Micah Zenko

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.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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