Recent events both in Iraq and in Washington have reminded me of that old verse "For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost ..." and it goes on through the loss of the rider, a battle, and finally the kingdom was lost. The idea is sometimes used today as a metaphor for chaos theory, which states that even very small changes can have huge effects down the line. This also is known as "sensitive dependence on initial conditions."

As Iraq has teetered on the edge of chaos, one can't help but recall and regret the "initial conditions" that helped to produce our current troubles there. In this case, the old verse might read "for want of a plan ..." The story is well-enough known now. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, the State Department began a series of meetings and seminars to plan for the aftermath of combat operations, highlighting likely postwar problems and feasible solutions.

Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, however, was not interested in what turned out to be quite prescient work that anticipated many of the problems that have dogged the occupation of Iraq for a year now. In fact, Pentagon representatives who had been sitting in on the State Department sessions were pulled out and told not to participate any further, according to those interviewed by The Atlantic magazine's James Fallows. Why? Because discussion of postwar problems might weaken support for the war. Also, there weren't supposed to be any problems. We would be universally welcomed with open arms.

This was background to Rumsfeld's choice of a minimum number of highly mobile troops to do the job. Not included in this force were troops to control and administer what was won. We all remember those weeks of chaos during which looters ran wild, causing widespread damage to hospitals, water systems, power grids and other infrastructure that would take months to repair and reconstruct. It was a period viewed by some observers as the beginning of Iraqi disenchantment with their liberators.

There is another metaphor for chaos theory called the "butterfly effect." Simply put, it supposes that a butterfly, flapping its wings over, say, Sumatra, creates tiny changes in the atmosphere that, like falling dominoes, can cause wider changes that ultimately affect global weather patterns and prevent a typhoon from forming in the South China Sea or cause a hurricane off the coast of Florida. Little things can make a big difference. I thought of that as I watched the spirited testimony of Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, before the independent 9/11 Commission.

At issue was a statement by former anti-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke that a high alert during the Clinton administration, in 1999, had resulted in the foiling of the "millennium" plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. They had "shaken the trees ... to see what might fall out" (which he faulted the Bush administration for not doing prior to 9/11). Rice responded that the millennium success was due simply to a very alert border guard, not to any tree-shaking done by the Clinton team. She added her opinion that there was no "silver bullet" that would have prevented 9/11. Well, of course. No one had suggested there was. What "shaking the trees" referred to was the insistence at the highest levels on careful scrutiny by federal and local officials of even small details that might be relevant.

Might "shaking the tree" have led to the surfacing of that FBI memo from an agent in Phoenix recommending an investigation of Middle Eastern men taking flight training there? Who knows? What we do know is that the trees weren't shaken. The butterfly did not flap its wings, and we know what happened on 9/11.


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(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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