when troops die, people ask why they were put in harm's way. Then, you could have given a clear answer.
With Bin Laden still on the loose, subsequently diverting massive resources towards an unlikely Iraqi threat based on flaky evidence still seems perverse to me. Nick Cohen and others have argued passionately and, I think, correctly that Saddam's Iraq was a monstrous dictatorship and that Saddam's fall was a liberation. But the arguments for war weren't based on the need save the Iraqi people from a vile tyrant - a necessity which had been just as urgent for decades, but had never been a US priority before the unconnected events of September 11th 2001. The primary justification for war in Iraq was the immediate and serious threat Saddam posed to the West. In fact, however evil Saddam was, no evidence for a substantial threat has ever been forthcoming.
This brings to mind one of my all-time favourite Bertrand Russell quotes:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake.
Russell was talking about religion and the fallacy that if somebody can't absolutely disprove an assertion about the supernatural, then he or she ought to accept it or at least give it serious consideration, in the absence of anything approaching convincing evidence. I think that Russell's attitude towards evidence and the burden of proof ought, if applied to the politics of intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, would have been a far better starting point than a decision the muddy and perhaps deliberate confusion and conflation of Afghanistan with Iraq, WMD and Saddam's unproven links with the 9/11 bombers.
Of course, being evidence-based doesn't make a policy good or bad - even when all the facts are clear and agreed on, what you do about them is a matter of judgement. For example, if the decision on whether or not to invade Iraq had been based on the well documented human rights abuses in Iraq, there would have been heartbreaking decisions to be made - how many dead service personnel, how many grieving families in the West would be a price worth paying to stop the routine oppression, torture and killing of thousands of innocents in Iraq?
In a wider context, evidence-based policy-making doesn't magically solve all political problems - even if you have a clear evidence base for how much taxes revenue is needed, say, to stabilise the national debt, the question of who pays what is a partly subjective decision about how to best balance the different interests of millions of different taxpayers with widely differing circumstances, resources and needs. Evidence based politics - necessary, but not sufficient.