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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Strategic Ambiguity for Fun and Profit

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.

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