Knowing the Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations

by Dr. Keren Yarhi-Milo

Intelligence drives operations. Or at least that is what Army doctrine teaches and intelligence professionals believe and repeat. Keren Yarhi-Milo’s thesis of “Selective Attention,” however, argues that the organizational expertise of the IC is less influential than decision makers’ own personal perceptions and theories when predicting an adversary’s intentions. She examines three competing theses -capabilities, military doctrine, behavior signals – in the context of three case studies – British perceptions of Nazi Germany pre-WWII, Soviet intentions during Carter presidency, and Soviet intentions at end of the Cold War.

The Selective Attention thesis posits that decision makers and the IC form judgments about intentions in different ways. Decision makers rely more on vivid information, particularly their personal interactions with adversary leaders, and their emotional reaction to highly salient or tangible information. Leaders, however, are often over-confident in their ability to judge an adversary’s character and sincerity. They also fall prey to subjective credibility, similar to confirmation bias, in which they ignore contrary information rather than change their pre-existing beliefs. The IC, by contrast, deals with information through its bureaucratic structure, which tends to overemphasize military capabilities in assessing adversary intentions. A heavy reliance on military capabilities may cause the IC to underestimate the threat posed by mis/disinformation and cyberspace capabilities which are difficult to quantify and attribute. The IC is also subject to confirmation bias and can find ways to justify an arms build-up as either a defensive or offensive measure, depending on the standing analytical line, which would drive different policy and military responses.

How leaders assess intentions has important implications for the various elements of the IC. Analysts must understand the diverse and complex ways in which leaders make decisions and what type and form of information they value. Effective intelligence assessments should provide broad insights into a situation that can assist a leader in framing a problem; personal anecdotes could make the information more vivid. Briefers with personal experience in a country or with a particular adversary leader will likely be viewed as more credible as well. To improve the validity of assessments, the IC must also study an adversary’s methods of signaling intentions from a whole of nation approach, not just military capabilities. The IC is filled with dedicated, capable analysts; in order for their work to be of value and truly drive operations, it must include comprehensive and varied methods to assess an adversary’s intentions, and decision-makers must read, heed, and believe the content.

Follow Up Questions:

  1. How do national security leaders interpret the Gersimov doctrine?
  2. How do analysts make intelligence documents vivid, operationally relevant, and offer broad insights?
  3. What type of intelligence is effective in informing domestic audiences?
  4. Why don’t all NIEs include net assessments of threat vs. U.S. capabilities?
  5. How can the IC account for information and cyber capabilities when assessing an adversary’s intentions?

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