The One Percent Doctrine

THE ONE PERCENT DOCTRINE….I’ve been remiss in not blogging about Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine. I don’t want to post a full-blown review of the book, but I do want to point out a couple of things that I think have been underappreciated in the other reviews I’ve read

First, and most prominently, the book has a very powerful narrative arc. A week ago I suggested that Suskind had painted a “fairly sympathetic portrait” of Bush and Cheney, but that was after I’d read only half the book. The real story is more complex ? and more interesting.

In the first four chapters of OPD Suskind really does offer up a fairly sympathetic portrait of the two men. Here’s the situation right after 9/11: Al-Qaeda terrorists have just attacked the country; further attacks seem highly likely; our intelligence network is scrambling and nearly blind; we have good reason to believe that Osama bin Laden might be negotiating with Pakistani radicals to obtain a nuclear weapon; and credible reports suggest that al-Qaeda might also be on the road to manufacturing weaponized anthrax.

What’s needed at that point is firm action, and Suskind suggests that Bush and Cheney did a pretty good job of cracking heads during those scary first months ? especially so considering that those months were actually even scarier than most of us knew at the time.

But then the portrait starts to change. A year after 9/11, Bush and Cheney haven’t adjusted their approach even though they know a lot more about the real threat than they did in 2001. Bush is still governing by instinct, Cheney is off in a world of his own, programs put in place during the initial emergency are continuing unabated, and political considerations ? often vicious ones ? are paramount in almost every area. Bush and Cheney are simply unable to adjust to a “long, hard slog,” and the war on terror is treading water because there’s no genuine, informed leadership from the White House.

This arc is what makes reading the book worthwhile. It’s not a hit job on Bush and Cheney. It’s a portrait of two men who, initially, react understandably and even honorably to a horrible event, but then find themselves at sea when it comes to fighting a longer, more subtle war.

The second point has to do with the “One Percent Doctrine” itself, the meaning of which is a little different than it seems at first glance. It originates with Dick Cheney, who explained early on that if a terrorist event had even a one percent chance of happening, “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” This is obviously a justification for taking a hawkish approach to terrorism, but Suskind says there’s much more to it than that. After all, the Bush administration has obviously not reacted to every one-percent threat as if it were a certainty.

More than a broad rationalization of mere hawkishness, the One Percent Doctrine is actually a justification for ignoring unwanted analysis. After all, nearly anything has a one percent chance of happening, and if that’s the threshold for action, it means we can take action anytime we want. Under the OPD, there is literally no reason to waste time with analysis or policy discussions.

This, of course, is where Suskind ties in this book with his earlier one, The Price of Loyalty. The single most defining characteristic of George Bush’s personality is his belief in his own instinct and his corresponding disdain for serious policy analysis. For Bush, the One Percent Doctrine is tailor made. He is contemptuous of policy discussions, and the OPD is the perfect excuse to ignore them.

There’s much more to the book, of course, and it’s well worth reading, especially if you want to hear the story of the past five years from the point of view of George Tenet and other senior managers of the CIA, who have borne the brunt of an often brutal and personal bureaucratic battle to ensure that someone ? anyone ? other than George Bush takes the blame when things go wrong.

But bewarned: if you take the threat of Islamic jihadism seriously, Suskind will not make you feel any safer. Quite the contrary. As Richard Dearlove said yesterday, “just about everything in the American approach to the war on Islamic terrorism had been ill-conceived.” Suskind gives you a pretty good idea of why.