Tuesday, May 29, 2007

It's a Mystery

In the June 2007 issue of SMITHSONIAN magazine, Gregory R. Treverton, Director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Global Risk and Security and formerly Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council (responsible for production of National Intelligence Estimates), describes the difference between a puzzle and a mystery – characterizing the former with the Cold War task of assessing the military capabilities of the Soviet Union by counting their missiles, calculating their various capabilities, and adding up the sums. Today’s challenge for the Pentagon analysts focused upon the terrorist threat is “to frame mysteries.” Treverton elaborates as follows:

“Puzzles can be solved; they have answers….But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.”

I find Treverton’s thoughts interesting because I always want to hear from people who have practical experience that they are willing to share. However, my initial reaction is that he may be trying to make his point the hard way. By comparison, Donald Rumsfeld’s 2002 discussion of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” was transparently clear based upon my work during several assignments as an analyst in the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. There I had personal experience sorting intelligence reports and identifying the “known knowns,” the “known unknowns,” and the “unknown unknowns.”

Treverton’s example of Soviet military capabilities as a puzzle does not really make his point for me either. John Prados’ 1982 book “The Soviet Estimate” recounts how much difficulty the U.S. Intelligence Community had in measuring the USSR’s military expenditures. A series of faulty assumptions such as projecting our own costs and procedures onto the Soviet Union resulted in repeated miscalculations and overestimates of the USSR’s military strength. Treverton’s reduction of Soviet military capabilities to the level of a puzzle to be solved by means of mathematical exercises may accurately reflect the process, but as Prados’ book showed these calculations too often reflected false or erroneous assumptions.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” This is a useful observation in this context because it brings up a point I have made in the past about how Pentagon analysts approached their task by focusing on capabilities and ignoring intentions. What I understand Treverton to be saying is that now the terrorist threat represents a mystery rather than a puzzle because the intelligence community must factor in the question of their intentions as well as their capabilities.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest to fool.”
Richard Feynman

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Washington Looks at its Cards, Moscow Looks at the Board

I remember when I was an undergraduate, my Russian History professor offered the observation – even then a cliché – that Americans played poker while Russians played chess. The ‘truth’ within this epigram was that Americans tended to play for the short term, thinking only of the current hand, knowing that the deck would get reshuffled and play would start again; while the Soviet Union (led principally by Russians) played for the long-term win, looking ahead two, three, or even five or six turns ahead – meaning also ahead of the Americans. During my State Department career, I had several opportunities to observe that – as with most clichés – this one held a kernel of truth.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in the early 1990s, the United States and the new Russian Federation recognized that without the burden of ideological rivalry the life-and-death struggle of the Cold War had ended. The two countries looked increasingly like partners as the 20th Century came to an end. However, Moscow learned, as have London, Paris, Bonn, and other friendly capitols, that Washington does not allow partnerships to prevent it from acting unilaterally when it considers action necessary, especially post 9/11.

The Bush Administration came into office with several goals that directly affected this emerging partnership, including, for example, winning a free hand to pursue a modernized nuclear deterrent more relevant to the post-Cold War world by reducing or eliminating related arms control commitments. Resulting U.S.-Russian frictions were compounded by disagreements over such issues as trade, technology transfer, Russia’s World Trade Organization membership, NATO expansion into former Warsaw Pact countries and former parts of the Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), the Balkans conflict, Iraq, and U.S. concerns at Russian actions in its relations with the new independent states that had been part of the Soviet Union.

One U.S. goal that was achieved was the elimination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was considered an obstacle to the desired national missile defense system aimed at the growing missile threat from Third World countries such as Iraq, North Korea, and Iran – among others. The U.S. announced its withdrawal from the treaty in December 2001. Since then work has proceeded on the missile defense system and the U.S. has been discussing with friendly governments where to place system launch units, warning radars, command and control centers and other components.

Various locations in Europe have been mentioned for the launchers, including the UK and Poland. As proposed launcher sites neared its borders, Russia escalated its public objections. Moscow claimed that the U.S. system is actually intended to counter Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence. It was also rumored that Moscow would walk away from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that eliminated a whole class of shorter range NATO-Warsaw Pact missiles. Since the range of these weapons limited them to use in Europe, this may have been an attempt to dissuade Washington’s European allies from participating in the project.

The United States holds a pretty strong hand on these issues. The achievement of a functioning missile defense system is primarily a matter of time, resources, money, and determination. The U.S. holds most of these in abundance – only its determination is subject to question as Presidential administrations come and go. By contrast, without the resources of the former Soviet Union at its command, the Russian Federation cannot compete with the United States in any hypothetical arms race – even with a strong, healthy economy.

Having read (or counted) the cards – Moscow has announced that it may suspend its obligations under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Agreement. Signed in 1990, the CFE treaty includes restrictions on the size, makeup, and deployment of NATO and Warsaw Pact member conventional (non-nuclear) military forces in Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to Russia’s Ural Mountains with the goal of limiting each side’s ability to launch a surprise conventional attack. The treaty is supported by a system of mutual inspections in which personnel from the signatory countries visit each other’s military installations to verify compliance.

The CFE treaty has been a sore spot for the Russian Federation because its terms continue to limit Russian deployment of conventional military forces and because the U.S. and other Western countries have invoked its terms in connection with the presence of Russian military forces in the Caucasus (Georgia in particular) and in Moldova. Adjustments to the Treaty were agreed upon by all parties in Istanbul in 1996, but the NATO countries refuse to ratify this Adapted Treaty until Russian forces are withdrawn from Moldova and Georgia where their presence is considered a treaty violation. So, as the U.S. is perceived in Moscow as having raised the ante by discussing the possible deployment of anti-missile interceptors in Poland, Russia has responded by advancing Queen’s Rook to a4 (or QR4).

"When an escaped prisoner looks for a guard, he always finds one."
Klingon Proverb (Star Trek)