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Intelligence analysts predict Iraq's "negative consequences"


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 political role of Islam has become another pervasive and probably long lasting element in Middle Eastern affairs, although the modern version of it has not been an obviously (to outside observers) large determinant of regional events for as long as oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict have been...

...there is likely to be considerable continuity between the present and 2020--bearing in mind, of course, that such a conclusion always is the easiest projection to make about anything, and does not represent what is most useful about a futures exercise. The point is only that the turbulence of what is undeniably a turbulent region should not lead us to overlook how strong are certain currents flowing underneath the churning surface. A second conclusion is that those changes, including major changes, that do occur in the region during the next decade and a half are more likely to result from existing forces reaching some breaking point than from new variables affecting the region for the first time...

...Foreign relations for Middle Eastern states will exhibit considerable volatility. This is partly because their objectives in forging new relationships will be somewhat contradictory. (In particular, the United States could be seen as both the strongest possible guarantor of security and the most politically unpopular patron.) It also is because the region's foreign relations are in some ways still sorting themselves out from Cold War-era patterns. There could be some increased polarization between those who throw in their lot with Washington and those who do not.

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.
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.

There is a broad range of possible outcomes in Iraq. Which would be "shocks" and which would not is a matter of definition, debate, and individual expectations. Probably the "non-shock" portion of the range would include 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.

The principal possibilities outside that range are:

  • A radical Islamist regime. The effects would be similar to the advent of such a regime in another major regional state (see above).
  • A secular strongman (something like Tunisia's Ben Ali, or Saddam without the brutality). This outcome would have some stabilizing aspects, at least in the short term. In the long run it would face many of the same challenges as neighboring states in trying to meet popular expectations, as well as representing a non-solution to the problem of apportioning power among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups.
  • Civil war. This would be very likely to draw in outside states, especially Turkey and Iran, with the danger of the conflict turning into an interstate war.
  • Iraq breaks up. In some respects, not forcing the different sectarian and ethnic groups in Iraq to share the same country would be more stable than some of the alternatives. But this possibility would raise many of the same concerns among--and invite intervention by--neighboring states, as well as almost certainly leaving dissatisfaction among some of those groups about the division of Iraqi resources.

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.

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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 mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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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.

Ami Isseroff

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

Oh, BTW:

"Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of
weapons of mass destruction technology which is a threat
to countries in the region and he has made a mockery of
the weapons inspection process." -- Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D
CA), Dec. 16, 1998

"We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological
and chemical weapons throughout his country." -- Al Gore,
Sept. 23, 2002

"We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is
seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction." --
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Sept. 27, 2002

"In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence
reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his
chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile
delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also
given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including
al Qaeda members." -- Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Oct 10,

"We are in possession of what I think to be compelling
evidence that Saddam Hussein has, and has had for a number
of years, a developing capacity for the production and
storage of weapons of mass destruction... So the threat of
Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is
real..." -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-MA), Jan. 23. 2003

Posted by Harvey Sessions @ 02/12/2004 11:30 PM CST

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