The Costs of Empire
February 27, 2004
David Isenberg observes that the cost of empire is measured in dollars and cents, and in the disposition of American forces around the globe in a two-part series published by the Asia Times.
Intelligence Failures Come in Many Shapes and Sizes
by Christopher Preble
The commission appointed to look at U.S. intelligence failures relating to the Iraq war should look at the decisionmaking at the highest level of government, and might contrast President Bush's approach with that of another wartime president, Dwight David Eisenhower.
President Bush has appointed a commission to look into the apparent intelligence failures in the run up to the war against Iraq. Intelligence failures can come in many shapes and sizes. Witness Pearl Harbor, predictions about the state of the Soviet economy, or, indeed, September 11. But the greatest intelligence failures in history are made by political leaders, and do not originate with the intelligence analysts and spies who provide information to decision-makers. Two wartime presidents--Dwight David Eisenhower and George W. Bush--confronted confusing and contradictory signals about a potential threat facing the nation, and each was forced to choose from multiple sources. History shows that the retired Army general chose wisely. When the history of the war against Iraq is written, it may reveal that the former lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard did not.
Keeping the country secure from threats is, by the president's own admission, his "most solemn responsibility." Identifying and protecting against threats requires an understanding of an enemy's capability and intent to do harm.
The president receives intelligence, or more precisely, information about such threats from countless sources, public and private, classified and in the clear. But the flood of information can overwhelm. The president must pick and choose the information he uses to make decisions. Much of this information is speculative, some of it is contradictory. In the best of worlds, our leaders make sound judgments based on logic, based on a reading and interpretation of facts. But we recognize that the best leaders must make decisions based on incomplete information, and on intuition.
The stakes can be immense. Following the dramatic launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite in October 1957, many Americans feared that the United States had become vulnerable to nuclear attack from Soviet missiles. By all appearances, our Cold War adversary had made a technological breakthrough that would give it a strategic advantage over the United States. American political leaders, journalists, and even some members of his own administration called upon President Eisenhower to close the so-called missile gap.
Eisenhower resisted. He publicly disputed claims that the Soviet successes in the space race constituted a threat to the United States. And he reasoned that a crash program to build American ICBMs and long-range bombers would not make the country safer.
A key factor in Eisenhower's decision was a handful of one-on-one conversations he had had with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. At one point, Khrushchev told the president, as Ike later recounted to his national security council, "we are coming to the time where neither side can afford to declare or initiate missile warfare." During their face-to-face meetings in September 1959, Khrushchev confided to Eisenhower that the United States possessed an overwhelming strategic advantage over the Soviets. And this was why, explained Khrushchev, the Soviets would not agree to an arms control pact that would effectively freeze this American superiority into place.
There was the possibility that Khrushchev was lying to Eisenhower. The president's most fervent critics, such figures as newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop and Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, charged that the president was gambling the nation's security on his ability to read Khrushchev's mind. Eisenhower weighed that possibility. But he combined insight from his conversations with Khrushchev with other intelligence information, including the failure of the U-2 spy plane program to locate a single operational Soviet missile site, and by the lack of any corroborating data from domestic and foreign intelligence of a functioning long-range Soviet missile threat. By checking multiple data points against one another, Eisenhower correctly deduced that there was no missile gap.
Compare this episode with the approach taken by President Bush in the months before the war with Iraq. The president received numerous reports and recommendations from the intelligence services, his military advisers, Cabinet officers, and the White House staff on the nature of the Iraqi threat. He, no doubt, was aware of other reports, prepared by outside groups both here in the United States and elsewhere that challenged the belief that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States. Few disputed that Hussein was a brutal dictator. But many questioned the need to remove him from power.
There were concerns that the events in the aftermath of a war with Iraq would pose unforeseeable threats, not just to the United States, but also to the entire world. Some warned that Iraq would disintegrate into a cycle of ethnic, tribal, and religious conflict and civil war. Others questioned the advisability of attempting to bring democracy to Iraq. A classified State Department report prior to the start of the war, cited by the major media, warned that "even if some version of democracy took root, anti-American sentiment is so pervasive that elections in the short term could lead to the rise of Islamic-controlled governments hostile to the United States."
Given these pre-war predictions, it is not surprising that journalists would ask senior Bush administration officials how they would deal with a democratic government in Iraq dominated by Shia Arabs, who constitute approximately 60 percent of the population. The administration's response, however, was surprising. When asked in April 2003 how the United States would respond if an Iranian-style theocracy assumed power, Rumsfeld replied, "That isnít going to happen." This seemed to contradict the president's earlier assertions that the United States would "not impose a government on Iraq" or that "the form and leadership of that government is for the Iraqi people to choose."
More recently, the president's answers to NBC's Tim Russert on February 8 helped to resolve these apparent contradictions. Russert asked: "If the Iraqis choose an Islamic extremist regime, would you accept that, and would that be better for the United States than Saddam Hussein?" The president replied: "They're not going to develop that." He then revealed that his confidence stemmed not from a U.S. policy that would prevent it from happening, but rather from some special intelligence he received in a private conversation. "Right here in the Oval Office," the president explained, "I sat down with Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people . . . that have made the firm commitment, that they want a constitution eventually written that recognizes minority rights and freedom of religion." "And my only point to you," he concluded, "is these people are committed to a pluralistic society."
The three people in question--Adnan Pachachi, Ahmed Chalabi, and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim--are members of the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the United States immediately after the collapse of Saddam's regime. Pachachi once was an Iraqi foreign minister, and later Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, but he was thrown out of the government following the Baathist coup of 1968. He spent many of the intervening years in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, where he advised the government there. Chalabi left Iraq in 1956, spending most of his adult years in the United States and the United Kingdom. He is best known for his role as a leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an organization that had long advocated Saddamís removal from power. He is known in much of the rest of the world, and especially in the Arab world, as a convicted felon, sentenced in absentia in a Jordanian court to 22 years hard labor for bank fraud.
Finally, al-Hakim, is a leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution and is also a leader in the Shiite paramilitary Badr corps. Al-Hakim's brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was the leader of a Shiite dissident group headquartered in Iran before the war.
These people, the president says, are committed to creating a liberal democracy in Iraq, one that protects the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, affords equal treatment to women, and is favorably disposed to the United States. And, in fairness, "these people"--two who have not lived in Iraq for decades and a third the leader of an Iranian-based Shiite revolutionary group--probably are. But, given that American administrators appointed them to the Governing Council, should we have expected any less? Can these three realistically speak for 25 million Iraqis?
By taking the country to war, the Bush administration erred on many levels. But their principal error was their inability or unwillingness to come to grips with the true costs of a military campaign in Iraq. The president repeatedly stated before the war that the costs of inaction outweighed the costs of action. But his calculation assumed a smooth transition in post-Saddam Iraq to a liberal democratic government that harbored no ill will toward the United States. He based this presumption not on the opinions of area intelligence experts, many of whom warned that Iraq would disintegrate into factionalism, but on the promise of three individuals whose credibility was open to challenge, and whose understanding of the situation on the ground in Iraq was based not on facts, not on "intelligence," but on conjecture, speculation and wishful thinking.
That is an intelligence failure. The independent commission should move beyond a survey of our erroneous beliefs in Iraqi WMDs, and unproven accusations of linkages between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. It should focus instead on the decisionmaking processes at the highest level of our government that ultimately led us to war in Iraq.
Christopher Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org) and the author of John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap.