The Projectionist

Why Bibi can't scare the U.S. into bombing Iran.

Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly last week -- accompanied by his puzzling cartoon bomb -- Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a dire threat not only to Israel, but to the entire world, and he declared that preventing this outcome was the "duty of every responsible leader who wants to preserve world peace." In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: "The free world must not accept [a nuclear Iran]. We must all do whatever we can to prevent it." And, in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon urged the creation of "a coalition of democracies who believe in the danger, led by United States, in order to put pressure upon Iran."

In each of these examples, Israeli political leaders engaged in a time-honored diplomatic strategy: telling other states what they should be threatened by, and what policies they should implement to counter that threat. The objective of this gambit is to harness the capabilities of other states to counter a threat, which is more severe and imminent than previously understood, in order to share the burden. However, this strategy of projecting threat perceptions onto other states is both underexplored by academics and poorly executed by policymakers. In an era when it is increasingly difficult for any state to unilaterally deal with its foreign policy challenges, projecting threat perceptions has never been more important.

The modern understanding of threat perceptions emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, when the economist Thomas Schelling developed and popularized a statistical model to describe how adversarial states interact when "communication is incomplete or impossible." He and others drew heavily on game theory to predict how states perceive threats from one another. As the political scientist -- and founder of the Correlates of War datasets -- J. David Singer wrote in 1958, "To state the relationship in quasi-mathematical form: Threat-Perception = Estimated Capability x Estimated Intent." However, Schelling, Singer, and other game theorists never attempted to quantify "intent."

In 1985, many years before he was a prominent Foreign Policy blogger, international relations scholar Stephen Walt offered four factors for how states perceive the threat level of other states: aggregate power, proximity, offensive capability, and offensive intentions. While the first three are determined by relatively objective indicators, the last is highly subjective. Yet, according to Walt, "The more aggressive or expansionist a state appears, the more likely it is to trigger an opposing coalition." More recently, political scientist Randall Schweller argued that states require a consensus among elites about the extent and nature of a threat in order to mobilize the resources to effectively combat it.

But recent history suggests that projecting threat perceptions rarely works. In early 2003, President George W. Bush rejected bilateral negotiations with North Korea in favor of the six-party talks. Since then, U.S. policy for containing and rolling back the North Korean nuclear program has been to convince China of the threat posed by its nuclear neighbor so that Beijing will pressure Pyongyang to verifiably disarm. As Bush told Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2003: "This isn't a problem for us. This is a problem for you, because it's your region that's going to have to react to a North Korean nuclear weapon." As National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice later told David Sanger, "That got Jiang Zemin's attention." It is unlikely that is true, though, since neither Jiang nor his successors have acted upon persistent U.S. fear-mongering about North Korea to use their leverage, presumably because Beijing prefers the status quo on the Korean Peninsula to the unknown risks of change.

At the same time, since 2003 a constant stream of American military and intelligence officials have visited Islamabad to inform their Pakistani counterparts of the increasing threat of violent extremism, which places both U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani people in grave danger. Several times each year for the past decade, a senior U.S. official has asked the Pakistani army to initiate a ground offensive against the Taliban and Haqqani networks' safe havens. In August, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that he understood that such an offensive would finally commence in the "near future." Whether the Pakistani military is unwilling or unable to undertake such an operation -- with the intensity and long-term impact hoped for by U.S. officials -- remains a matter of debate. Nevertheless, no one could say with a straight face that the U.S. policy of reiterating the threats posed by extremism in Pakistan has succeeded.

Efforts to alter threat perceptions tend to take three forms. First, states can offer the targeted government positive inducements in the form of diplomatic support, financial aid, foreign trade, weapons, and direct military and intelligence assistance. Since September 11, 2001, for example, the United States has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in overt and covert assistance to Yemen to counter the threat of transnational terrorism. As the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, Daniel Benjamin, noted in a Senate hearing in 2010: "I think that the deeper our engagement gets, the greater our opportunity to influence their threat perception will be." Conversely, states can impose negative inducements by way of diplomatic pressure, suspension of aid, economic sanctions, arms embargoes, or coercive threats.

The final option -- providing additional, clarifying information in an attempt to alter how other target states perceive the threat -- was crudely attempted by Netanyahu at the U.N. As this information is often based upon highly-classified intelligence, states must balance how much to reveal without compromising sensitive sources and methods. This information is often disclosed publicly at international forums in order to achieve maximum impact. For example, Adlai Stevenson's October 1962 presentation to the U.N. Security Council, which included aerial photographs of Soviet troops and intermediate-range missile installations in Cuba, and Colin Powell's February 2003 Security Council speech, complete with audio recordings of two senior officers from Iraqi's elite military unit, cartoon imagery of purported "mobile production facilities for biological agents," and a replica vial of anthrax. Or, officials can simply make direct appeals to the public. Recall in September 1997, when Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned about Iraq's purported WMD program by dumping out a five pound bag of sugar during an ABC News talk show. Cohen claimed that were the sugar anthrax it could "destroy at least half the population of [Washington, D.C.]," or, as VX , could kill "millions, millions, if it were properly dispersed."

This information exchange also regularly occurs bilaterally. For example, during the height of the Kargil crisis between Pakistan and India in 1999, the Clinton administration sent intelligence officials to both countries to brief them on how the CIA envisioned a limited military skirmish could escalate to a nuclear exchange that killed tens of millions of people. Throughout the Bush administration, the CIA and Department of Energy officials briefed foreign leaders about specific vulnerabilities to their country's nuclear weapons or fissile material stockpiles. The United States also conducts joint threat assessment discussions with Russian technical experts through the U.S.-Russian Arms Control and International Security Working Group, in order to raise concerns about supposed advances in Iran's missile program.

In order to make this information more credible, states can also provide such intelligence to neutral third parties. In November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that "the Agency has received information from more than ten Member States" about Iran's suspected warhead development work. Clearly, Iran is a high-priority collection target for many intelligence agencies, and states provide some of that intelligence to the IAEA because it is an "autonomous international organization" trusted more than any state individually. Similarly, several governments provide information to U.N. Security Council sanctions committees about allegations of violations to U.N.-mandated diplomatic or economic sanctions.

While convincing other states that they face graver threats than they thought has rarely achieved the intended effect, the reaction of Asia-Pacific states to China in the past two years shows how threat perceptions can actually be altered. From 2003 to 2009, the United States focused its diplomatic and military attention on Afghanistan and Iraq, at the expense of partners and allies in East Asia. Jeffrey A. Bader, the senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council, described the "widespread judgment that the U.S. was a declining power and that China was a rising power." This notion was crystalized at a July 2010 annual forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations, where China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, reportedly announced to his counterparts, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact." The reactions to such ominous warnings, combined with China's defense modernization, compelled U.S. allies and non-allies to seek stronger defense relationships with the United States. In other words, these Asia-Pacific states adjusted their threat perception largely on their own.

No doubt Israeli officials will continue to sound the alarm about a nuclear-armed Tehran, with the ultimate objective of changing America's threat perception of Iran -- they want the vastly superior U.S. military to participate in any attack against Iran's integrated air defense system, known nuclear sites, and ballistic missile production facilities. However, the advances in Iran's uranium enrichment program do not threaten the United States as severely as they do Israel. Telling the United States that it should be more scared of Iran -- and therefore should give Tehran an explicit deadline to comply with Western demands -- has failed so far. Yet, the poor track record of projecting threat perceptions has never stopped policymakers from trying, over and over. So expect to hear more -- a lot more -- from Tel Aviv.


National Security

Forget 'Better Off'

Are you safer than you were four years ago?

In his closing statement of the final presidential debate in October 1980, Ronald Reagan told prospective voters that before heading to the polls: "It might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?" This month, Republicans borrowed this question from the Great Communicator as a litmus test for President Barack Obama's term in office. In a recent poll, a slight plurality of prospective voters said they were not better off now than in 2008.

However, Republicans shied away from the other query Reagan raised in 1980: "Do you feel that our security is as safe, that we're as strong as we were four years ago?" This omission reflected two realities facing the Republican presidential candidate. First, Obama consistently outpolls Mitt Romney by 6 to 10 percentage points when asked who would be better at "protecting the country," who could be "a good commander in chief," and who would be better at "handling foreign policy." Second, only 4 percent of Americans polled believe that "foreign affairs," which includes wars, terrorism, immigration, and other subjects, is the most important issue facing the United States -- the lowest percentage since Obama entered office.

Despite the American public's puzzling disinterest in foreign policy and national security, Reagan's second question is worth a closer look. Both political parties paint starkly different pictures. Romney told a Memorial Day commemoration in San Diego: "I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It's not." Meanwhile, Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC), said, "The U.S. is absolutely safer now than four years ago." This Sept. 11, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "I think the bottom-line implication is that America is safer."

It is unlikely that Obama's signature foreign-policy successes -- authorizing the raid to kill Osama bin Laden and providing the essential military and intelligence capabilities that led to the downfall of Muammar al-Qaddafi -- singlehandedly made the United States safer. By 2011, bin Laden played a minor role in core al Qaeda operations, which had been diminished by relentless CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. At the same time, until the Libyan crisis imploded, Qaddafi was viewed by U.S. officials as a shining star for his cooperation on terrorism matters. According to the State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism 2010," released in August 2011: "The Libyan government continued to demonstrate a strong and active commitment to combating terrorist organizations and violent extremism through bilateral and regional counterterrorism and security cooperation." It is plain that the current Libyan government is -- so far -- either unable or unwilling to take on terrorist organizations with the same intensity and brutality as Qaddafi.

The reality is that, across a range of criteria, Americans are indeed safer and more secure than four years ago. However, the primary reasons predate Obama and instead reflect long-term social, economic, and demographic trends. Consider just a few indicators from 2008, the year before Obama entered office and the latest year for which data is available.

War. The number of active intra- and interstate "armed conflicts" (having over 25 battle-related deaths) has remained constant since 2008 at 37. Six conflicts reached the intensity of "war" (over 1,000 deaths) in the past year, as Libya and Yemen joined the list. The number of armed conflicts in which the United States is directly involved increased in 2011 due to U.S. military personnel or assets involved in hostilities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. However, the number of active-duty service-member deaths (including in war, from accidents, or self-inflicted) remained relatively constant between 2008 and 2010 (1,440 and 1,485).

Freedom. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed in April 2003: "Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things." Nevertheless, over time, democracies tend to have healthier and better-educated citizens, almost never go to war with other democracies, and are less likely to fight wars than non-democracies. There has been little change on this indicator since 2008, as the outcomes of the Arab Spring are far from settled. According to Freedom House, there were 119 electoral democracies in 2008 and 42 autocracies. In 2011, there were 117 and 48, respectively.

Terrorism. According to the National Counterterrorism Center, while 33 U.S. citizens died from terrorism in 2008, that number decreased to 17 in 2011 (15 in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, and one in Jerusalem). This reduced threat is reflected in the global downward trend of deaths due to terrorism, with 15,732 fatalities in 2008 and 12,533 fatalities in 2011, largely as a result of the increased attention and enforcement efforts in Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, terrorist deaths increased by almost 60 percent in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011.

Nuclear weapons. The number of global nuclear weapons declined from about 23,360 in 2009 to 19,000 in 2012. At the same time, global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) decreased from 1,670 tons to 1,440 tons between 2008 and 2011, while stockpiles of separated plutonium remained constant at 500 tons. However, this good news is tempered by the growth in India's and Pakistan's nuclear arsenals, from 60 to 70 in India to 80 to 100, and from 60 in Pakistan to 90 to 110. Obama reportedly told his staff that loose Pakistani nuclear weapons "was his biggest single national security concern." Moreover, North Korea allegedly built a uranium-enrichment facility estimated to be capable of producing a bomb's worth of HEU per year, and U.S. officials have warned there are other clandestine enrichment sites.

Nuclear security. Building on the strong records of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama declared in April 2009 that his greatest foreign-policy priority was to "secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." Obama administration officials acknowledge that they will fall short of this lofty goal; in March, the Government Accountability Office reported, "NSC officials did not consider the 4-year time frame to be a hard and fast deadline." Nevertheless, important reductions in weapons-capable fissile material were sustained under Obama's watch, including the removal of all HEU from Mexico, Chile, Serbia, Romania, Taiwan, and Turkey. While there were 53 countries with at least 1 kilogram of weapons-usable fissile material in 2005, today there are 34.

Life expectancy. Even before the supposed benefits of Obamacare have been phased in, U.S. life expectancy has continued to increase, from 78.0 years in 2008 to 78.49 years in 2011. In contrast, the average global life span is 69.6 years. Health metrics such as child mortality decreased slightly from a rate of 7.7 per 100,000 in 2008 to 7.5 in 2010, though obesity rates expanded from 33.7 percent in 2008, to 35.7 percent in 2010. Two weeks ago, first lady Michelle Obama declared that obesity was "absolutely" a national security threat to the United States.

Daily life. Although this is a foreign-policy column, it is worth noting that this is the safest time in history to live in the United States. The FBI's (Preliminary Annual) Uniform Crime Report for 2011 shows continued decline in nearly all major crime categories -- including violent crime, motor vehicle theft, and arson -- with only a slight 0.3 percent increase in burglary. Moreover, getting from point A to point B has never been safer. Comparing 2008 to the most recent equivalent data, fewer Americans are dying in motor vehicles, in airplanes, as pedestrians from motor vehicles, or on bicycles.

Both Obama and Romney pepper their stump speeches with explicit and implicit invocations of America as an "exceptional nation." Yet if recent presidents have taught us anything, it is that presidential foreign-policy choices either result in big, intractable catastrophes (see Iraq) or simply maintain an even keel. The first point of wisdom in analyzing U.S. foreign policy is to recognize that very little of what happens on the other 91.77 percent of the Earth's surface has anything to do with the United States. The second is that the ability of any U.S. president to shape, compel, or direct foreign-policy events is both limited and diminishing. On Sept. 24, Romney told an audience in Pueblo, Colorado, that the anti-Western protests "represent events that are spinning out of the kind of influence we'd like to have. We're at the mercy of events rather than shaping the events in the Middle East." The era of American mastery in world affairs was always a myth and has now all but collapsed. All largely positive developments outlined above reflect the complex, interconnected decisions of billions of people. So far, so good.

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