Strategic ambiguity for fun and profit

Ambiguity: it’s what’s for dinner.

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 Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.


8 thoughts on “Strategic ambiguity for fun and profit”

  1. J.E. – Your comparison with Zeno’s paradox is right-on, and I see that you were on top of it in 2009.

    I have a question for you: is it your firm conclusion that this mainstream IC analysis on Iran is a good faith “disconnect with reality” and “misread(ing)”?
    The alternative would be to view it as part of an intentional campaign to delay or avoid action.

    Thanks for your always worth-reading product.

  2. J.E. – Your comparison with Zeno’s paradox is right-on, and I see that you were on top of it in 2009.

    I have a question for you: is it your firm conclusion that this mainstream IC analysis on Iran is a good faith “disconnect with reality” and “misread(ing)”?
    The alternative would be to view it as part of an intentional campaign to delay or avoid action.

    Thanks for your work.

    1. Given that completely bogus (politically driven rather than intelligence driven) 2007 NIE report, I’d say that it was an intentional campaign to delay or avoid action. I don’t know how much whoever is responsible for that report constitutes the “IC” as a whole, but to the extent that they do represent the “IC”, I’d say the “IC” is taking it upon itself to steer policy rather than leaving it to the elected leaders of this country to do so.

      That all being said, that was done 5 years ago when GWB was in office. “Bush Derangement Syndrome” was in full force. Perhaps the “IC” is now a little less inclined to provide influence for the “correct” foreign policy now that an “incalcitrant” Commander in Chief is no longer in office.

  3. Of course it’s an intentional campaign and the source of that campaign is not the Intelligence community. It’s the White House.

    Obama is pushing for up to an 80% unilateral reduction in our nuclear arms, reducing our nuclear capacity to less than China’s.

    Obama has accepted that Iran is going to get the bomb. In fact he may prefer that they do, or he’s at least cognizant of the ‘benefits’ Iran’s coming nuclear capability renders him; as forcing an American retreat from the region and greatly higher gas prices fits right in with his desire to “fundamentally transform” America. The Ron Paul crowd, both right and left, will cheer for an America whose Pax Americana policy is hamstrung. At $8 a gallon, alternative transportation becomes economically competitive. Certainly the environmental wackos will be happy with ruinous gas prices.

    An America in retreat and effectively subservient to UN consensus is an America that much closer to abandoning national sovereignty and embracing transnationalism.

    As for greatly increased nuclear proliferation throughout the M.E. as a certain consequence of Iran’s gaining nuclear weapons capability…well, unstable third world fanatical regimes wouldn’t actually attack the US, after all that would be suicide!

    The mind set of appeasement is easily illustrated; “We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will. I cannot believe that such a program would be rejected by the people of this country, even if it does mean the establishment of personal contact with dictators, and of talks man to man on the basis that each, while maintaining his own ideas of the internal government of his country, is willing to allow that other systems may better suit other peoples.” –Neville Chamberlain, explaining Munich

    “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so towards us.” – Jens Orback, Minister for Democracy, Metropolitan Affairs, Integration and Gender Equality, Government of Sweden

    “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Winston Churchill

    Make no mistake, Obama, the actions of his administration and his policies are easily understood when the motivations of transnational progressivism and appeasement are considered.

  4. Strategic clarity in place of ambiguity. Just some thoughts. I may be a tad provocative.

    Viewed through anti-Islamist colored lenses, eventual stability in the broader Eurasian region of the Eastern Hemisphere, necessitates the total, (preferably rapid), continuous destabilization/disintegration of every single Muslim state (probably India as well), between the Atlantic ocean and the Himalayas. This should be Western policy until smaller, “true nation states”, based on common ethnic, religious and linguistic identities can evolve from the ruins of heterogeneous post-colonial pseudo-states. For example, Iran is majority Shia, but roughly 50% Persian/ 50% Azeri (not to mention Balochi and Arab minorities), Turkey is majority Sunni, but with 20% Kurd, 20% Alevi minorities. Saudi Arabia’s oil is produced in the Shia provinces, the proceeds are then perversely utilized to finance Wahabi extremism. As long as situations such as these persist in the region, there will be no stability.

    If a policy of “total destabilization” were consciously and systematically pursued, now, we only have to immediately deal with picking up the nuclear pieces from “failed state” Pakistan. Most embryonic nuclear threshold states wouldn’t have the will or resources to develop and/or maintain nuclear stockpiles. They would be much to busy with other affairs, selling off their hydrocarbons to purchase arms for slaughtering each other comes to mind.

    In the absence of a policy that neuters ALL these states, better to prepare for the fallout (literally), of the inevitable Asian nuclear exchange that will follow from having allowed states like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan etc, to be armed with nuclear weapons. This is the price Western States and Russia will pay for their myopia, lack of resolve and mutual rivalry since the end of WWII.

    Europe, with a few exceptions, has historically already been down this difficult and bloody road to current relative stability, thankfully using conventional weaponry only. The broader Islamic world must still fight its way to eventual stability. We should assist them, (sans nukes), in beating the hell out of each other, anyway we possibly can.

    For now, strike and delay Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons development sites, destabilize other major Muslim regional actors as well, asap. Explain to the Russians why it is in their interest also, and give’m a piece of the action to make it worth their while..

    I sincerely hope I haven’t offended anyone, it was not my intention.

    1. “Europe, with a few exceptions, has historically already been down this difficult and bloody road to current relative stability, thankfully using conventional weaponry only.”

      All the countries, European and Middle East have been down this road before and nuclear weapons would have been used already, if they had been available.

      The idea that the US, or anyone else, can conjure “stability” in the Middle East is a dream. The kaleidescope of human behavior doesn’t allow for such a condition. Actors gain and lose power, as do the states they represent or control. Factions within those states acquire or forfeit influence. There ain’t no long term stability.

      Additionally, the European conflict has moved from the messy battlefields of, Poltava, Blenheim, Verdun and Bastogne, to the financial districts of the world capitals, where war has been reduced to its basics, getting the other guy’s money. The people that have the most to lose from an Iranian national ego trip are their closest neighbors and the international financial community. They’re no doubt working on the problem right now, which is as it should be. Maybe the Saudis should buy a couple of our Ohio class subs to park in the Persian Gulf and the Kuwaitis could subsidize 3 or 4 carrier groups. After all, those folks are right behind the Zionist entity on the Iranian dance card.

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