Strategic ambiguity for fun and profit

posted at 5:45 pm on February 26, 2012 by J.E. Dyer

The US intelligence community is having a very difficult time interpreting the signals from Iran’s nuclear program.   This isn’t that unusual in historical context; US intelligence tends to be surprised by nuclear detonations.  But it is of grave concern that our national leadership at all levels seems to be so shortsighted about what is at stake.  Our biggest problem in dealing with Iran today is framing the issue – and at the moment, we’re doing it wrong.

If we frame the issue as a question of how close Iran is to getting the bomb, as if all other things are equal – as if Iran could get the bomb in a vacuum, with nothing else mattering or changing along the way – then it makes a sort of sense to focus exclusively on the potential ambiguity of our various data points; e.g., computer files from 2003; Iran’s connections with Pakistan, North Korea, and the A.Q. Khan network; persistent attempts to import suspect materials in defiance of sanctions.

In this extremely narrow, simplistic construct – one or zero, Iran is about to get the bomb or isn’t – analysts can justify incessantly splitting the distance from here to a bomb.

“Well, they’re closer than they were, but that’s a technicality – we still don’t know if they want one. “

“Well, they’re closer than they were, and they’re being less cooperative with the IAEA, but we still don’t have direct indications that they are designing and testing a warhead.”

“Well, they’ve offered their Middle Eastern neighbors a ‘missile umbrella’ as a defense against outside powers, which is something that would only work if the missile umbrella were nuclear, but we just don’t have the evidence that they are working on a warhead right now.”

I’ve compared this approach in the past to Zeno of Elea’s famous paradox.  Zeno proposed, as a basis for a reasoning exercise, that because the distance between an arrow and its target can theoretically be divided in half an infinite number of times, the arrow can never actually reach the target.  US intelligence seems determined to operate on this basis, biasing its estimates with an emphasis on the remaining distance to the target.

But this is a posture, not an intelligence conclusion, and it’s based on an assumption that we can afford to focus on whatever Iran doesn’t seem to have done yet.  A different, less complacent posture – e.g., from the Oval Office – would require a different emphasis from intelligence.

The disconnect with reality is rather startling.  Perhaps the strongest clue that America’s intelligence community misreads the historical moment is its officials’ use of the expression “strategic ambiguity.”  According to the New York Times:

[Intelligence officials] say that Iran could be seeking to enhance its influence in the region by creating what some analysts call “strategic ambiguity.” Rather than building a bomb now, Iran may want to increase its power by sowing doubt among other nations about its nuclear ambitions.

Well, sure.  And the point here?  “Strategic ambiguity” is what Iran has now, which is why we’re in a scramble – arms build-ups, sanctions, economic insecurity, regional realignments, the spread of Iranian-backed terror incidents, threats of “World War III” from Russia and China – and the situation is getting steadily worse.  This is what strategic ambiguity looks like, Iranian-nuclear-intentions-wise: destabilization of the Eastern hemisphere.  It’s no way for any of us to live.

And it certainly isn’t going to get better with age.  The Iranian mullahs are one of several entities jockeying for leadership of the Islamist vision for the Middle East.  Conflict and uncertainty are on their side, and that’s what strategic ambiguity over Iran is ideal for promoting.   The longer it goes on, the more likely it is that at least some of the power relationships affecting the region (and Iran’s prospects in it) will be realigned.  Indeed, the entire region is already changing, even as the US strategic focus seems to narrow to an absurd concept of waiting to prevent Iran from getting the bomb at the precise, Unassailable Moment when no one could claim she wasn’t trying to.

An extended period of strategic ambiguity for Iran means strategic discontinuity for the rest of us.  There is no steady state in which the only thing that changes is how many seconds closer to a bomb Iran is.  “Strategic ambiguity” over Iran’s nuclear intentions isn’t some intermediate future condition that might be less of a problem than Iran having the bomb; it’s the condition of today, and it is the problem.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to HotAir.com.
To see the comments on the original post, look here.


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President Nobel Peace Prize told us they would love us by now.

Roy Rogers on February 26, 2012 at 5:46 PM

the arrow can never actually reach the target. US intelligence seems determined to operate on this basis, biasing its estimates with an emphasis on the remaining distance to the target.

a chronic tendency to give the remaining distance to the target as “the benefit of the doubt” where it is rarely deserved.????

ted c on February 26, 2012 at 5:49 PM

a tiny country….not much to worry about…/

ted c on February 26, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Iran is absolutely radiating with love.

(I wish)

Rixon on February 26, 2012 at 5:49 PM

Obama strategic disingenuousness: Just hold off with the nuke until after the elections, Iran.

profitsbeard on February 26, 2012 at 5:50 PM

“Well, they’re closer than they were, but that’s a technicality – we still don’t know if they want one. “

Yep. Just like the thread from the other day, obviously Iran is enriching all that uranium because they want nuclear power plants. (It’s too dry there for algae-based power.)

RedCrow on February 26, 2012 at 5:53 PM

Ambiguity: it’s what’s for dinner.
==================================

It better be Nuclear Beef!
(sarc)

canopfor on February 26, 2012 at 5:54 PM

So, if they want a nuke and don’t have a nuke, why don’t we do the right thing and give ‘em a nuke? Maybe two if it takes that to do the job. We can go back for the oil in about 75 years.

MikeA on February 26, 2012 at 5:56 PM

[Intelligence officials] say

Oh yes!
I remember them!
I see their ads in the “Help Wanted” ads…at the end of the ad…it declares:”No experience needed”

KOOLAID2 on February 26, 2012 at 5:57 PM

Iran Nuclear Program
——————–

The International Atomic Energy Agency released a report on Nov. 8, 2011 saying it suspects Iran is secretly working toward developing nuclear weapons. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has dismissed the report, calling it fabricated. Prior to the report’s release, Israel warned of a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Western countries — the US, UK and Canada, in particular — imposed additional sanctions against Iran because of growing concerns about the program. On Nov. 29, student protesters in the capital, Tehran, broke into the UK embassy compound during demonstrations said to be against the sanctions imposed by Britain. – AP, BBC, CNN, Reuters

http://www.breakingnews.com/topic/iran-nuclear-program
================================

The International Atomic Energy Agency released a report on Nov. 8, 2011
********

http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_8Nov2011.pdf
=========================================

canopfor on February 26, 2012 at 5:58 PM

Maybe Barry will invite him over for a beer?

Roy Rogers on February 26, 2012 at 6:00 PM

Obama’s response to this crisis: I ran.

profitsbeard on February 26, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Seriously, in what World would one have to live in to actually believe that Iran is NOT building a nuclear weapon?

Tim Zank on February 26, 2012 at 6:12 PM

What if Iran – okay, Khamenei – announces two months from today that they’ve accomplished all that they’ve wanted and they’ve ceased working on their nuclear program?

My hunch is that something along those lines is what they plan to do. They’re not going to explode a test weapon. They’re going to push right up to the brink and then announce a cessation of the program. That they’ve done what they planned to do and don’t need to go further.

Talk about strategic ambiguity.

SteveMG on February 26, 2012 at 6:12 PM

The Iranian mullahs are one of several entities jockeying for leadership of the Islamist vision for the Middle East. Conflict and uncertainty are on their side, and that’s what strategic ambiguity over Iran is ideal for promoting

It’s also been pointed out that no single military action can necessarily put an end to Iran’s nuclear program. Even if you could strike the deepest underground research labs in mountainous areas of the country’s interior, how long would you actually deter Iranian nuke progress?

I don’t want to channel Ron Paul, but as long as the West portrays the situation in Iran in apocalyptic terms, Iran will continue to sew the seeds of angst hold a card that it can play to manipulate its own people and Western behavior.

bayam on February 26, 2012 at 6:15 PM

They’re not going to explode a test weapon. They’re going to push right up to the brink and then announce a cessation of the program. That they’ve done what they planned to do and don’t need to go further.

SteveMG on February 26, 2012 at 6:12 PM

So they spend all those billions of dollars so they can say ‘boy we sure had you guys worried!’?

I don’t follow the logic.

sharrukin on February 26, 2012 at 6:18 PM

Seriously, in what World would one have to live in to actually believe that Iran is NOT building a nuclear weapon?

Tim Zank on February 26, 2012 at 6:12 PM

The same one where the US economy is now roaring back, baby! Believe it!

Rixon on February 26, 2012 at 6:21 PM

So they spend all those billions of dollars so they can say ‘boy we sure had you guys worried!’?

I don’t follow the logic.

sharrukin on February 26, 2012 at 6:18 PM

Invasion deterrence. Even if all they ever had was a jerry-built junk pile that would be lucky to hit in the same hemisphere as the USA, the thought of a mushroom cloud over a major US city is about the only thing that could keep our military at bay. They’ll never be able to muster enough forces for a conventional force and they know it.

MelonCollie on February 26, 2012 at 6:23 PM

Invasion deterrence. Even if all they ever had was a jerry-built junk pile that would be lucky to hit in the same hemisphere as the USA, the thought of a mushroom cloud over a major US city is about the only thing that could keep our military at bay. They’ll never be able to muster enough forces for a conventional force and they know it.

MelonCollie on February 26, 2012 at 6:23 PM

That works if you have a nuke. If they don’t have one then it tends to not work as well.

sharrukin on February 26, 2012 at 6:25 PM

This isn’t that unusual in historical context; US intelligence tends to be surprised by nuclear detonations.

Almost stopped reading right there because I couldn’t see straight from laughing. That was one of the most hilarious, yet sadly true statements I have read in some time. That needs to go down in the annals of HotAir.

Salute!

AZfederalist on February 26, 2012 at 6:32 PM

Yep. Just like the thread from the other day, obviously Iran is enriching all that uranium because they want nuclear power plants. (It’s too dry there for algae-based power.)

RedCrow on February 26, 2012 at 5:53 PM

Don’t all countries that want electricity from nuclear power build their enrichment plants deep under mountains?

slickwillie2001 on February 26, 2012 at 6:33 PM

It’s also been pointed out that no single military action can necessarily put an end to Iran’s nuclear program. Even if you could strike the deepest underground research labs in mountainous areas of the country’s interior, how long would you actually deter Iranian nuke progress?

Done properly, it would be possible to set the program back significantly – perhaps by 5 or 10 years. Certainly long enough for sanctions with teeth to have a real effect.

ProfessorMiao on February 26, 2012 at 6:34 PM

Even if you could strike the deepest underground research labs in mountainous areas of the country’s interior, how long would you actually deter Iranian nuke progress?

It is often best to stop a threat by cutting off the head of the serpent rather than playing with its rattles or other parts. Cut off the head[s] of the snake, and the remaining labs and research centers are no longer a threat, but just areas to mop up afterwards.

AZfederalist on February 26, 2012 at 6:37 PM

Iran is a soverign nation. Who are we to dictate what other sovereign nations can or can’t do? It’s time to have a full, open diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Our interventionist pursuits of the past sixty years has achieved nothing except to foment hatred and resentment. And we’ve paid for it in lives, weapons, and treasure.

Dante on February 26, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Iran is a soverign nation. Who are we to dictate what other sovereign nations can or can’t do?

Dante on February 26, 2012 at 6:42 PM

I guess armies and stuff aren’t needed in your Peter Pan world? Do you really think storybooks can be translated into reality?

sharrukin on February 26, 2012 at 6:47 PM

It is often best to stop a threat by cutting off the head of the serpent rather than playing with its rattles or other parts. Cut off the head[s] of the snake, and the remaining labs and research centers are no longer a threat, but just areas to mop up afterwards.

AZfederalist on February 26, 2012 at 6:37 PM

So the answer is to invade Iran, conquer Tehran and captures its leaders? I agree that Tehran would have been a better target than Baghdad given its strategic threat… but there’s no chance this country is willing to start another war based on a ground invasion in the middle east.

bayam on February 26, 2012 at 6:49 PM

The intelligence agencies are so risk averse by this point that it’s amazing they can find the nerve to predict the next sunrise with anything over 60% confidence. Indeed, after the scourging they’ve gotten in the last 20 years, it’s amazing they even show up for work any more.
As a normal course of things, anybody in the forecasting business is going to be wrong once in a while. Recently though, the politicians and the crazies who run about screaming hysterical conspiracy theories have made the cost of a mistake much too high to risk one’s career over. So the only safe thing to do, if you want to keep your job as an analyst, is to hide behind ambiguity and vague non-committal obfuscation.
Good Luck with that!

Lew on February 26, 2012 at 6:51 PM

Everyone ASSUMES the Iranians want a big BOOM! bomb. Here’s a nice thought to take to bed with you. How about a high order explosion of uranium dust over your favorite city? Inhale deeply and take two aspirin.

GarandFan on February 26, 2012 at 6:54 PM

GarandFan on February 26, 2012 at 6:54 PM

Most people also assume that they’re planning on a ballistic missile to carry it to the target. All they really need is a Ford F150 pick up to drive it to Tel Aviv or a tramp steamer that can make it to any European or American port.
Think low tech, and the problem gets way more interesting.

Lew on February 26, 2012 at 7:01 PM

You misunderstood Zeno’s Paradox. An arrow that travels at constant speed will, of course, hit it’s target.

But Zeno wasn’t talking about arrows traveling at a constant speed. Zeno described a theoretical situation where the arrow would travel half the distance to the target per unit of time (a second, a millisecond, doesn’t matter). In other words, with every unit of time, the speed is cut in half.

Meaning, if we start at time 0, with the arrow 12 feet away from the target, then after one time unit, let’s say 1 millisecond, the arrow would be 6 feet away from the target (traveling at 6 feet per millisecond). After 2 milliseconds, the arrow would be 3 feet away from the target (travling at 3 feet per millisecond), and after 3 milliseconds, it would be 1.5 feet away from the target (traveling at 1.5 feet per millisecond), etc.

The paradox is that, for this specific example, although the arrow is constantly getting closer to the target, it will never actually hit the target. Eventually, what will happen is that the arrow will be 0.0000000000000000000000000000001 inches away from the target after traveling at 0.0000000000000000000000000000001 inches/second, and keep on moving slower and slower as time goes on, ad infinitum.

All that Zeno’s Paradox is really doing is pointing out that, for any real, positive number in existence, you cannot divide it by any other number and get zero, which is quite a simple concept, really.

solatic on February 26, 2012 at 7:47 PM

I guess armies and stuff aren’t needed in your Peter Pan world?

sharrukin on February 26, 2012 at 6:47 PM

Where in the world did you get that idea?

Dante on February 26, 2012 at 8:02 PM

The real strategic ambiguity lies in the belief that Iran is pursing nuclear weapons in order to threaten or strike Israel when in all likelihood the prime target is Saudi Arabia and its oil export infrastructure. The Iranians are not stupid and know they would not survive an attack on Israel. But an attack on the Sunni dogs that support the Great Satan(s) would change the balance of global power irreparably. The Russians and Chicoms couldn’t agree more!

dmann on February 26, 2012 at 8:07 PM

The US intelligence community is having a very difficult time interpreting the signals from Iran’s nuclear program.

Well, it’s understandable; they spend a great deal of time working on apologies.

Marcola on February 26, 2012 at 10:50 PM

solatic on February 26, 2012 at 7:47 PM

The term for that function is Asymptotic. But accurately describing Zeno isn’t the point here, which is that repeatedly stating that Iran “isn’t there yet”, as though they are never going to quite get there is diplomatic insanity. Presuming that we have nothing to worry about until the moment we have everything to worry about is poor national defense.

And for the bedwetters, when your enemy has told you that they are your enemy, and when they’ve attacked you in the past, and they are working on a weapon which can do far greater harm to their enemies, then yes, you have a cause to act. It isn’t pre-emptive in the critical sense, even if it would be named pre-emptive in the hair-splitting sense.

Freelancer on February 27, 2012 at 1:35 AM

Iran is a soverign nation. Who are we to dictate what other sovereign nations can or can’t do? It’s time to have a full, open diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Our interventionist pursuits of the past sixty years has achieved nothing except to foment hatred and resentment. And we’ve paid for it in lives, weapons, and treasure.

Dante on February 26, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Stop making sense, you’re hurting their tender brains.

As an aside, remember the last debate, when Gingrich said that “he believes dictators”? Well, it apparently doesn’t apply if the dictator in question says that he isn’t pursuing nuclear weapons. Also interesing is that Gingrich will “believe a dictator”, but questions the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when the latter says that attacking Iran would be a mistake. Newt is, of course, more in the know with regard to Iran than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

cavalier973 on February 27, 2012 at 3:30 AM

Nothing gets more “ambiguous” than Obama. HE’s a feather in the cap for Iran’s plans.

Egfrow on February 27, 2012 at 11:22 AM

Iran is a soverign nation. Who are we to dictate what other sovereign nations can or can’t do? It’s time to have a full, open diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Our interventionist pursuits of the past sixty years has achieved nothing except to foment hatred and resentment. And we’ve paid for it in lives, weapons, and treasure.

Dante on February 26, 2012 at 6:42 PM

Germany and Japan, back in the late 1930′s, were sovereign nations.

BobMbx on February 27, 2012 at 1:11 PM

Eventually, what will happen is that the arrow will be 0.0000000000000000000000000000001 inches away from the target after traveling at 0.0000000000000000000000000000001 inches/second, and keep on moving slower and slower as time goes on, ad infinitum.

Most likely, when you’re this close the electron valence orbits of the outermost atoms of the target and arrow are inside each other.

We would classify that as contact.

BobMbx on February 27, 2012 at 1:14 PM

Germany and Japan, back in the late 1930′s, were sovereign nations.

BobMbx on February 27, 2012 at 1:11 PM

Yes. Was someone saying they weren’t?

Dante on February 27, 2012 at 2:03 PM