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The NIC in the Middle East, continued


I didn't plan to return to this subject so soon, but just stumbled across the prepared text (here, in PDF format) of an April 2003 presentation by Robert L. Hutchings, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC), speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. The NIC is a sort of think tank that serves the Director of Central Intelligence.

Infelicitiously titled "The World After Iraq," the paper offers Hutchings' "own take" on the findings of a half-day conference devoted to that rather large topic. "It is," Hutchings writes, "the kind of thing the NIC does well, bringing a diverse group of senior experts together to look over the horizon at a focused agenda of critical issues."

Let's have a look at Hutchings' thoughts on the Middle East "after Iraq" and see for ourselves if the NIC performed as advertised.

Sadly, once again we see a NIC, and perhaps an entire Intelligence Community, committed to maneuvering between three poles: first, their best estimate of the situation; second, flattery and accomodation to the very different views of their political masters; and third, a very unfortunate reluctance to deviate too far from conventional wisdom. The NIC is a nail that hammers itself down before it can even be struck. Mr. Hutchings mutters truth to power under his breath.

Here is the text of Hutchings' section on the Middle East, with my assessments interspersed along the way.

Regional Issues

Within the region, we can expect a near-term spike in anti-American terrorist activity and an expansion of the recruitment pool of extremist groups and would-be terrorists. Over the longer term, there will be two kinds of effects: those springing from regime change in Iraq, and those coming from the U.S. military action and occupation.

A prolonged U.S. military presence would evoke in Arab minds the 13th century Mongol occupation of Baghdad. These effects would be mitigated by "nativization" via a swift transfer to Iraqi authority or by "internationalization" via the visible presence of UN and NGO representatives. The Administration has already made clear its determination to hand over power as quickly as possible to an Iraqi interim authority, and President Bush affirmed a "vital role" for the UN at his press conference this morning.

Above, Hutchings identifies an important problem: Arab (not just Iraqi) resentment of American occupation, which is liable to fuel future terrorism. But rather than focus on the issue for very long, he points out that the Administration has already developed a sufficient response by endorsing an interim government and asking the UN to return to Iraq. This quick cop-out is the sort of thing that goes down easily with the Powers That Be.
Democratic change within the region will not come quickly. In Iraq itself, it is not unreasonable to hope that an interim authority together with a stabilizing U.S. security presence will enable the country to move toward an open and participatory political system governed by the rule of law and pursuing cooperative relations with its neighbors. Stable democracy, as we know from many examples, will not be achieved overnight, however. In Iraq and elsewhere in the region, progress will be constrained by enduring realities unrelated this conflict: lack of democratic political culture, weak civil society, and strong vested interests against reform.
"It is not unreasonable to hope..." That is not the question. The question is, what is reasonable to expect? Again, Hutchings takes notice of a serious problem -- this time, the poor chances for a democratic Iraq -- and just as quickly snuffs out his own concerns with a cop-out. He holds out hope that Iraq can progress towards democracy gradually, so long as it enjoys a "a stabilizing U.S. security presence." Yet this rosy scenario comes just one paragraph after a stern warning that a "prolonged U.S. military presence would evoke in Arab minds the 13th century Mongol occupation of Baghdad" -- an intolerable insult to Arab pride. If so, how can that same presence be stabilizing, either in Iraq or more broadly? Ah, of course. The "visible presence of UN and NGO representatives." Maybe they'll issue blue hats to the Mongols, too.

Possibly these cop-outs are the price exacted for delivering public, unclassified versions of these presentations. If that's so, it tends to call into question the value of public briefings by intelligence officials.

However, one should not undervalue the removal of a despotic and threatening regime and its replacement with one that is more open, lawful, and cooperative. This will enhance the security environment for moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, though it may be unsettling internally at least in the near term. How it plays in Syria and Iran is harder to gauge. One hopes those regimes will conclude they should cease supporting terrorists and pursuing weapons of mass destruction, but it is an open question whether they will draw those lessons.
Having underscored just how unlikely a democratic Iraq will be in the foreseeable future, Hutchings moves swiftly to assure his audience that even something less than democracy will be sufficient to realize the Administration's "transformational" vision for the region. He somehow overlooks any possibility of an even less wholesome outcome. There is no "would" here, only "will." Almost imperceptibly, purportedly not-unreasonable hopes have re-emerged as fully fledged expectations.
Regional attitudes will turn in large measure on the state of Arab-Israeli relations. Positive developments in the Palestinian leadership run up against a continuing climate of bitter hostility that militates against a breakthrough, but the perception that the United States was making a strong effort to broker a settlement would itself help to temper anti-American suspicions and animosities in the Arab world. At their joint press conference this morning, President Bush and Prime Minister Blair reaffirmed their determination to do so.

[Section ends]

Conventional wisdom tragically reasserts itself. Despite all my criticisms up to this point, Hutchings was actually doing pretty well, certainly by typical Washington standards. But here he reverts to the mediocre norm of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Let's consider just the broad outlines of the situation. Along with a few incidental partners, the United States of America, with all of its armed might, has (in the typical Arab view) arbitrarily invaded and swiftly conquered Iraq, a large, centrally located Arab country. It now occupies Iraq. While battling an insurgency, the United States is moving to install a new and friendly government supported by native security forces. But American troops are likely to remain there for a good long while. As one Robert L. Hutchings put it, "Over the longer term, there will be two kinds of effects [on anti-American terrorist activity]: those springing from regime change in Iraq, and those coming from the U.S. military action and occupation."

But now, lo and behold! comes a third, overridingly important effect, forgotten until now: "Regional attitudes [toward America] will turn in large measure on the state of Arab-Israeli relations." When they think of the U.S., Hutchings now says, Arabs won't contemplate the 100,000 American soldiers occupying Iraq as much as the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations. If that's what The New York Times is saying lately, it must be true.

Let me be brutally blunt. Hutchings knows that two things are a pretty good bet. One is that, after the invasion of Iraq, America's popularity in the Arab world is at an all-time low, and it isn't liable to see dramatic improvement anytime soon. Another is that Israeli-Palestinian relations are not particularly on the upswing either. The first didn't cause the second; the second didn't cause the first. But pretending otherwise offers an excellent excuse for failure. Excellent because it agrees with what all the folks in the know already are saying, not because it makes any sense.

(See here for a different assessment of the Middle East's enduring problems.)

A final thought. As the "independent and bipartisan" panel appointed exclusively by the White House conducts its "examination" of intelligence on Iraq, let's be sure to recall this farcical performance. After all, the NIC is the same body that oversaw the production of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. Here we see a prominent element of the U.S. Intelligence Community with its finger to the wind, delivering views seemingly against its own better judgment. Is this representative of a broader phenomenon? You decide.


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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/00000182.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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