Foregone Conclusions: Vested Interests and Intelligence Analysis
Remarks to Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired (DACOR)
12 June 2009, Washington, DC
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Not so long ago – before I was sprayed by political skunks and had to excuse myself to avoid subjecting others to the stench of political vilification – I had occasion to spend some time thinking about intelligence, in the sense of the analysis of information relevant to statecraft. This is an important topic under any circumstance. It is all the more so in the wake of the string of disasters that persistent inattentiveness to foreign trends and events, occasional analytical misjudgments, and frequent policy miscalculations have brought us in recent years.
In broad terms, the intelligence community provides the sensory apparatus of the state, without which the inner reaches of our government are blind, deaf, numb, and heedless of threats and opportunities alike. Intelligence agencies assure situational awareness and alertness to trends. Our executive branch relies on the analytical product of the intelligence community – how it understands and communicates the information it notices – to ensure that policymaking is on sound factual and psychological ground. Once in a great while, Congress does the same. At its best, analysis can correct the conventional wisdom and the preconceptions by which we misconstrue, misperceive, or fail to notice foreign trends and events of import. At its worst, it can fortify national denial and complacency, perpetuate blind spots, attribute our own hopes, fears, and motivations to foreigners who do not share them, or reinforce ill-founded self-congratulation. It can alert us to the dangers and opportunities change brings or it can sedate us with comforting affirmations that assume the durability of the status quo. It can protect us from harm and enable us to position ourselves to national advantage or it can make us vulnerable and prone to policy pratfalls.
Intelligence analysis, of which diplomatic analysis is a subset and to which some here have contributed much, is, in short, central to our republic’s formulation and conduct of successful policy. In my experience, the analysts in our intelligence community are, by and large, exceptionally able people who are dedicated to providing us with essential insights into foreign realities and capable of doing so. But, for our leaders to be able correctly to judge what we should do and how they should adjust those moral compasses and approaches they inherit from predecessors, our best informed and most free-thinking analysts must be free to reach considered judgments without censorship and without compulsion. The analytical process must strive to understand and portray reality as dispassionate examination finds it to be, not as ideology or interested parties stipulate it should or must be. It matters greatly whether our executive branch and Congress demand analysts’ honest inferences or insist that they be told only what they or powerful constituencies in our body politic want to hear.
As the fate of the Department of State’s China hands in the middle of the 20th Century famously attests, sustaining objectivity against the pressures of political correctness has never been easy. The China hands have been far from alone; others with unwelcome expertise and insight into foreign events have met similar punishment and ostracism. To be right when what you say is politically wrong is to invite punishment from the guardians of political correctness. No surprise there. But the very notion that analysis should be wertfrei – value-free – has come under strong attack in recent years. Three months ago, for example, an op-ed in the now mostly neo-con editorial pages of the Washington Post charged me with the epistemological sin of “realism,” arguing that my lack of a passionate attachment to Israel rendered me incapable of correctly assessing the impact of its policies on U.S. interests. It is clear that, in the view of some, selective apology or denunciation of foreign behavior, not the prediction of it or its effects on our country and its interests, are what intelligence work should be all about.
For such polemicists, politically correct delusion is preferable to a realistic view of the external world as the basis of policy. The splendid results of the approach they have advocated are visible around the globe but nowhere more than in the stable, secular democracy that has emerged in Iraq, the shriveling of Islamic extremism our invasion and occupation of Muslim lands has catalyzed, the peace and development we have brought to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the concord that the suspension of independent American judgment has caused to flower in the Holy Land. You don’t have to be a realist to notice discrepancies between the predicted results of policies and their actual catastrophic consequences. And yet, unchastened by empiricism, those who insisted on these policies continue to advocate more of the same.
The concept of analysis as polemic finds its major expression in the myriad of “think tanks” – perhaps, more accurately, “belief tanks” – established in recent decades to spin trends and events to promote the ideological or other theses of their founders and supporters. It is also a key characteristic of the cliquish dialogue of the blogosphere, in which partisan commentary reinforces parochial views and fact-checking or skeptical questioning more often elicit obscene ad hominem attacks than serious reflection. Paradoxically, those obsessed with particular issues have more information than ever before to draw upon, even as general civic literacy on foreign affairs and the space for civil debate on public policy issues continue to contract.
Courses in foreign geography, history, classics, and culture are no longer part of most school curricula. Surveys show the average American to be supremely ignorant of the world beyond our shores. The 2,500 foreign correspondents fielded by the U.S. press sixty years ago have dwindled to less than 200. Our media have been systematically reduced and homogenized by mergers and acquisitions; oligopolies decide what is fit to print. Their owners defer to advertisers but show little if any commitment to journalistic fairness, balance, or depth. The coverage of foreign events in our print media shrinks daily along with the newspapers themselves. The TV news, which bears the same resemblance to news in print media as the funny papers do to serious reportage, long since became the primary source of information for the American public. It’s hard to know whether it’s good or bad that television itself is now being displaced from this role by the highly selective news feeds that cater to niche audiences on the internet.
What does all this have to do with intelligence? A lot. Intelligence is simply reliable information that is relevant to decision-making. To be useful, it must be accepted by those charged with making decisions, that is, politicians. Politicians are by nature responsive to pressure from activist constituencies and disinclined to challenge them. When the public at large is uninformed and apathetic, fervent minorities can therefore dominate discussion, shape national views, and set the parameters of what is both politically acceptable and credible. They can define the conventional wisdom and inhibit the free expression of views contrary to their own. They can even aspire to make alternative perspectives taboo – not just unspeakable but unthinkable in private as well as in public.
In this way, a relatively small group of activists can direct national policy to the advantage of the cause they espouse even when this is arguably contrary to the broader national interest or even the majority in the community of interests they purport to represent. To accommodate these political realities, we have evolved a system of foreign policy by franchise. We turn over the design of policy and the management of its implementation to those Americans most emotionally involved with the issues in dispute, least inclined to weigh them against other priorities, and most committed to one foreign side versus the other.
This makes it all the more important to sound national leadership that our intelligence community be able to provide an independent check on reality and not leave perceptions of it to definition by the many foreign-connected and domestic interests seeking to impose their views and policy preferences on our body politic. The current global financial crisis and our difficulties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan as well as elsewhere illustrate the fact that, as a nation, we have diminished margins for error. If we can no longer live by our wallets, we must learn to live by our wits. To do this, we must deal with the world as it is, not as domestic constituencies prefer or stipulate it to be. We will pay heavily in blood and treasure if we allow political correctness to preclude analysis of important foreign policy issues or to declare in advance what the conclusions of such analysis must be. This is not a theoretical issue. Let me cite a few examples.
For the past forty or more years, the achievement of a peace that could secure the future of Israel has been a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. Every president has made the pursuit of such a peace a central element of his diplomacy. To this end, over this period, the United States has transferred more than $100 billion directly to Israel and as much as another $100 billion indirectly. We have also spent well over a trillion dollars and thousands of lives on wars that relate at least in part to the objective of securing peace for Israel. Yet there has never been a national intelligence estimate (NIE) on the prospects for Middle East peace or, for that matter, on the prospects for the state of Israel in its absence. Nor has there been such a review of either the impact of the US-Israeli strategic partnership on our relations with the Arab or Islamic worlds or the role that Arab and Muslim perceptions of it may play in stimulating anti-American terrorism. There has been no independent evaluation of the perpetually unsuccessful “peace process” despite repeated charges from the peace movement in Israel that their government gives lip service to peace while acting to stall it so as to wrest ever more land from Palestinians. Our understanding of events in the Holy Land has been left to be defined by AIPAC and other American supporters of the settler movement in Israeli-occupied Arab lands. They have brazenly – and quite successfully – insisted that the Likud Party and related right-wing factions in Israeli politics should have the right to decide U.S. policy as well as the policy of Israel.
Is it possible that the suspension of independent judgment by the United States has something to do with the utter failure of our forty-year effort to produce a just and lasting peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs? Could it be that in this instance, as in others, foreign policy by franchise serves the interest of the operators of the franchise more than it benefits anyone else? Might our unconditional, unexamined support of the Jewish holy war for land in Palestine have something to do with the expanding holy war against us by some Arabs and Muslims? Israelis regularly ask these questions and vigorously debate them. Until recently, at least, Americans, by contrast, have been effectively enjoined from asking them and hence from considering policies that might secure Israel while securing ourselves.
Such silencing of debate is a perversion of democracy. The Likud lobby does not simply seek to ensure that the positions it advocates receive favorable consideration in the policy-making process, as it is fully entitled to do. It strives to block contrary views by applying odious labels to their spokespersons, distorting their records, ostracizing them, and obstructing the circulation of their views in the media. It prefers to operate in the shadows. Its characteristic mode of attack is the whisper campaign and hit-and-run; having struck, it denies that it was even on the scene. Like the Bolsheviks, the Likud lobby falsely claims to represent a majority – in this case, a majority of the American Jewish community – when it does not. Its thought police are in fact especially vicious in their suppression of contrary opinion among the three-fourths of Jewish Americans who favor peace over continuing land grabs in the Holy Land.
The Likud lobby should not be allowed to usurp the title, “Israel Lobby.” It is pro-settler, anti-Arab, and anti-free speech. It does not care whether those it lobbies hate it as long as they fear it. Its answer to the possibility that its actions might rekindle anti-Semitism in this country is intensified intimidation of Israel’s American critics, whom it conflates with the dwindling band of citizens who object to the extraordinary contributions to our nation’s public life of Jewish Americans . This lobby’s object is not to win debate but to preclude it. To that end, it insists that only those associated with its viewpoints occupy positions of public trust in our government. It is a menace not so much because of what it advocates, with respect to which reasonable men might differ, as because of the profoundly anti-democratic means by which it ensures that no one, Jew or gentile, reasonable or not, can exercise the right to differ with it.
We have seen this phenomenon in our politics before. The “China Lobby,” which, in association with Senator Joseph McCarthy, advocated the interests of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang by branding its opponents as treasonous and silencing them, is a case in point. Americans waited decades for a leader with the vision and guile to devise a policy that served our interests rather than Chiang’s. But not all policy blind spots are the result of such anti-democratic agitation on behalf of foreign interests.
Sometimes the commitment of those in charge of a program morphs into groupthink that blocks necessary study of ground truth. That was how we marched toward tragic outcomes at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam. Iraq, where we have stabilized the occupation but not the country, gives every sign of being another such situation. Continued military direction of efforts to deny Afghanistan to “terrorists with global reach” provides the most recent example.
Our conflation of al Qa`ida with the Taliban has caused anti-American terrorism to metastasize. It is now eating away at Pakistan. The recent policy review produced tactical adjustments in our campaign plan but evidently left most assumptions underlying past policies intact and unexamined. To a great extent the adjusted policy is more of the same. This should not surprise. After all, the policy review was begun in the last administration. It was led by the U.S. military and conceived in large measure to vindicate past military sacrifices. Its implicit watchword was “support the troops and stand by the generals,” not “figure out how we can most efficiently deny the region to terrorists with global reach.”
Our military are superb at crafting campaign plans and consistently unsuccessful at designing and implementing politico-military strategy. The new campaign plan was designed from the top down on the basis of domestic political imperatives, general military doctrine, and our experience in the very different circumstances of Iraq. It was not built from the bottom up on the basis of local realities. It pays lip service to narrowing our objectives and pursuing non-military solutions but does not, in practice, do so. For it to work, lots of very improbable things have to happen.
For the first time in thousands of years, Afghanistan would have to develop a strong central government in Kabul. Under military pressure from us, the Pashtun tribes who straddle the border have for all practical purposes withdrawn the limited allegiance they had earlier granted to Kabul or Islamabad. They would have to restore their fealty to these capitals and accept a much greater measure of direct rule from them than ever before. Pashtun and Baluchi heads of household would have to forgive outsiders who intrude on the privacy of their women or kill their kin. They would have to delegate the defense of their honor to foreigners or central government soldiers recruited from the ranks of their traditional ethnic adversaries.
In this context, consider the implications of reports that, at present, for every two members of al Qa`ida we kill with a missile fired from a drone, we cause the deaths of a hundred Afghan or Pakistani civilians, all of them part of extensive social networks built on mutual obligation for protection and revenge. If these figures are even in the ballpark, how does one describe such a policy? (“Counter-productive” seems too wishy-washy. “Immoral” comes readily to mind. Perhaps “catastrophically misguided” is an even better fit.) Yet we now plan to expand the use of lethal drones.
The drug economy that our intervention has fostered would have to be replaced by other sources of income for Afghan farmers, as yet unidentified. Pakistan would have to set aside its judgment, born of bitter experience, that India presents a mortal threat to it. Its army would have to assign higher priority to combating militant members of the religion that defines its national identity than to defending against Indian attack. Pakistanis would have to accept the growing Indian presence in their strategic rear, in Afghanistan, rather than empowering their intelligence agencies to act on their fear of encirclement. And all of this would have to be accomplished in partnership with a foreign power – the United States – that most Pakistanis, like other Muslims, continue to see as hostile to their religion and engaged in war on its believers in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in league with Israel in its campaign to dislodge Palestinians from what remains of their hold on Palestine.
Even without considering feminist or nuclear non-proliferation objectives, this is a policy with aims that are far too broad, with too many moving parts, pursued by predominantly military means that are ill-suited to the task, and abstracted from local cultural and political realities. No doubt General Petraeus will have ample time to play his program out. Still, it is not too early to begin to do the analysis needed to design a policy with narrower objectives that leverages local realities rather than trying to overturn them. We will need such a policy if the current one strikes out. I am not the only one to fear that it represents the reinforcement of failure rather than a path to success.
There are many more examples of blind spots delineated by prejudice and sustained by vested interests that impede our understanding of the world and impair our ability to formulate effective policies to deal with its problems. I think, in particular, of the Islamophobia that post 9/11 fear-mongering has now deeply etched into the American psyche. As President Obama has eloquently argued, we cannot hope to build alliances against extremism with the fifth of the human race that is Muslim if we proceed from ignorance and fear of their faith. Nor – on another subject of vital interest to Americans – can we make the transitions we must in the global monetary and financial system if we persist in the delusion that Richard Nixon’s gutted version of Bretton Woods can remain forever in place. As Edmund Burke observed, “the heart of diplomacy is to yield gracefully what you no longer have the power to withhold.” But to wrest advantage from doing this, one must first understand what one cannot withhold and why.
Time does not permit me to cite the many other conditions, trends, and events with respect to which our understanding of the world could use a solid boost from the intelligence community. I will save that for another occasion. I do not want to close, however, without pointing out that, despite the breakdown or near-breakdown of more than a few elements of our socio-economic system, we have not tasked our analysts to look at how other societies have succeeded or failed in addressing similar problems. Such issues range from deteriorating and poorly integrated transportation infrastructure, to collapsing pension systems, to striking an appropriate balance between the open society and security against terrorism, to managing state ownership of significant chunks of the formerly private economy, to many other issues like medical insurance and health care. To take this last example, the World Health Organization (WHO) rates our system thirty-seventh or so in the world in terms of what it delivers. That means there are at least thirty-six nations that, by some measure, do better than we at supplying affordable health care to their citizens. Why do we not see it as in our interest to learn from foreign best practices in areas like this where we clearly don’t know what to do?
Is it the result of some lingering belief that – despite much evidence to the contrary – we Americans have all the answers? Or is it that the various elements of our medical-industrial complex, insurance sector, trucking companies, unions, and construction companies, and so forth cherish the cushy deals they have worked out for themselves and don’t want the challenges to these that consideration of foreign experience might suggest? Whatever the cause, it’s hard to argue that we could not benefit from a less insular approach to crafting necessary domestic reforms. Why not put our intelligence community to work at mining foreign experiences for ideas for better solutions to our domestic problems? It seems to me, at least, that domestic reform is now too urgent to be left to the self-serving reporting and skewed analysis of the disparate champions of our status quo.
In the end, the quality of American decision-making reflects the vigor and openness of our democracy. On some subjects, I have argued today, our democracy has demonstrably been neither open nor vigorous. In the case of a few, analysts have been conditioned to cringe in silence, not to exercise independent judgment or voice critical challenges to the politically correct conventional wisdom. This is a dangerous weakness in our national security system that invites correction – either through introspection and reform or from further bitter experiences with failure. Intelligence is properly the critical assessor, not the designated cheerleader, of policy results. But the best intelligence in the world is of no avail if those in Congress and the executive branch who must act on it are mentally unprepared to heed it or disinclined to accept it because it contradicts their preconceptions.
To meet the challenges before us, Americans need heightened civic literacy and reinvigorated public dialogue. This means encouraging civil debate about precisely those issues that are most painfully controversial. Realism about trends and events that affect the general welfare, common defense, liberties, and domestic tranquility of our country is the essential basis of wise and moral policies. An intelligence community that is independent and protected against vested interests, not subjected to censorship and direction by them, is the essential prerequisite for this. That is not a description of our current situation. It is, however, something we cannot do without.