A one-percent risk threshold is so low that it
negates any serious analysis that seeks to calibrate dangers within the
complex array of possibilities that exist in the real world. In effect,
it means that any potential threat that crosses the administration’s
line of sight will exceed one percent and thus must be treated as a
clear and present danger.
The fallacy of the doctrine is that pursuing
one-percent threats like certainties is not just a case of choosing to
be safe rather than sorry. Instead, it can suck the pursuer into a
swollen river of other dangers, leading to a cascading torrent of
adverse consequences far more dangerous than the original worry.
For instance, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq may
have eliminated the remote possibility that Saddam Hussein would someday
develop a nuclear bomb and share it with al-Qaeda. (Some intelligence
analysts put that scenario at less than one percent, although Bush
called it a “gathering danger.”)
But the U.S. military invasion of Iraq had the
unintended consequence of bolstering the conviction in North Korea and
Iran that having the bomb may be the only way to fend off the United
The unending scenes of bloodshed in Iraq also have
inflamed anti-American passions in other Middle East countries,
including Pakistan which already possesses nuclear weapons and is
governed by fragile pro-U.S. dictator Pervez Musharraf.
So, while eradicating one unlikely nightmare
scenario – Hussein’s mushroom cloud in the hands of Osama bin-Laden –
the Bush administration has increased the chances that the other two
points on Bush’s “axis of evil,” North Korea and Iran, will push for
nuclear weapons and that Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalists, already
closely allied with Osama bin-Laden, will oust Musharraf and gain
control of existing nuclear weapons.
In other words, eliminating one “one-percent risk”
may have created several other dangers which carry odds of catastrophe
far higher than one percent. Bush now must decide whether to swat at
these new one-plus-percent risks, which, in turn, could lead to even
Say, for example, that Bush orders air strikes
against Iran’s suspected nuclear sites and kills large numbers of
civilians in the process. That could trigger riots in Pakistan and lead
to Musharraf’s downfall, putting Islamic extremists in control of
nuclear weapons immediately, instead of possibly years into the future.
An attack on Iran also could backfire on the United
States in Iraq, where Iranian-allied Shiite militias could retaliate
against vulnerable U.S. and British troops, raising the death toll and
endangering the entire U.S. mission in Iraq.
In effect, Bush has found himself in a geopolitical
version of “the little old lady who swallowed a fly.” As the children’s
ditty goes, the little old lady next swallows a spider to catch the fly
but soon finds that the spider “tickles inside her.” So, she engorges
other animals, in escalating size, to eliminate each previous animal.
Eventually, she swallows a horse and “is dead of course.”
Similarly, if Bush seeks to eradicate a succession
of one-percent threats, he could well find himself trapped within a
growing web of interrelated consequences, each pulling in their own
entangling complexities. The end result could leave the United States in
a much worse predicament than when the process began.
Charging headstrong after one-percent risks also
makes you vulnerable to getting lured into traps. Al-Qaeda strategists,
for instance, understood that the 9/11 attacks would lead to a furious
reaction from the United States and welcomed the prospect that the
American military would strike back at targets in the Islamic world.
Al-Qaeda hoped that the United States would
overreact and thus sharpen what al-Qaeda saw as the contradictions
within the Islamic world, forcing Muslims to take sides either with the
“crusaders” and their regional allies or with the revolt against those
Al-Qaeda’s gamble was that the United States might
strike a well-aimed, powerful blow that would eliminate al-Qaeda’s
leadership and its key supporters without alienating the larger Muslim
But in late November and early December 2001, the
failure to cut off escape routes at Tora Bora, near the Afghan-Pakistani
border allowed Osama bin-Laden to evade capture along with Ayman al-Zawahiri,
al-Qaeda’s second in command.
Then, Bush – prematurely celebrating victory in
Afghanistan – shifted the U.S. military’s focus to Iraq, which had long
been an obsession with Bush and his neoconservative advisers. Bush and
Cheney judged that Saddam Hussein represented another one-percent-plus
danger that required eliminating.
But there remained a political problem in the
United States. The American people, while strongly favoring retaliation
against al-Qaeda, were less convinced about the need to launch a series
of “preemptive wars” against nations that were not implicated in 9/11.
Though the “one-percent doctrine” may transcend the
need for any hard evidence among policymakers, it did not eliminate the
political need to generate public support behind a war effort,
especially when even casual observers could note that the new target
country – Iraq – posed no immediate threat to the United States.
So, the Bush administration saw little choice but
to engage in exaggerations and outright falsehoods, what the CIA calls
“perception management.” Bush, Cheney and their subordinates spoke in
absolute terms about evidence of the Iraqi threat, including vast
stockpiles of terrifying unconventional weapons and secret work on a
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam
Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Cheney
told a VFW convention on Aug. 26, 2002. “There is no doubt he is
amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and
against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions
will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors –
confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today, and the
ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth.”
It’s now clear that Cheney was wildly overstating
the level of confidence within the U.S. intelligence community about
Hussein’s WMD programs. There was little hard evidence at all, more a
case of conventional wisdom about unconventional weapons than actual
CIA analysts also didn’t believe that Hussein had
any intent of using whatever WMD he did have unless his nation was
attacked or he was cornered.
But intelligence took on a different dimension
inside the “one-percent doctrine,” a strategy that cherished action over
information. In the new book, The One Percent Doctrine, Suskind
describes Cheney first enunciating his new approach when he heard about
Pakistani physicists discussing nuclear weapons with al-Qaeda.
“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.
“It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. …
It’s about our response.”
Suskind reports that Cheney’s new “standard of
action … would frame events and responses from the administration for
years to come. The Cheney Doctrine. Even if there’s just a one percent
chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. …
“This doctrine – the one percent solution – divided
what had largely been indivisible in the conduct of American foreign
policy: analysis and action. Justified or not, fact-based or not, ‘our
response’ is what matters. As to ‘evidence,’ the bar was set so low that
the word itself almost didn’t apply.”
By making careful evaluation of the evidence
irrelevant, however, the U.S. government made itself vulnerable to
willful deceptions by interested parties, such as Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi
National Congress, which easily could funnel enough disinformation into
the decision-making process to push decisions over the one-percent brim.
American enemies also could manipulate the process
by exaggerating their goals. For instance, Bush and Cheney have
repeatedly defended the continuation of the U.S. military operation in
Iraq by citing the supposed goal of Islamic extremists to build an
empire from Spain to Indonesia.
But the real prospect for such an empire is
miniscule, arguably close to zero. After all, prior to 9/11, nearly all
key al-Qaeda leaders had been driven from their home countries and
chased to Afghanistan, one of the most remote corners of the earth.
These al-Qaeda leaders had lost battles with fellow
Muslims in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Though
heroes to some Islamists, al-Qaeda leaders were dangerous but fringe
operatives on the run.
Without the clumsy intervention of the United
States and Great Britain in Iraq, al-Qaeda had few prospects for any
significant expansion of its power base.
In an intercepted letter, purportedly written in
2005 by Zawahiri to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq,
al-Qaeda’s second in command fretted about the problems that would occur
if the United States military withdrew from Iraq.
The “Zawahiri letter” cautioned that an American
withdrawal might prompt the “mujahedeen” in Iraq to “lay down their
weapons, and silence the fighting zeal.” To avert this military collapse
if the United States did leave, the letter called for selling the
foreign fighters on a broader vision of an Islamic “caliphate” in the
Middle East, although only along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean,
nothing as expansive as a global empire.
But the “Zawahiri letter” indicated that even this
more modest “caliphate” was just an “idea” that he mentioned “only to
stress … that the mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the
expulsion of the Americans from Iraq.” [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush’s
Latest Iraq War Lies.”]
In other words, assuming the “Zawahiri letter” is
accurate, al- Qaeda’s leaders wanted to keep the United States bogged
down in Iraq because that allowed the terrorists to swell their ranks
with new fighters and to use the Iraq War as a training ground to harden
them into dangerous militants.
The one-percent doctrine, therefore, empowers
America’s enemies to influence U.S. policy in ways favorable to them. It
lets al-Qaeda play the role of Brer Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales,
where the wily rabbit begs not to be thrown into the briar patch when
that is exactly where he wants to go.
Bush has said the United States must take the word
of the enemy seriously and act accordingly. But what if the enemy is
exaggerating his capabilities or his goals? Do the enemy's words alone
push matters beyond the one percent threshold and force the United
States into responses even if they are not in America's best interests?
The one-percent doctrine is also developing a
domestic corollary. Any home-grown threat – no matter how unlikely –
must bring down the full force of U.S. law enforcement, as happened in
last week’s arrest of seven young black men in Miami for a terrorist
plot that one FBI official called more “aspirational than operational.”
On June 23, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
conceded that the men had no weapons, no equipment and no real plans.
Mostly, the seven seem to have been encouraged by an FBI informant
posing as an al-Qaeda operative to talk loosely about waging a “full
ground war” against the United States.
As absurd as this notion of a “full ground war” was
– given the hapless nature of the alleged warriors – Gonzales said,
“left unchecked, these homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous
as groups like al-Qaeda.”
Gonzales’s domestic declaration rang with an echo
of Dick Cheney’s one-percent doctrine. If there is the slightest risk of
terrorist activities, “it’s not about our analysis, or finding a
preponderance of evidence,” Cheney reportedly said. “It’s about our
But another curious aspect of this one-percent
doctrine is how obvious its flaws are. Wouldn’t even the most dimwitted
foreign policy novice recognize the absurdity of striking out at
one-percent risks around the world?
John Dunne wrote that “no man is an island, entire
of itself,” meaning that every person is connected to other people. But
surely, not even George W. Bush thought that Iraq was an island, somehow
disconnected from a host of intersecting regional and global
The answer to that conundrum might simply be that
the one-percent doctrine is less a doctrine than another excuse used by
the Bush administration to justify actions, such as invading Iraq, that
it always wanted to do.
If the slimmest possibility of grievous harm – such
as Saddam Hussein developing nuclear weapons and then slipping one to
Osama bin-Laden – can be cited to trump more circumspect policymakers,
then it could be a powerful way to defeat bureaucratic rivals who show up
at meetings with binders of intelligence analyses under their arms.
Then, when Bush and Cheney want to ignore other
threats, they can simply revert to the posture of careful leaders not
ready to jump hastily into an unfamiliar thicket. In other words,
whether or not to invoke the one-percent doctrine gives them the
ultimate debate-stopping argument.
Nevertheless, if Suskind is right and Bush is
following the one-percent doctrine as his guiding light in the post-9/11
world, the American people can expect to find themselves led into an
endless series of wars that only worsen the dangers.