Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Ron Suskind-The One Percent Doctrine (book review)

When I first saw the title of Ron Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine, I immediately thought of Nicholas Meyer’s Seven Percent Solution, a book and movie about Sherlock Holmes seeking help with his addiction to cocaine from Sigmund Freud.  Suskind’s book, of course, has nothing to do with either Holmes or Freud and everything to do with America’s surprisingly perverse tactics in the “war on terror”.  Suskind’s One Percent Doctrine is a theory of action advanced by President Cheney or as the CIA sources for the book call him “Edgar” (Edgar Bergen was the last celebrity ventriloquist whose dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd became household names) that even a one percent chance of danger from terrorism justifies a full-force response.  There is no suggestion that Suskind meant in any way to evoke Meyer’s book, but the dichotomy in the Seven Percent Solution of the deductive-methodical Holmes possessed by the paranoia inducing demon of cocaine proves a remarkably apt metaphor.  Suskind’s describe the shift from a reality-based and policy driven American intelligence community to a Bush administration that sets policy without reference to and often despite the facts.   While Meyer’s book was an effective mystery-thriller, Suskind’s scares me much more because it’s not fiction.

As often happens with exposes, the naughtier bits of Suskind’s book have already hit the media.  These include,
  1. Bush telling his August 6, 2001 CIA briefer who warned him that Bin Laden was about to attack the United States, “Well, now you’ve covered your ass.”

  2. The capture and subsequent torture of Zubaydah, a man that the administration first ballyhoos as Al Qaeda’s third in command who turns out to be a mentally disabled “operations manager” in the organization with no tactical responsibility. In Suskind’s anecdotes, it’s strongly implied that the President and Vice-President were both aware of and at least tacitly approved torture as a tactic.  Torture includes practices like “waterboarding” and the use of death threats against innocent family members.  The administration continues to toutZubaydah’s alleged  status as an Al Qaeda higher up and even more disturbingly continues to torture the man well after it becomes obvious that he is both mentally disabled and just a functionary.

  1. The role of Western Union and other communications companies in state-sponsored information harvesting missions that ignored both the fourth amendment and FISA.  (so much for the New York Times exposing critical secrets in the War on Terror)

  2. The deliberate attempt to mislead Americans about the dangers actually posed by Saddam and Iraq.

  3. The misrepresentation of Libya’s giving up its weapons program as a successful consequence of the invasion of Iraq

  4. The failure to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora

  5. The fact that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, allies in the War on Terror, pose much more significant terror threats than Iraq ever did.

  6. Donald Rumsfeld’s near vendetta with the CIA that dates back to the 1970’s and the appointment of George H W Bush as CIA director.

  7. The distant relationship between Bush Potus 43 and Bush Potus 45

  8. The  disastrous impact of Porter Goss’s tenure as head of the CIA.

Until shortly before 9/11, Suskind was the National Affairs reporter for that radical publication, the Wall Street Journal.  His outlook is in many ways conservative in the traditional sense in much the same way that Paul O’neill, the subject of his earlier book The Price of Loyalty, is at heart deeply conservative.  He actually appears to support two major premises of the Adminsitration’s post-9/11 policy.  First, Suskind offers a number of stories to support the belief that the danger of terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction is very real.  Second, he does seem to endorse the notion that this means that new measures are necessary for these new types of dangers.

Susskind’s split with the radicals in conservative clothing who control Bush Administration foreign policy, however, is  profound and goes to the heart of what’s missing both from most public policy debate and the blogosphere.  Suskind’s book lays out two story lines about real weapons of mass destruction.  One is a nuclear weapons technology trading ring run out of Pakistan that has supplied critical parts for uranium enrichment and other technologies both to stateless terrorists and states like North Korea and Iran.  Second, he documents one extremely scary story line about Al Qaeda’s growing capacity to distill and dispense nerve gas through something known as the “mubtakkar”, a kind of holy grail of terrorism.  In the book, Suskind discusses a poison gas attack on New York’s subways that was mysteriously called off just as American authorities were about to close in.  Suskind makes it clear that both technologies have already escaped Pandora’s box.  He states at least four times that fully protecting the United States and its citizens from another attack on the scale of 9/11 is now a logistical impossibility.

If one imagines America’s struggle with terrorists as a lone human confronted by a pack of wild dogs (please forgive the value judgments implicit in this metaphor), conventional or reality-based wisdom would suggest that the human focus his/her attention on the members of the pack who can actually hurt you.  According to Suskind, the Cheneyites instead chose a strategy that is part Pavlov and part bad prison movie.  According to the One Percent Doctrine, one can and should use all of one’s resources to do whatever is necessary against any dog in the pack who even might be dangerous, e.g. any dog with teeth of any kind.  Second, the Cheneyites decided to largely ignore the truly dangerous vicious dogs in the pack in favor of one they figured they could beat up easily, Saddam and Iraq.

According to Suskind, it didn’t matter that Saddam was no serious threat to either the United States or world order, President Cheney chose Iraq as an object lesson to show that the United States’s willingness to beat up and subdue a dog in the pack with the expectation that this demonstration would intimidate the other dogs into backing off (to be clear, the dog metaphor isn’t Susskind’s, it’s my take on his description of the Administration’s Iraq rationale).  The strategy is not entirely insane.  It does seem to work at the beginning of prison movies when the sadistic guards pick on the weak members of the block to keep the others in line.  Of course in the movies, the prisoners are inspired to action and galvanized by the prison guard’s cruelty and eventually work together to subdue the guard despite their logistical and technical disadvantage, something oddly reminiscent of the realities of flypaper.

Of course, the most frightening thing about the strategy of “set an example” is the fact that it’s a very high risk gamble.  First it can harden the resolve of the healthy dogs in the pack as in the prison guard movie. In the movies, someone always comes along who isn’t intimidated by the tactic. Second, if the weak dog you choose to set your example with happens to put up an unexpectedly good fight, you wind up exposed and actually emboldening the stronger dogs (think North Korea and Iran).  Third, it allows the truly dangerous members of the pack to both observe how you fight and to slip behind you while you are otherwise occupied.

Susskind mostly settles for simply reporting this high-risk strategy.  One weakness of the book is that he doesn’t expand on the very obvious cost of President Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine in action.  Bottom line, it’s meant that some sixty thousand people have died including 2,600 American soldiers, a couple hundred American contractors who would have been soldiers in any other war, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on essentially making the other dogs in the pack stronger. It’s a bit frustrating to read Suskind because he takes great care to come off as a “reporter”, yet he doesn’t footnote and is careful about attribution because so many of his sources were necessarily confidential.  In addition, at least to me, his old school journalist take on the material often comes at the expense of appreciating the fact that any thinking-feeling individual would have very strong feelings about much of what he reveals.  This, of course, is an ideal of traditional journalism, but it remains one of its limitations.  When one reports the horrific, you can give it a sense of banality by reporting it as if it’s not supposed to be offensive.

Suskind also paints a portrait of the President that splits the difference between Bob Woodward’s engaged even probing chief executive and Richard Clarke’s few strokes of a man who is simply uninterested in Al Qaeda until after 9/11.  Suskind’s W is not so much “disengaged” as many on the left tend to demonize him as much as he is “misengaged”.  Suskind presents President Bush as an action-addict, an executive who wants a sense of things being done almost without reference to underlying policy or strategy.  In a sense, Suskind’s W is a kind of Joe Friday Presidency or if you’re a bit younger CSI.  He wants to catch bad guys and encourage those who are in the front lines of the action, but he never questions whether we’re chasing the right bad guys or even where they’re coming from.

Suskind’s Bush has little to no appreciation of or appetitie for nuance or strategy.  Those below him determine  how much he gets to know (Susskind does point out that this is always somewhat the case) and largely dictate the major policy choices (not generally the case).  The President in the One Percent Doctrine is little more than the head cheerleader.  The paradox, of course, is that he makes clear that the Bush administration’s secrecy and lack of concern for the first and fourth amendment have made it the most powerful administration in American history run by an executive who completely lacks the necessaries for executive decision making.  

For me, the most revealing anecdote in the book about the President didn’t come from the past five years but from W’s time at Harvard Biz.  Susskind tells the story of W’s sportsmanship or lack of it in an intramural basketball game between first years and second years there.  Not certain that he can win by making baskets or playing defense, Bush takes to simply and viciously punching his opponent.  In other words, the only thing that mattered to him was winning and a very narrowly-defined kind of winning at that.  The young W was willing to be ruthless to win what was from anyone’s perspective a Gentleman’s game in which the score or even the nominal winner hardly mattered.  While Suskind doesn’t return to the story, he does reserve what little commentary he offers in his book with a discussion of the classic choice between ends and means.

At a policy level, this country deserves to be having a very serious debate about what means are appropriate for the champions of both democracy and civilization against an opponent who doesn’t play by “civilized” rules.  This is the dilemma made story in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that was later transposed, most say less artfully,  to Vietnam and Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now”.  The One Percent Doctrine poses the provocative question “Can one protect America by transforming oneself into a nation that it is essentially un-American, unconstitutional, undemocratic, and as amoral as its enemies?”

Suskind suggests that Cheney in particular has worked for thirty years to undo the erosion of executive power post Watergate and Vietnam by essentially repeating Nixon and LBJ’s executive strategies but simply doing it better i.e. not getting caught this time around.   In addition, Cheney and Rumsfeld first came to power in the 70’s by taking on the George Kennan-inspired policy of watchful accommodation that served as the heart of Nixon-Kissinger’s approach to détente with the Soviets and Chinese, a foreign policy that enjoyed bipartisan support just before the cleavage of Watergate.  During the Ford administration, Rumsfeld revived the Soviet threat by essentially doctoring the available information on Soviet weapons development.  In other words, the One Percent Doctrine is not a new idea for Cheney-Rumsefeld.  Suskind alludes to this history, but doesn’t work it back into his narrative.

Because he resists editorial comment, I think this is one area where Susskind falls short.  He leaves too much room for the reader to cast the Administration’s major players, the president not necessarily being one of them, as honorable individuals with a bad strategy.  That’s not necessarily what comes across here.  There’s too much in the evidence assembled by Suskind to suggest that the Administration isn’t interested in protecting America and Americans as much as it’s simply interested in getting and keeping power.  It is much like W being willing to do anything it took to win a recreational basketball game.  Cheney et. al. ignore the facts because they are more interested in defending their own policy than actually defending either America or Americans.  The picture that jumped out of me was that of a group that is treasonous in the deepest sense of the word in the way they subvert what America is not to protect America, but to protect themselves and their base of power.  It is what happens when one fights a pack of dogs by becoming the meanest dog in the room.  Even if you win the fight, at the end you are nothing but just another vicious dog now bereft of any humanity (though my dogs would tell me I have that one backwards).

Of the books that I have read on the War on Terror, I consider Suskind’s book the most important because it documents both what is wrong and how we got there.  Susskind’s version is unusual in that the CIA under Tenet (likely a major source for the book) comes off as surprisingly effective in the initial war on terror.  He, in fact, makes a convincing case for the CIA’s effectiveness with several stories about the early use of financial information to track terrorist networks, a fake storefront bank in Pakistan, and the development of human intelligence resources in the Arab world from 2001-2003.  He makes a less persuasive case for his tragic hero, George Tenet, and struggles with Tenet’s now infamous “slam dunk” comment that he supposedly used to characterize the case for WMDs in Iraq.  Susskind suggests that Tenent doesn’t remember saying it and implies that Tenet may have been referring to selling the case to the American public rather than the quality of the evidence itself.  At the end of the One Percent Solution, as the book shows the last of the effective CIA terrorism experts leaving the agency in the wake of the “loyalty-first” regime of Porter Goss, I felt the ominous inevitability that the worse is yet to come in the War on Terror, because we have an administration that cares more about how things “sell” than what’s actually being done.

More than ever, I hope November 2006 and 2008 sees the 51% doctrine in action and we take steps to restore our Democracy and find leaders genuinely interested in protecting us.

Chancelucky: America's Secret War (book review)

GAO Report ont the Administration's strategy



At 7/12/2006 04:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information. I look forward to reading the book and getting back to you. Then I can tell you what I thought about it.

At 7/12/2006 07:30:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for coming by. Yes, it's better to comment about a book after reading it than before, even though the Administration likes to do things in that order.

At 7/12/2006 12:17:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Geesh, thanks a lot. Now I have ANOTHER book to put on my reading list. ;p

At 7/13/2006 12:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Torture includes practices like “waterboarding” and the use of death threats against innocent family members.

What a lot of folks missed is that the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson was just a variation on using threats against innocent family members. The subtext to any whistleblower is "You may be willing to risk your reputation or even your life, but we're willing to go after not just you but your family. You wanna go there?"

At 7/13/2006 08:47:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I don't read a lot of Iraq books, but of the ones I've seen, this is the one I'd read. Apparently there's also a new
GAO Report ont the Administration's strategy that's also very telling.

Yes, it's a good point. Plame is very similar to what they did to detainees.
Suskind's book makes it even clearer that Joseph Wilson's family was targeted.


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