April 13, 2006

The Irrelevance of Intelligence Again, and Collective Illusions

I continue to see many references on political blogs to the "importance of getting the intelligence right." At the moment, such comments obviously come up most often in discussions about "what to do about Iran." It's no surprise that this perspective shows up on conservative and rightwing blogs -- but I continue to be astounded that so many liberal and progressive bloggers still fall for this line.

People don't seem to grasp the necessary meaning of this approach. If you contend that it is crucial for the intelligence to be correct and given how the argument is almost always presented, you are assuming that major policy decisions are made on the basis of that intelligence, at least to a significant degree. This is buying into Bush's defense entirely: "But everyone thought Iraq had WMD and was a serious and growing threat!" Never mind the lie about "everyone" having thought this, which everyone most certainly did not. The crucial point is that Bush is saying that he only launched the war on Iraq because of what the intelligence indicated. And even liberals still repeat this propaganda.

The record has been indisputably clear for some time now -- and the record is amplified almost every day -- that the decision to go to war was made first, entirely separate and apart from the intelligence, whatever it may have indicated and whether it was correct or not. Subsequently, the intelligence was "fixed" around the policy. To be more exact in terms of its purpose: the intelligence was used selectively and misleadingly as the propaganda to justify the war to the American public, and to the world. The servile media was the indispensable transmission belt used to convey the administration propaganda to the rest of us.

This is not a complicated point, and I cannot understand why people are so resistant to it. The only explanation I can offer is that, despite many liberals' frequent comments to the effect that Bush, et al. are basically nuts, that they lie about everything, and that they cannot be trusted on anything, most people simply cannot accept fully, all the way down, that our leaders behave irrationally on major questions of policy, including the initiation of war. I understand that in one sense: it's hardly comforting to think that people with a massive military arsenal at their command, an arsenal including countless nuclear weapons, are not constrained or guided by rational argument, facts or evidence.

In the first part of my "Walking into the Iran Trap" series -- A Decision of Policy--and the Intelligence Won't Matter -- I quoted Barbara Tuchman:
Acquiescence in Executive war, [Fulbright] wrote, comes from the belief that the government possesses secret information that gives it special insight in determining policy. Not only was this questionable, but major policy decisions turn "not upon available facts but upon judgment," with which policy-makers are no better endowed than the intelligent citizen. Congress and citizens can judge "whether the massive deployment and destruction of their men and wealth seem to serve the overall interests as a nation."


The belief that government knows best was voiced just at this time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who said on resumption of the bombing, "We ought to all support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against." This is a comforting assumption that relieves people from taking a stand. It is usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs. "Foreign policy decisions," concluded Gunnar Myrdal after two decades of study, "are in general much more influenced by irrational motives" than are domestic ones.
In that entry, I went on to write:
This is the critical point that many commentators never grasp, especially those in our mainstream media, and that many others minimize. It may indeed be comforting to think that decisions of war and peace are made on the basis of facts, cold, clear logic, and "secret information" (information that is accurate, I hasten to add) -- but history, including our most recent history, does not support that view. We might think that is the correct method that should be utilized in pondering the fates of many thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians -- and indeed, it is the right procedure, if leaders were amenable to being directed solely by facts and what is in their nations' best long-term interests. But if leaders were ultimately moved by such factors, World War I would not have witnessed years of endless slaughter, it would not have lasted as long as it did, and it might not have begun at all. And if our own political and military leaders focused on those factors that ought to serve as their lodestar to the exclusion of all else, we would not have had the nightmare of Vietnam then -- or the nightmare of Iraq now.
In a later essay, The Irrelevance of Intelligence and "Rational Actors," I discussed the confirmation of these points provided by Paul R. Pillar, and quoted from a news article as follows:
The former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year has accused the Bush administration of "cherry-picking" intelligence on Iraq to justify a decision it had already reached to go to war, and of ignoring warnings that the country could easily fall into violence and chaos after an invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Paul R. Pillar, who was the national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005, acknowledges the U.S. intelligence agencies' mistakes in concluding that Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. But he said those misjudgments did not drive the administration's decision to invade.

"Official intelligence on Iraqi weapons programs was flawed, but even with its flaws, it was not what led to the war," Pillar wrote in the upcoming issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. Instead, he asserted, the administration "went to war without requesting -- and evidently without being influenced by -- any strategic-level intelligence assessments on any aspect of Iraq."

"It has become clear that official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between [Bush] policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized," Pillar wrote.
I discussed these issues still further when I examined Andrew Sullivan's "second thoughts" about the Iraq war, which demonstrate only that he has learned precisely nothing -- including the critical fact that the intelligence was and continues to be largely irrelevant to decisions of policy and judgment.

I'm in the process of reading Gabriel Kolko's enormously valuable book, The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World. Kolko offers a wonderful passage about the role of intelligence, and here it is:
After 1991 the United States assumed that its objectives and desires, backed by its growing military armada, could increasingly guide change in any region it chose to intervene in. That is why the United States defines, for better or worse, the nature and course of international affairs in the future. The extent to which it acts rationally is, as with other nations throughout modern times, to a great degree dependent on the accuracy of its intelligence and the extent it uses information to guide its actions. But collective illusions have characterized the leaders of most nations since time immemorial. They have substituted their desires, ambitions, and interests for accurate estimates of what may occur from their actions. At best, intelligence organizations gather data of tactical rather than strategic utility. An infrastructure of ambitious people exists to reinforce the leaders' preconceptions, in part because they too are socialized to believe what often proves to be illusion. But bearers of bad tidings are, by and large, unwelcome and prevented from reaching the higher ranks of most political orders. It is extremely difficult for nations to behave rationally, which means accepting the limits of their power, and what is called intelligence has to confront the institutional biases and inhibitions of each social system. Thus deductive, symbolic reactions become much more likely, notwithstanding the immense risks of their being wrong. The US war in Iraq and the geopolitical folly of its larger strategy in the Persian Gulf is but one recent example of it.

It is all too rare that states overcome illusions, and the United States is no more an exception than Germany, Italy, England, or France before it. The function of intelligence anywhere is far less to encourage rational behavior--although sometimes that occurs--than to justify a nation's illusions, and it is the false expectations that conventional wisdom encourages that make wars more likely, a pattern that has only increased since the early twentieth century. By and large, US, Soviet, and British strategic intelligence since 1945 has been inaccurate and often misleading, and although it accumulated pieces of information that were useful, the leaders of these nations failed to grasp the inherent dangers of their overall policies. When accurate, such intelligence has been ignored most of the time if there were overriding preconceptions or bureaucratic reasons for doing so.
Yes, accurate intelligence, both tactical and strategic, is of critical importance. But whether and to what extent that intelligence, accurate or not, actually influences decisions of policy is an entirely separate inquiry. As Tuchman, Kolko and many have others have noted, and as history has proven repeatedly, most of the time it does not.

A crucial part of the Iran propaganda campaign has been to steadily reduce the relevant time horizon, as I noted in this essay. The administration began with estimates of approximately a decade before Iran could have nuclear weapons -- which then got reduced to five years -- which then was further shrunk to a year or two -- then to a few months -- and now they are offering ludicrous stories about Iran having nukes within 16 days. Let me repeat the critical point: this is all propaganda. It doesn't matter in the least that they say this is what the intelligence indicates. Even if it were accurate, which almost all of it is not, the intelligence is not the foundation of the administration's foreign policy, with regard to Iran or more broadly.

In fact, I have thought for a few years that the decision to attack to Iran was made some time ago. I am more convinced of that now than I ever was before. The constant stream of scare stories about Iran is designed only to terrify the American public sufficiently, so that when Bush holds a press conference to announce air strikes against Iran that have already begun, enough people will believe that the strikes were necessary -- since Iran was about to launch nuclear weapons against us momentarily.

As with Iraq, all the major points will be lies. All of it will be war propaganda. And given our cowardly, inept, and fatally incompetent media and the lack of any significant political opposition -- which opposition, if it existed, ought to be making itself known now and not after the press conference -- and provided enough people are scared to the required degree, it will work. Again.

But let no one be heard to say that they were taken by surprise, or that they didn't see it coming, or that they didn't believe "they really meant it." We all see it coming and we all know they do mean it, and almost no one is doing a damned thing to stop it. No one is off the hook this time.

No one.