Sunday, July 4, 2010

July 4, 2010 -- thinking about the "one percent doctrine"

It's striking to look back at the early years of the "war on terror," as I've just had the opportunity to do in reading Ron Suskind's powerful book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (2007).

Suskind makes clear that the Al Qaeda/WMD threat was real. There was a lot to worry about: a country with all sorts of undefended points (287); adversaries who really did create weapons-quality anthrax (251) and also had a marked interest in nuclear weapons (and maybe, just maybe, had nuclear materials already in their possession (see 6, 70)). The question was what to do about them.

The answer, Cheney's answer, was the one percent doctrine. Suskind reports Cheney formulating it in these terms: "'If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,' Cheney said. He paused to assess his declaration. 'It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of the evidence,' he added. 'It's about our response.'" (62)

There is a lot wrong with this doctrine. If we really had treated every one-percent chance as a certainty, we would soon have exhausted even our abundant resources. Truly adopting this thesis would have required a total mobilization of the nation, on the lines of World War II. Instead, and notoriously, we lowered taxes as we went to war in Afghanistan.

So no one quite meant it. But the one percent doctrine opened the door to another idea: that what mattered wasn't evidence but action. Or, as Suskind writes later, "'Justification, legitimacy,' Cheney would say, were a part of Old World thinking." (214) Though Saddam Hussein most likely didn't have weapons of mass destruction, still attacking him would shift the balance of power in the world, by making clear how aggressive the United States was now prepared to be. From this perspective, the absence of evidence that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction, or actually had connections to Al Qaeda, didn't really matter much. Hence the White House's elaborate efforts, reported by Suskind, to press the "intelligence community," notably the CIA, to validate evidence that was actually weak; the point wasn't the evidence, it seems, but the action -- for which evidence would be marshalled as needed. The British memo from the run-up to Iraq, reporting that the US was shaping the intelligence to fit the policy, seems to have been simply correct.

Was this a form of panicking? That's certainly one way to understand it. The one-percent solution then is the theoretical rationalization of this fear by a smart man, Cheney. No one engaged in real decisionmaking can ever treat every one-percent risk as a certainty, because that would mean we had nothing left with which to deal with the risks that really were certainties. So to the extent anyone believed this formulation, they were overwrought by the situation they faced. That's not a good thing, in the people leading a war (or any other difficult situation, for that matter).

Our leaders surely were scared -- and part of Suskind's point is that they had good reason to be. But to read the one percent doctrine as panicky may underestimate Cheney, and miss the significance of George Bush. As Suskind tells the story of these years, Bush emerges as by no means negligible. Cheney may have been the theoretician, and the up-close-and-personal bureaucratic infighter (and the internal bureaucratic politics were ferocious), but Bush makes his own contribution. He emerges as an intuitive decisionmaker, who reacts to the personal side of situations. He's also confident of his own righteousness and his religious faith. All this is familiar by now, though Suskind powerfully suggests that the net result was essentially a disregard of rational policy analysis, an indifference gradually making itself felt through the government. (308)

But what's most striking is a story Suskind tells of Bush deliberately fouling the opposing team captain during a Harvard Business School basketball game. The team captain, years later, talks to Jeb Bush (George W's brother), and Jeb says, "In Texas, they call guys like George 'a hard case.' It wasn't easy being his brother, either. He truly enjoys getting people to knuckle under." (215) Suskind makes the obvious point -- that other people didn't like being forced to knuckle under, and that the result of behavior like the invasion of Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib was to build hatred of the United States.

Suskind's book has no footnotes, and so does not even cite "Interview with CIA officer" or similar sourcing. Reading the book, however, I have the feeling that many of his sources were in the intelligence community, and in particular in senior ranks of the CIA. This book portrays the CIA, and George Tenet (its director, originally appointed by Clinton, who was kept on the job by Bush), in a quite positive light. The CIA struggles to insist on the analytic facts, to which the White House is almost indifferent. Tenet protects his people (190-91), takes the fall for Condoleezza Rice and others in public (309), works his particular personal magic with spies and dictators from around the world on our behalf, and makes the war-fighting decisions (such as ordering Predator strikes) for which the CIA is now responsible. He also, of course, must be responsible for the CIA's abusive, at least sometimes torturous, and apparently largely fruitless interrogation methods -- which began, Suskind tells us, with one Abu Zubaydah. "[T]he United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered." (111) There is, of course, more than one side to this story -- Tenet has been criticized as Bush's enabler, while after his departure the administration purged the CIA of those it considered insufficiently loyal (331). But the picture of Tenet and his aides as the people actually on the front lines, making very hard choices and sometimes wrongly, but still trying to address the impossible threats we faced in a coherent way, is quite persuasive.

Meanwhile, there's bin Laden. Many people have wondered why Al Qaeda did not stage more attacks on the United States in the years after 9/11. This worry now seems, unfortunately, to be a thing of the past, for the more autonomous cells of the broad Al Qaeda orientation -- whose independence of action is itself partly the result of our successfully disrupting the more centralized operations Al Qaeda could mount earlier in the decade (as Suskind recounts) -- now seem to be quite interested in attacking here. The failed car-bomb in Manhattan this year, and the failed Christmas airplane attack in 2009, attest to this. But why not earlier, during Bush's first term in office? Suskind reports an intelligence consensus that al Qaeda might not have been trying to attack us during this period. (302-04) Perhaps 9/11 itself was a miscalculation on their part, and attacks elsewhere were better calculated to drive us out of the Muslim lands. And then, remarkably, bin Laden speaks on October 29, 2004, almost on the eve of the 2004 US election. Abusing Bush at length, and briefly sneering at Kerry, he was -- according to Suskind's account of the CIA's analysis -- clearly trying to promote Bush's re-election. Reporting on a high-level CIA meeting that day, Suskind says that Jami Miscik, who was deputy associate director of intelligence under Tenet (13), and who would leave or get forced out after Tenet's mid-2004 departure and after she crossed Cheney after the election, "offered" that "'Certainly ... he would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years.'" (336)

Time is not on our side, Suskind feels. "The model of the modern Islamic terrorist -- seasoned by violent ideology and frustration, supported by ready access to information and means of destruction, driven toward an end of martyrdom -- is an elegant construct, easily replicable, difficult to counter." (340) There clearly are no short-term fixes. Many people knew this, but perhaps it is a measure of the sense of comfort and prerogative America had that we collectively opted for what amounts to an effort at a quick fix. Or perhaps it is not a measure of America's soul but just a product of its politics, that led -- for reasons having almost nothing to do with the threat of terrorism -- to George W. Bush ascending to the White House. In any event, we or our leaders decided to try something quick (or at least drastic): Change the balance of world order, we thought, and things will be different. They weren't. Suskind's overall point is that we were extremely frightened, but that the way we reacted ultimately took us far from the sources of principle and wisdom that we need to be ourselves, and to struggle over a long haul.

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