Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Getting out of Iraq

Tom Powers, in a depressing review, thinks we can't get out of Iraq or Afghanistan until we have a President and a people ready to concede, at least tacitly, that we have been defeated--something he does not think either Obama or McCain is likely to do.

As he makes his case, he also observes that the much-maligned intelligence agencies' failures really has to be attributed to the political leadership, which demanded that intelligence reports delivered up the chain conform with political imperatives. Money:

Lesson Number Two emerged that autumn back at the Pentagon, where Rossmiller was a rising member of the Office of Iraq Analysis. In the months running up to the Iraqi elections in December 2005, Rossmiller and other DIA analysts all predicted that Iraqis were going to "vote identity" and the winners would be Shiite Islamists, who were already running the government. President Bush and the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, publicly predicted the opposite—secularists were gaining, the Sunnis were going to vote this time, a genuine "national unity government" would end sectarian strife, the corner would be turned as the war entered its fourth year.

Rossmiller soon realized that this was not simply a difference of opinion. Nobody dared to tell the President he was wrong, either to his face or in an official report. This timidity ran right down the chain of command from the White House to Rumsfeld to the director of the DIA, ever downward level by level until it reached the analysts actually working the data. "You're being too pessimistic," they were told. "We can't pass this up the chain.... We need to make sure we're not too far off message with this." Some analysts protested and watched their careers sputter; most retreated into bitter humor. Reports were rewritten to support official hope. On the very eve of the Iraqi election a briefing was concocted to "report" that Islamists were worrying about a late surge by some administration favorite, as if a roomful of nodding heads at a briefing in the Pentagon were somehow going to carry the election in Iraq. Watching this exercise in magical thinking and self-delusion convinced Rossmiller that under Rumsfeld intelligence itself was "still broken" nearly three years into the war—an expensive charade to find or predict whatever the White House wanted.

Intelligence organizations cannot be more effective than their political commanders. Intelligence organizations, as a matter of practice, want to know where the bodies (or WMDs, as the case may be) are buried, and want to tell the political leadership what they know. In many cases, however, the political leadership simply doesn't want to hear it, and in those cases intelligence organizations will always fail, as the craeer intelligence officers will do what they must to meet the needs of the politicals.

This is why the U.S. intelligence community's failure to predict the fall of Soviet Communism is actually worse than its failure to realize that Saddam had no WMDs. Seeing economic decrepitude of (and ebbing ideological commitment to) the Soviet system should have been something intelligence officers could have figured out, and moreover it would have been a message that the political leadership in Washington might have accepted. The intelligence community simply missed the boat on this one, unforgivably. Luckily for the U.S., the surprise was upside, and so no heads ended up rolling.

In the case of Iraqi WMDs, on the other hand, only one answer was politically acceptable to the Bush White House, namely that Saddam possessed such weapons. Given the combination of the White House's insistance that they reach a politically helpful conclusion and the fiendish difficulty of proving a negative (namely Saddam's lack of WMDs), it was virtually inevitable that the intelligence agencies would conclude that he probably did have them. But the key point is that this failure was ultimately a political failure, not an intelligence failure as such.

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