MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
One of the signature features of America's poorly examined Iraq policy -- and, yes, yet another unfortunate parallel with the Vietnam experience -- has been a general lack of willingness to think carefully about the stakes. Just as the consequences of inaction were vastly overblown before the war was launched (remember that looming mushroom cloud?), now the as-yet-unknown consequences of failure -- defined as any outcome other than the one considered virtuous by the administration -- are simply presumed to be unacceptably grave.
Probably the most important function of this cognitive lacuna is to serve the more or less universal human reluctance to consider admitting error or to contemplate cutting one's losses. (I've discussed this problem previously here.)
Financial advisers tell their clients to look past "sunk costs" and consider only the choices facing them in the present, but it's an uphill fight against the psychological makeup of the typical individual, never mind the notoriously stubborn George W. Bush. This president is the sort of gambler who habitually doubles down on his losses.
But if we don't consider the risks of action as well as inaction, we can't even begin to determine the best course of action. (My earlier comments on this point are here.) And if we won't make a meaningful attempt to estimate the costs of failure as well as the benefits of success, as is the case today... the same point applies.
There are probably any number of examples of high administration officials' insistence on seeing an unnnamed disaster on the other side of anything other than seeing their chosen course of action through to its desired conclusion. Worse yet, the Intelligence Community that is supposed to provide top decision-makers with a more dispassionate view -- a reality check, as it were -- is instead mirroring their mis-cognition. (Consider this phenomenon when you next see a claim that intelligence analysts weren't influenced by what the Iraq fire-breathers insisted on seeing.)
That is, at least, what we could conclude from reading the relevant section of "The Middle East to 2020," a "discussion paper" not representing the official views of the U.S. government (as a disclaimer printed on each page reminds us), released to the public in December of 2003 by the National Intelligence Council, or NIC.
The NIC (pronounced "nick") is an interagency body that describes itself as "the Intelligence Community's (IC's) center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking." Its main task is to produce National Intelligence Estimates, such as the now-infamous October 2002 estimate of Iraqi WMD programs, on behalf of the Director of Central Intelligence.
The NIC's importance relates to the tendencies of the constituent agencies of the abovementioned Intelligence Community, notorious for stovepiping -- operating in their own, separate channels, not pooling information or analysis very effectively -- and for short-term thinking, in response to the incessant demands of "intelligence consumers" in the Department of Defense and elsewhere. The NIC is precisely the place where more comprehensive, forward-looking thinking is supposed to happen.
Instead, it's where sharply argued views go to die. "The Middle East to 2020" (the NIC loves round dates ending in zero or five) turns out to be mainly an assortment of pabulum and truisms, leavened with occasional bits of pseudo-profound gibberish. A handful of shining examples:
The shape of future conflict also will be an important aspect of Middle Eastern affairs over the next 16 years, because of an abundance of intense animosities that will continue to rival the region's abundance of energy resources...The lesson? The fully assembled intelligence apparatus of U.S. government doesn't really know much more about this stuff than a reasonably well-read and thoughtful citizen, and indeed, in practical terms, it may know less, insofar as it is able to communicate coherent and useful thoughts ("actionable intelligence") to the top.
With that in mind, here is what "The Middle East to 2020" says about Iraq. (The full excerpt, from the section of the paper labelled "Shocks," appears below.) There are two kinds of outcomes: 1) good ("non-shock"), and 2) bad ("shock").
...all of the possibilities that could plausibly be described as largely democratic. Those possibilities could run from political systems having electoral elements combined with a heavy dose of patronage politics and negotiated power-sharing (something like today's Lebanon) to a more democratic Switzerland-on-the-Tigris.Bad:
A radical Islamist regime... A secular strongman... Civil war... Iraq breaks up... Any of these last four possibilities would be seen as a major defeat for the United States, with corresponding negative consequences for US prestige and influence in the region.In other words, democracy -- defined so loosely that it encompasses "today's Lebanon" (!) -- means a victory for the U.S., while the emergence of "a secular strongman" would be a "major defeat" for the U.S., equivalent in its consequences to an outcome resembling Lebanon ca. 1975, Iran ca. 1979, or Yugoslavia ca. 1992, which are in turn indistinguishable from one another in their consequences for the United States. And what are those consequences? The NIC doesn't say. We are simply assured that there are "corresponding negative consequences for US prestige and influence in the region."
Is this presentation, so rich in spin and poor in analysis, the best that the combined minds of the U.S. Intelligence Community can do? Let's hope not.
(Note: I made the case for the attractions of a secular strongman here.)
Feb. 11, 2004. See also The NIC in the Middle East, continued.
Excerpt from "The Middle East to 2020"
Alternative outcomes in Iraq. Although the effects that political change in Iraq will have on the rest of the region are sometimes overstated, the size and centrality of Iraq mean that events there are bound to have repercussions elsewhere in the region. That the United States has made the outcome in Iraq a matter of high stakes for itself will accentuate those repercussions, at least regarding the US role in the region and relations between the United States and regional states.
Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000173.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.
by Analyst @ 09:38 AM CST [Link]
Replies: 4 comments
U.S. foreign policy intelligence is apparently an oxymoron.
It is hardly surprising that the report is foggy. A committee charged with predicting "the future" of the Middle East until 2020 is likely to write something like "on the one hand this, on the other hand that." Foreign policy advisories tend to be muffled in that sort of morass. I believe that it was Harry S. Truman who said, for that reason, that he would like to have a one-handed adviser.
What is disappointing, as Analyst pointed out, is the poor judgement of the NIC. It is one thing to be unable to predict the future. It is quite another to be so morally bankrupt that you cannot distinguish a good outcome from a bad one.
The abandonment of Lebanon is a revolting reminder that US foreign policy has almost always been soulless. For the US to approve of the situation in Lebanon as a "good" outcome, is equivalent to a missionary coming upon the cannibals at dinner, and complimenting them on their choice of condiments.
What the NIC report tells us about Iraq is not just that the USA has no idea to get where it wants to go, but that the USA doesn't have the moral sense to differentiate a good outcome from a bad one.
Tell us something we didn't know.
Posted by Moderator @ 02/02/2004 12:09 PM CST
President George W. Bush is not only "stubborn," he is a typical Texan, and uses a tactic of "dumbing ya.'" This is to speak simply, and remain silent while an adversary talks and talks and talks..., and Bush then finds out all he needs to know...and then cleans out the advesary's pockets. Even when this Bush administration appears to be losing...it maybe an old oilman trick, used at the ***** tables...Very few people have figured President Bush out yet and he likes it that way.
Bush and company, all rhetoric aside, will continue to use sophisticated tactics other administrations have never thought of using. Just wait till the fat lady sings before you insult this president or American intelligence agencies. The game in the Middle Eeast is far from over yet.
Diana Wilson Ph.D.
Posted by Diana Wilson @ 02/04/2004 04:07 AM CST
Previous postings are of one mind with their antipathy for Bush & US Intel as well as a clear domestic regional bias. Fine to criticize, Doctor Diana, but what alternatives would you suggest in your perfect world? In the words of Charcot, "Philosophy is fine, but it doesn't prevent THINGS from existing".
Posted by Harvey Sessions @ 02/05/2004 12:49 AM CST
"Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of
"We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological
"We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is
"In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence
"We are in possession of what I think to be compelling
Posted by Harvey Sessions @ 02/12/2004 11:30 PM CST
Please do not leave notes for MidEastWeb editors here. Hyperlinks are not displayed. We may delete or abridge comments that are longer than 250 words, or consist entirely of material copied from other sources, and we shall delete comments with obscene or racist content or commercial advertisements. Comments should adhere to Mideastweb Guidelines . IPs of offenders will be banned.
Editors' contributions are copyright by the authors and MidEastWeb for Coexistence RA.
Please link to main article pages and tell your friends about MidEastWeb. Do not copy MidEastWeb materials to your Web Site. That is a violation of our copyright. Click for copyright policy.
MidEastWeb and the editors are not responsible for content of visitors' comments.
Please report any comments that are offensive or racist.
Editors can log in by clicking here