The Duck of Minerva

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Signaling and Grand Strategy: Or, Why Iraq Made Sense

June 23, 2006

In previous posts and other arenas I have argued that the Iraq War could not be explained simply by the threat of WMDs, the desire to liberate the Iraqi people, to spread democracy, to uphold the credibility of the UN, etc, etc. My point was that you must look at the operation in the larger context of a global struggle against innumerable threats to US security, both state- and non-state based, where the US for all its power recognized its limited resources and options.

Iraq was not an end in itself but rather the means to further the ends of our grand strategy; it was to serve as a demonstration to friends and foes alike. And if Ron Suskind’s new book is to be believed I might actually be right. Back in September I wrote:

“…we can view the Bush Doctrine as an exercise in coercive diplomacy–the use of threats to use force in order to either deter or compel an adversary to behave in a manner consistent with your wants and objectives. The new security environment as the Bush administration saw it post 9-11 included a number of rogue regimes with grudges against the US, an apparently large and potent terrorist network bent on attacking the US and US interests, and the potential synergistic relationship between these two–specifically with regards to WMDs. Given the large number of states, the nebulous nature of terrorist cells, and the limited options available to the US (for political and economic reasons), the administration crafted a doctrine which sought to further its security objectives through threats rather than the actual (more costly and arguably less feasible) application of force. By threatening to punish states and rogue leaders with regime change and preventive war unless they either stopped aiding terrorists compellence) or if they decided to aid terrorists in the future (deterrence) the US would be able (in theory) to maintain its security. However, the entire doctrine and its effectiveness depended (as all coercive threats do) on the United States’ ability to convince their target audience that the threat was credible–in other words, they had to convince their adversaries that they were both willing and capable of launching preventive wars and regime change. This is where Iraq fits in to the picture.”

In other words, the United States was trying to signal its capability and resolve to potential adversaries through its actions in Iraq.

Over at the WaPo, Dan Froomkin discusses the debate about our Iraqi policy—specifically the ongoing Congressional debate over “staying the course” and “cutting and running”, neither of which accurately portrays the true positions of either side. He argues that in order to understand why administration officials such as VP Cheney are so concerned with “staying the course” and why, even in the face of legitimate criticism over whether Iraq was ‘worth it’, they believe the war was necessary, one must look at the war in a wider context. To put it simply, “a withdrawal from Iraq may have less to do with Iraq, and more to do with the message it would send to the world about the limits of American power”.

Froomkin quotes from a Salon review of Ron Suskind’s new book, The One Percent Doctrine. The review asks a similar question, and answers it thusly:

“…[Suskind] argues persuasively that the war, above all, was a ‘global experiment in behaviorism’: If the U.S. simply hit misbehaving actors in the face again and again, they would eventually change their behavior.

‘The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States.’ This doctrine had been enunciated during the administration’s first week by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had written a memo arguing that America must come up with strategies to ‘dissuade nations abroad from challenging’ America. Saddam was chosen simply because he was available, and the Wolfowitz-Feith wing was convinced he was an easy target.

“The choice to go to war, Suskind argues, was a ‘default’ — a fallback, driven by the ‘realization that the American mainland is indefensible.’ America couldn’t really do anything — so Bush and Cheney decided they had to do something. And they decided to do this something, to attack Iraq, because after 9/11 Cheney embraced the radical doctrine found in the title of Suskind’s book. ‘If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,’ Suskind quotes Cheney as saying. And then Cheney went on to utter the lines that can be said to define the Bush presidency: ‘It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It’s about our response.’ ” [my emphasis]

Froomkin concludes that “if you subscribe to that theory — that invading Iraq was fundamentally a way of delivering a message about U.S. power — you can see why anything short of absolute victory would be so unpalatable.”

I am now dying to get my hands on Suskinds book to get a better idea about his sources and to see what other references to signaling, reputation, and coercive diplomacy it might include. Suskind’s book is far from indisputable evidence to support my hypothesis, but it is nice to see something that suggests I might be on the right track.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.