Perception is Everything

The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities has been lauded by some as proof that we have no reason to be concerned about Iran. Sadly this is far from reality. Most people will not read the NIE report, even though it is available to the public on the Director of National Intelligence’s home page and it is only nine pages long, counting the cover, instead they will rely on second hand commentary to develop their opinion. Maybe this is because, like most reports, intelligence reports are often imperfect. Interesting enough, they never claim to be perfect, only accurate based on the data available at the time. Much like a weather report, which even when backed up by the greatest technologies available in the 21st century, is better at observing than it is forecasting weather.

Did you ever have the experience of planning and then attempting an outing, maybe a picnic in the park or a softball game, based on a forecast of “sunny skies with a slight chance of isolated showers in the afternoon” only to be drenched in a downpour as your family ran for cover? If you complained to the weather folks, they would have said, “We said there was a slight chance of rain.” After you reviewed the forecast, you would have had to admit they were correct and then might have thought that you should have carried some umbrellas with you. In retrospect, you would have been considered the hero if you had made the effort to plan for “the slight chance of rain.”  Being a hero is so difficult.

What seems like ancient history to many might shed some perspective on this. A NIE 85-3-62 “The Military Buildup in Cuba” forecasted on 19 September 1962, while the USSR could gain military advantage with ballistic missiles based in Cuba, such action would be incompatible with Soviet practice, strongly suggesting it would not happen. However, photographic evidence on 14 October provided an observation to the contrary. Forced to become reactionary, the US President publically stated his intentions to deal with the USSR in the harshest manner possible when matters escalated. To many, it appeared that nuclear warfare was imminent. Only after the USSR decision-makers repented from their nuclear Cuba plan did the high-level tensions subside.

Observations beat forecasts every time, but you can’t plan based on observations—they come too late. The forecaster needs to collect, interpret, and provide the data as his science and expertise allows. However, much like weather forecasts, intelligence reports are not everything a decision-maker relies on to make important decisions. That craft requires science and expertise also. Part of that expertise is to understand the imperfect and somewhat ambiguous nature of forecasts. Much more complicated than planning events based on weather, is planning actions based on the evolving perception of antagonist decision-makers.

Basing nuclear weapons in Cuba was probably a logical, progressive course of action for USSR decision makers if they interpreted US resolution against their world-domination objective to have faltered. What could have given them that perception? How about apparent communist successes at the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, and in Laos? These could have been interpreted as a US fear of USSR nuclear might as demonstrated by their late 1961 Tsar Bomba, declared at the time as a 100 Megaton weapon. But whatever the catalyst for the USSR’s initial motivation, their interpretation of the modified US stance against their actions and their knowledge of US military capabilities, via their well-established spy network, convinced them that a nuclear show-down over Cuba was not worth the price they perceived they would pay in return for continued aggression. Perception is everything.

So let’s take a look as the 2007 NIE about Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities. It never really says what the anti-Global War on Terrorism advocates are saying. It only gives several low to almost high confidence statements about what is probably happening. Some of the higher confident statements are that Iran halted their program in 2003 as a result of international pressure. What was the nature of that pressure?

Do you remember what was happening to Iran’s neighbors in 2003? To their east, the government of Afghanistan had already fell, and to their west, the mighty forces of Saddam were rolled over, scattered to the four winds, and the ones that wanted to continue fighting joined up with the terrorist organizations operating in their former country. Tehran did not halt their nuclear weapons program because they were seeking peaceful negotiations with the rest of the planet; they were hoping to avoid an OPERATION IRANIAN FREEDOM. The report makes the declaration, “In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.” That is undeniably the truest statement in the report.

Political leaders make decisions based on their perception of the most desirable outcome according to their value system. Iran is the antagonist in this international drama. When their terrorist-supporting neighbors defied the demands of a resolute US-led coalition of nations, Iran watched them experience a force-fed regime change. Iranian decision-makers might have had the perception that such a future was in store for them if they continued their nuclear weapons development program. If so, they might have discontinued it in the hope of getting some sort of multinational support via some third-party or UN inspectors once they were confident it was their turn to endure the torched-end of the US spear. But something else has happened since then.

The antagonist may have perceived some weakness in the willingness of the US to take action against Iran. The will of a nation is derived from a product of three factors: population, government, and military. While the US military boldly executed OEF and OIF and showed no wavering of dealing with other enemies if needed, the same was not necessarily true of the US population and government, at least from a totalitarian’s perception.

Antagonists can be emboldened in their plans when even lesser officials in the protagonist government express opposition. The noise coming out of Washington inspired many people to argue about the validity of the regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan, some arguing unrelentingly, though absurdly, that the US was the terrorist and the actions were illegal. Americans mostly understand that such debate is better than giving up the constitutionally recognized right of free speech. At the same time, we have historically expected our elected leaders, even when not in control of the country, to speak more respectfully of our President and to at least stay close to the truth when they disagree with national policy. Still, we are a free nation and disagreement is certain to exist in a nation of such diversity. We deal it in our own way. But we are the United States, and our internal bickering should not be misinterpreted as disunited resolve. It is important that we understand our enemies are listening to our words as we debate.  We send a message to the world with our words.

Sometimes that message is the toughest one for antagonists to understand. That was why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they believed we couldn’t or wouldn’t fight back. This was why the planes flew into the towers, they believed we couldn’t or wouldn’t hunt them down. If the result of the political debate during this upcoming election-year encourages Iran’s decision-makers that we won’t or can’t inflict the most serious of consequences on them for their development and use of nuclear weapons, who are we going to blame?

Certainly, we’d have to blame ourselves some along with our enemies, but only after we do what the majority of Americans expect us to do. We’d blame ourselves in the history books for the suffering that would follow, but it hasn’t happened yet so we don’t have to do it that way.  We can do something else.

We can tip the scales of the deterrence equation back towards producing acceptable behavior from the antagonist. As it now, the voices that are really just saying, “Look at me,” by demanding we should never attack Iran based on a report that clearly explains that the report might be wrong, may very well be the catalyst that motivates the terrorists to do the very things that will force our violent response against them.

Hang on tight because as I see it now—irony rules and common sense drools—this is going to be one ugly ride, unless Americans, especially our elected officials or those seeking to be one, learn how to debate without appearing unwilling or incapable of decisive action against those who choose to be our enemy.

It just makes sense.

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