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One Percent Madness

By Robert Parry
June 27, 2006

Author Ron Suskind’s account of Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” – the idea that if a terrorist threat is deemed even one percent likely the United States must act as if it’s a certainty – supplies a missing link in understanding the evolving madness of the Bush administration’s national security strategy.

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 States.

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 greater dangers.

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.

Swallowing Flies

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 forces.

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 populations.

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.

Perception Management

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 nuclear bomb.

“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 intelligence reporting.

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.”

Manipulation

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.”]

Brer Rabbit

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.”

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 response.”

Obvious Flaws

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 relationships.

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.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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