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The Precautionary Principle in Action

What is the Difference Between Benjamin Netanyahu & Colin Powell?

by FRANKLIN C. SPINNEY

Who is the more sophisticated bullshitter when it comes to convincing the world of the pressing need to bomb a Muslim country before it attacks anyone — Colin Powell or Benjamin Netanyahu.  The attached visual aid combined with the entymology of the word “sophisticated” and an analysis of the word before should enable you to answer to the question to your own satisfaction.

The charts speak for themselves.  Now consider please the following elaboration of the preceding italicized words:

Sophisticated is a double edged modifier when viewed in the context of its  etymology: the word  sophistication (use or employment of sophistry) comes from the Latin sophisticare (adulterate, cheat, quibble) and from the Latin sophisticus (of sophists), and is a transliteration of the Greek sophistikos (of or pertaining to a sophist), which refers to the Greek sophistis (a wise man, master, teacher).  Judge for yourself how to apply any or all of these roots to the context of the question.

Bombing a country before it attacks anyone (AKA pre-emptive bombing) is justified morally as a application of the precautionary principle.  The quasi-legal formulation of this principle, ironically, came out of the environmental movement.  It is especially popular among those espousing the urgent need to combat future catastrophic global warming, whatever that action may cost today.  However, its rhetorical origins are as old as the principle of exhortation in war.  This can be readily seen when one parses its logic.  While the principle has many specific definitions, they all embody two unquestioned assumptions:

* First, decision makers must anticipate harm and take action to prevent it before it occurs. Beneath the soothing comfort of these words, however, lies an unstated logical time bomb: These words reverse the onus proof  to place it on the accused by forcing him to prove a negative — that he is not guilty as charged. That is to say, it becomes the obligation of the activity’s proponent (in this case Iran’s claim that it is pursing nuclear technology for peaceful means within the established legal constraints of the IAEA) to prove that its activity will not result in egregious harm to others.  The Iranians must prove they are not building a bomb (a proposition the US and Israeli intelligence assessments tend to agree with), which it can not do politically, because proving a negative opens the door to the fallacious but politically potent counter-argument used to dismiss the intelligence findings : ‘the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.’ Neocon warmongers are particularly prone to invoke this kind of rubbish.

* Second, the precautionary principle places decision makers under an obligation, particularly if the level of possible harm is high, to take early pre-emptive action to minimize or prevent that harm from occurring, even when the absence of scientific certainty or statistical confidence makes it difficult or impossible to predict the likelihood of that harm occurring.  Beneath this premise lies yet another logical time bomb: the need for pre-emptive action increases as one perceives the possible harm and/or the degree of uncertainty to increase.

These two time bombs reinforce each other to make the precautionary principle a formula tailor made for exaggeration and boundless hype.  They create the kind of mentality that seduced Japanese decision makers into concluding they had no choice but to launch a pre-emptive surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

It became incumbent on Iraq in 2003 (as it on Iran today) to prove it was not doing something we now know with certainty that Iraq was not doing in 2003.  We now know that the result of this principle’s invocation in 2003 unleashed a tidal wave of human misery, including hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and a moral stain on the West, especially the United States.

The persuasiveness of Powell’s presentation to the UN in 2003 showed how easy it was to use precautionary principle to lay on a legal veneer while hyping the uncertainties with fabricated ‘evidence.’  In slide above, for example, he used a computer generated slide above to illustrate why Iraq’s mobile anthrax factories helped to create the need for pre-emptive action.  This authoritative looking depiction was based on bogus information provided by an informant, appropriately named Curve Ball, the CIA and its German equivalent knew to be unreliable.  In the case of Iran, Netanyahu simply used a red line in a buffoonish cartoon to slyly introduce the absence-of-evidence argument to hype the uncertainties  and menace surrounding a future possibility (really an unsubstantiated hypothesis) to justify pre-emptive action.

Moreover, as noted above, the larger the uncertainty surrounding both the existence and greater the severity of the speculative menace, the more pressing the case for early decisive action, including a preventive (or precautionary) war to truncate the imagined threat before it could materialize — which is what Netanyahu seemed to do with his silly red line, which incidentally, is equivalent logically (in terms of its ominous unstated uncertainties) to what catastrophic global warming alarmist like to call a tipping point.

It should be clear that if one accepts the quasi-legal logic of the precautionary principle in the governing of foreign policy, one also demolishes the legal bar against aggressive war.

It becomes easy and natural to justify perpetual aggressive war — based, for example, on the need to prevent a looming genocide in Kosovo, to prevent terrorist havens in Somalia from spreading, to prevent Iraq from acquiring nucs or chem/bio weapons, to prevent looming massacres in Libya, to prevent Iran from acquiring nucs, to prevent government sponsored massacres in Syria, to use drones and special forces through Islamic Africa to prevent the spread of Al Qaeda or its wannabees, or in terms of its most vague generalities, to prevent future abuses of human rights, however we choose to define them.  So, when viewed in the context of the precautionary principle applied to foreign policy, Iran is merely the target du jour in a perpetual preventative war.

Thus, the precautionary principle is really a marketing device for exploiting fear and uncertainty about the future by putting a legal veneer on warmongering bullshit, which bring us back to the question of who is the better bullshitter in the real world? Powell or Netanyahu?  The proof is in the results: that is, who succeeds more in paving the road to an unjustified preventative war?

My prediction: the urbane Powell will win hands down, because I agree with Ray McGovern’s argument that BiBi blinked and backed down.  Like all bullying thugs, he increased the decibels  to cover a prudent retreat.  Think of it as an exercise in assigning a higher priority to his own personal precautionary principle.  Perhaps BiBi realized his crude meddling the U.S. presidential election was turning off large numbers of Americans, including a majority of American Jews, or that his favorite, the hapless Mitt Romney, has a terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease.

So, like McGovern, I think BiBi’s retreat has reduced the likelihood of bombing Iran, at least in the near term. This back down may be why the U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told the Times of Israel that in an interview given immediately after Netanyahu’s speech, effectively patted BiBi on the head by saying the Obama administration is now completely “in sync” with Netanyahu [here].

Pity poor Romney, he did not even get a chance put his foot in his mouth on this one.  Score one for Obama.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com