Applying the "One Percent Doctrine" in a Vacuum
The title of Ron Suskind's much-publicized new book "The One Percent Doctrine" refers to a doctrine reportedly adopted by Dick Cheney following the 9/11 attacks. According to Suskind, Cheney was adamant that if there is even a one percent chance of a high-impact threat materializing, "we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."
In and of itself, there's nothing particularly crazy about such a doctrine. Rationale actors are supposed to base their response to potential threats on an assessment of two factors: the gravity of the threat and the likelihood of it occurring. If the threat is sufficiently grave (say, a nuclear bomb detonating in a U.S. city), it makes sense to take that threat very seriously, even if there is only a 1% chance of it occurring.
The reviews of Suskind's book (I confess I have not yet read the book itself) focus on how Cheney's doctrine "effectively sideline[d] the traditional policymaking process of analysis and debate, making suspicion, not evidence, the new threshold for action."
This may well be true, and it may go a long way toward explaining how we came to be bogged down in a protracted conflict in a country that had nothing to do with the events of 9/11.
But it seems to me that the primary problem is not so much the doctrine itself, but the fact that it has been applied in an entirely arbitrary and haphazard way.
According to Suskind, Cheney's epiphany came after a briefing in which he was told that two Pakistani nuclear scientists had met with Osama Bin Laden. Cheney is then reported to have said: "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."
But do the Bush administration's policies really reflect that sort of response? It's been over four years since Cheney made this remark, and in that time, the Bush administration has done almost nothing to increase security at the most likely point of entry for a nuclear device or other WMD, our ports. The percentage of shipping containers that are inspected is still very small. And even less has been done to protect potential domestic targets, like chemical and nuclear plants. Could it be that the "one percent doctrine" gives way when it comes to safety measures that are unpopular with the business lobby?
The "one percent doctrine" was most clearly on display in our decision to pre-emptively invade Iraq, a country that we knew did not have nuclear weapons or any significant ties to Osama bin Laden. We chose to invade the country, at least in part, because of the small chance that Saddam might one day transfer a weapon of mass destruction (particularly a nuclear bomb) to a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda.
Three years later, bin Laden is still at large, we're still tied up in Iraq, and two other potential nuclear powers are emerging (North Korea and Iran).
The problem is, at the risk of stating the obvious, that it is impossible to treat all low-probability threats as if they are certain to occur. Resources are limited and threats must be prioritized. Taking steps to address one potential threat will necessarily affect the calculus with respect to others. By treating the 1% percent chance (if it was even that high) that Saddam Hussein would develop nuclear weapons and deliver them to al-Qaeda as if it were 100% certain to occur, we increased the odds with respect to other, equally troubling threat scenarios.
Our invasion and occupation of Iraq has stoked anti-American sentiment worldwide, has created a training ground for terrorists, has bogged down our military in a costly and increasingly intractable armed conflict, has severely undermined our national credibility, and has foreclosed any good options for dealing with other emerging threats (see North Korea, Iran). So while the odds of Saddam ever providing a bomb to al-Qaeda have now dropped to zero, the odds regarding other threat scenarios have undoubtedly gone up, in some cases dramatically.
In other words, you can't do threat assessment in a vacuum. When you focus myopically on one particular threat, the "one percent doctrine" is a recipe for reckless, consequences-be-damned foreign policy. And I think that's exactly what we've seen over the last four years.
The extent of this myopia is even more apparent when you expand the discussion to include non-terrorism related threats. To take an obvious example, for decades experts warned that a strong hurricane would breach the levies surrounding New Orleans, causing wide-spread damage and loss of life. That this would eventually happen was a virtual certainty (certainly far greater than 1%). And yet when it did happen, the Bush Administration was utterly unprepared to deal with it.
And where did the "one percent doctrine" go when it comes to the threat posed by global warming? With respect to that threat--like the threat to New Orleans--the Bush administration seems to have long ago adopted the "ninety-nine percent doctrine", i.e., if a threat has a 99% chance of materializing, we must base our policy around the assumption that it will NOT occur.
As I said, I haven't yet read Suskind's book, and he may well make some or all of these points in it. But it seems to me that the primary problem with the Bush administration is not that it overreacts to low-probability threats, but that it single-mindedly focuses on one particular threat scenario to the exclusion of all others.