Many years ago, a former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff provided me with an interesting insight in dealing with senior civilian political appointees. The retired admiral recalled that after meeting a general or admiral for the first time, many civilian appointees formed an instant judgment as to that person’s fitness. The admiral would commend these civilians for being so much smarter than he admitting that I have known this officer for 30 years and have not made up my mind yet!
Too often, US assessments of the risk and danger posed by a threat are formed on criteria not dissimilar to the ones mocked by the admiral’s rejoinder. Likewise, politics too often applies extreme arguments in favour of or against a particular issue in order to sell that case irrespective of objectivity. The US’s entrapment in Vietnam and decades later in Afghanistan and Iraq reflected these characteristics.
Today, threat assessments continue to exaggerate the strengths and diminish the weaknesses of potential adversaries. Russia, according to three of the four new members of the Joint Chiefs, is the principal existential threat to the west. China’s rise and growing economic and military power threaten to destabilise Asia. Iran is becoming more adversarial and Islamic State (IS) and its caliphate are rivalling Russia as dangers.
Throughout the Cold War, the US consistently exaggerated the threat of the Soviet Union. This colossus was unstoppable. Imagined bomb and missile gaps of the 1950s and 1960s were followed by the Reagan administration’s team B conclusion that the Carter administration was derelict in underestimating Soviet military strength. Eight years later, the Soviet Union imploded due to its own weight and monumental incompetence. As the US exaggerated an adversary’s strengths, it could exaggerate weaknesses when politically expedient. In Vietnam, the next deployment of more troops or increase in bombing sorties would bring Hanoi to its knees. Four decades later, the insurgency in Iraq that exploded in late 2003 was described as a collection of dead enders implying a readily winnable situation.
President Barack Obama is not blameless. He labeled IS the junior varsity at first. And in drawing red lines in Syria over using chemical weapons and demanding Bashar al Assad must go suggested US military force could accomplish the job just as it, along with a coalition of NATO’s willing, drove Gaddafi from power and ultimately to his death, minimising the downsides of military action.
One may argue that threat evaluation is always imprecise. Any assessment is judgmentally based on qualitative rather than quantitative factors. Yet, why are we usually wrong in these assessments? Condemning the intelligence community for failure is too simplistic. The larger failure lies in the US’s DNA and the need to shape support for political judgments and ideologies that are non-analytical, often uninformed by harsh objectivity and, worse, are unwilling to challenge the basic assumptions underlying them.
After September 11, George W Bush was convinced that establishing democracy in Iraq would profoundly alter the geostrategic environment for the Middle East for the better. Hence, even if evidence for weapons of mass destruction had not been manufactured, Bush would have argued that Saddam Hussein ‘might’ pursue them in any event and had to be removed. China too easily can be misunderstood and its potential dangers exaggerated while its weaknesses minimised. Fortunately, the meltdown of its stock market provides an opportunity to reassess the actual dangers, weaknesses and opportunities regarding China. For millennia, Chinese emperors and secretaries general of the Communist Party have been paranoid about peasant revolutions. That the first priority of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is assuring stability is a house-trained version of preventing rebellion.
Of about 1.3 or 1.4 billion Chinese, perhaps 400-500 million exist at or below the poverty line. If the advantages of an advanced society cannot be provided to this huge cohort, stability will be challenged. Thus, China needs huge annual economic growth to meet this challenge. Likewise, unless prosperity can be provided to the burgeoning middle class, political trouble is inevitable. The stock market is one way to bring this prosperity. However, the market is not as reliable as party cadres, something the government fully understands and is a reason for its huge monetary intervention to stabilise the volatility that is draining trillions of RMB from investors’ pockets.
In an ideal world, rationality would triumph. China’s strengths and weaknesses would be assessed coolly and unemotionally. Regrettably, US politics are not always well suited to such objectivity. Truth and fact are too easily trumped by ideology and political expediency.