Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ron Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine"

I just finished reading the new Suskind book about the "war on terror." Reported mainly as an anti-Bush screed becomes some of the facts reported in it are embarrassing (to say the least) to our own Dear Leader, it is in fact very balanced in tone. Obviously George Tenet gets favorable treatment, reflecting his cooperation with the author. But in some ways it actually treats Bush and Cheney far more favorably than people like me, who have completely given up on attributing any good faith whatsover to these individuals, would expect from a fairminded account. It portrays them as actually caring a lot about preventing attacks on U.S. soil and as attempting rationally, by their lights, even if misguidedly, to deal with the threat. Bush does, to be sure, turn out to be a thoroughly unpleasant bully who reads less words per day than the average third-grader, and who thinks his time is best spent focusing obsessively on operational details of particular anti-terrorist operations, which he inadvertently prevents the operators from doing properly. And his response to being warned in person about 9/11, in advance, was to say "Okay, you've covered your ass," and go back to his fishing. But still, when one's expectations are low enough it's not hard for these boys to come off better than one expected.

The best insight I got from the book concerns exactly how Cheney and Bush got it wrong. First an application, then the bigger picture. They insisted on torturing the high-value targets (or those Bush had falsely claimed in public were high-value) because they badly wanted results fast. But the CIA tried to tell them that torture doesn't work as well in getting information as building a relationship with the prisoner (good cop/bad cop style) and using it to coax info out of him. This was rejected, in part because even when successful it doesn't work especially fast. But they got so little out of the torture that it seems clear they made the wrong choice, even leaving aside all moral and reputational aspects.

The bigger point concerns Cheney's doctrine, giving the book its title and offering an organizing theme to explain all the insane things they have done, that if there is a 1 % threat of our being attacked we must treat it as an utter certainty. Hence, action is all and analysis worth next to nothing.

There are many reasons why this approach is mistaken, and the book shows this quite well. But let's start by giving Cheney his due. If one is risk-neutral, a 1% chance of 1 million casualties should be treated the same as a 100% chance of 10,000 casualties (i.e., more than 3 times the direct loss of life on 9/11). So yes, low-probability risks of something really bad happening must be taken seriously.

But Cheney's analysis is totally static. In his view, the 1% risk is completely exogenous. It's just there as an isolated event, and we either ignore it or incur large costs to knock it down to 0%.

There is no such thing as eliminating all risks. Facing some set of risks is unavoidable. And they are endogenous - they are affected by what we do. In other words, if you try to knock out those 1% risks one at a time, like people swatting the gopher in that arcade game, you are simply increasing your downside risk if by doing so you create more new risks than you are eliminating. Arguably this is exactly what the US has been doing, if we grant (I would say over-generously) that Saddam represented as much as a 1% risk to us.

More totally static thinking from the big toad with the bad heart: his way of dealing with endogeneity is to say: we'll make everyone so scared of us that no one will dare do anything. But again this looks just at our move without considering the possibility of counter-moves. How would a Cheney type who was running another country (Iran, Russia, etc.) want to react if he saw the US acting the way Cheney wants it to act? Not by meekly knuckling under, one can be quite sure.

We are not the only actors, and we can't control everything by force or by will. That is the core of why Cheney is so completely wrong even on his own terms, and leaving aside all the bad faith and the contempt for every positive value in our law and our history.

1 comment:

mike said...

There is a better than 1% chance that global warming is fact. Why isn't Cheny pushing for action on this front?