Frank Lavin, former US Ambassador

A minute early or a minute late

People queuing to buy a copy of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Paris attacks illustrate how dangerously close we are to a world in which each terrorist gets one free strike. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
People queuing to buy a copy of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The Paris attacks illustrate how dangerously close we are to a world in which each terrorist gets one free strike. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The terrorist attacks last week in Paris and the debate over the French government response brought back a simple discussion I had a few years ago regarding the US invasion of Iraq.

I was asked by a European friend how the American public viewed the invasion, and my response was that it was generally viewed with disfavour: The costs exceeded the benefits, no nuclear weapons had been found and our involvement continues to this day. The next question: How long will that negative view last? Easy to answer: Until the next terrorist strike in the United States. At that point, American public opinion would swing back to pre-emptive intervention.

This split view of Iraq and the current debate in France remind us that approaches to international crisis management fall into one of two camps, whether you prefer to be either a minute early or a minute late. You either act before the moment arrives or after the moment has passed. For purposes of honesty, we must disallow the Hollywood ending in which the decision is taken at precisely the right moment to save the day. We have but two choices.

Acting before the moment requires leadership, as there would not yet be a consensus regarding the impending problem or its magnitude. It obligates decision-makers to assume responsibility for a threat, to communicate with the nation and push a course of action, to endure the friction that comes with a change in policy, and to take potentially costly action without clear information.

In the vernacular, the president has to "own" the issue. It also means that the decision-makers might have it wrong (If only we had waited!). They might be acting on fragmentary, contradictory or even inaccurate signals.

Acting after the moment means there would be a consensus, but the damage would have been done. There is widespread recognition that action is needed (If only we had acted sooner!) and it is easier to mobilise the machinery of statecraft, overcome partisan differences, and secure the support of allies and public opinion. In the vernacular, this is "leading from behind". We are Charlie.

It is easy to stereotype these two approaches. Those who are a minute early can be labelled hawks or warmongers. Those who are a minute late can be called feckless or weak. But I think a minute late has a seductive quality to it, catering to people's desire for certainty as well as to bureaucratic inertia. This was captured when I was serving as a diplomat and a colleague noted the State Department would spend more money on my funeral than it would on protecting me from terrorism. (I do not think this is accurate, but it does illustrate the point.)

In America's unforgiving political environment, even adopting the right policy response might not eliminate the criticism. Consider Benghazi: Once the attackers had breached the gate of the US compound, they were energised and they had numbers on their side. The only chance to disrupt the attack would have been to have acted a minute early, firing on the attackers as they moved to the gate. Would that have been politically tenable? The next day's headlines would read, "Ambassador directs gunfire at protesters" and the television coverage would include a tearful interview with a relative of the deceased. Prudence pushes decision-makers to be a minute late.

Take a more dramatic counterfactual: Boko Haram. What if the US President had ordered an air strike on their camp last week, preventing their murder of 2,000 civilians? Would the world, or even the US public, have responded positively? Some segments of the public seem almost to require victimhood in order to fashion a foreign policy. If so, we are living in a world in which an enemy always gets to launch the first strike. A leader who acts a minute early, but who subsequently cannot produce "proof" of the rectitude of the action, is subject to vilification for a rash decision. This takes us back to Paris. Was there a legal basis for intercepting any of the terrorists before their crimes? It cannot be any more illegal to run around a French forest with a crossbow than it would be, say, to take flying lessons in the US. We might be dangerously close to a world in which each terrorist gets one free strike.

Some entities seem to have a predisposition towards one approach in their institutional culture. With little strategic depth, a strong sense of vulnerability and a supportive political culture, Israel is persistently a minute early; better to act on others rather than have others act on you. On the other hand, with fragmented leadership, a ponderous decision-making apparatus and a range of views of threat assessments, the European Union seems preternaturally a minute late. It is easier to describe the problem than to do something about it. But humanitarian assistance is on the way.

America has had a taste of both approaches over the past 20 years. Bill Clinton decided to be a minute late regarding Al-Qaeda. George W. Bush decided to be a minute early regarding Saddam Hussein. President Barack Obama decided to be a minute late regarding both Russia in the Ukraine and the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. And all three leaders have been criticised for their decisions.

Is this just America shifting between sins of omission and sins of commission, perpetually unable to assess costs and benefits? When the stakes are low, the risk of waiting might be less than the risk of action. But when the stakes are high, such as with a terrorist strike or a nuclear-related development, action is required.

The US needs three steps to address this problem. First, political leadership must be willing to endure criticism for decisions. Second, better intelligence will help decision-makers evaluate the seriousness of a threat. Third, we need a public that understands that courtroom standards of evidence will not always be available in countering terrorism.

As human beings, we have a natural preference for minimising risk. We prefer being a minute late. Until we are a minute late. Only then do we start to respect leaders who were a minute early.

The writer, former United States Ambassador to Singapore, served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations. He is currently a businessman in China.

This first appeared in the American magazine, Weekly Standard.