February 10, 2006

The Irrelevance of Intelligence, and "Rational Actors"

At the end of an entry I wrote over two years ago (and which is excerpted in Part I of my Iran series), I wrote:
It is simply not true that the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq was the result of "bad intelligence." In the most significant sense, that decision had nothing at all to do with the quality of the intelligence they were getting. The decision was one of policy -- a decision that depended [as Barbara Tuchman notes] "not upon available facts but upon judgment." As the Star-Tribune editorial points out, the Clinton administration had virtually the same intelligence -- yet came to a different conclusion altogether with regard to the proper course of action.

But this tactic serves an important purpose: it passes blame off to another party, and in effect lets the administration off the hook. The administration thus hopes to insulate itself from examination, criticism and accountability. It's as if the administration is saying: "The intelligence made us do it."

But the intelligence, whatever it was, didn't make them do anything. They had already decided what they wanted to do -- and the intelligence was almost irrelevant.

Remember Tuchman's warning -- and hold the Bush Administration fully accountable. The intelligence didn't matter in the end, they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it -- with a great deal of enthusiastic support. Hold them all responsible for the consequences, whatever they may be.

And keep Tuchman's words in mind, the next time the war whoops begin to rise. And at some point they will: it's only a question of time, and which country will be the next target.
Numerous examples from history, including from our own most recent history, amply prove these statements. In that sense, I did not require further evidence to know that this analysis was correct.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that we now have what I view as stunning confirmation of these points. The confirmation comes not from another middling blogger, but from Paul R. Pillar. Mr. Pillar, who spent 28 years at the CIA, "was an influential behind-the-scenes player and was considered the agency's leading counterterrorism analyst. By the end of his career, he was responsible for coordinating assessments on Iraq from all 15 agencies in the intelligence community. He is now a professor in security studies at Georgetown University."

In a fascinating and very disturbing story in the Washington Post, we are told:
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 emphasize that all of the evidence of which we are already aware leads to this conclusion, and only to this conclusion -- and there is no evidence to suggest that the administration's decision to attack Iraq was directed by the intelligence it received, "bad" or otherwise.

The story has a few other points of special interest:
[Pillar] describes a process in which the White House helped frame intelligence results by repeatedly posing questions aimed at bolstering its arguments about Iraq.

The Bush administration, Pillar wrote, "repeatedly called on the intelligence community to uncover more material that would contribute to the case for war," including information on the "supposed connection" between Hussein and al Qaeda, which analysts had discounted. "Feeding the administration's voracious appetite for material on the Saddam-al Qaeda link consumed an enormous amount of time and attention."

The result of the requests, and public statements by the president, Vice President Cheney and others, led analysts and managers to conclude the United States was heading for war well before the March 2003 invasion, Pillar asserted.

They thus knew, he wrote, that senior policymakers "would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision. . . . [They] felt a strong wind consistently blowing in one direction. The desire to bend with such a wind is natural and strong, even if unconscious."

Pillar wrote that the prewar intelligence asserted Hussein's "weapons capacities," but he said the "broad view" within the United States and overseas "was that Saddam was being kept 'in his box' " by U.N. sanctions, and that the best way to deal with him was through "an aggressive inspections program to supplement sanctions already in place."

"If the entire body of official intelligence analysis on Iraq had a policy implication," Pillar wrote, "it was to avoid war -- or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath."

Pillar describes for the first time that the intelligence community did assessments before the invasion that, he wrote, indicated a postwar Iraq "would not provide fertile ground for democracy" and would need "a Marshall Plan-type effort" to restore its economy despite its oil revenue. It also foresaw Sunnis and Shiites fighting for power.

Pillar wrote that the intelligence community "anticipated that a foreign occupying force would itself be the target of resentment and attacks -- including guerrilla warfare -- unless it established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam."


Pillar wrote that the first request he received from a Bush policymaker for an assessment of post-invasion Iraq was "not until a year into the war."

That assessment, completed in August 2004, warned that the insurgency in Iraq could evolve into a guerrilla war or civil war. It was leaked to the media in September in the midst of the presidential campaign, and Bush, who had told voters that the mission in Iraq was going well, described the assessment to reporters as "just guessing."
I underscore these points: the Bush administration was repeatedly told that Saddam was being kept "in his box," and that the best policy was one of aggressive inspections and the avoidance of war. The Bush administration was repeatedly told that the prospects for Western-style democracy in Iraq were very bleak, and that Iraq's economy and infrastructure would require the expenditure of massive amounts of U.S. funds if they were to recover. The Bush administration was repeatedly warned that, in the aftermath of an invasion, it was highly probable that violence would be directed against the American forces -- and that violence would also ensue between the various factions within Iraq.

Not only did the Bush administration misrepresent and lie about all of this to the American public and to the world: it did not make any plans at all to deal with even one aspect of these momentous problems.

I want to highlight the following sentence again, because of what it reveals about the approach and mindset of the Bush administration:
Pillar wrote that the first request he received from a Bush policymaker for an assessment of post-invasion Iraq was "not until a year into the war."
This is simply mindboggling in terms of the degree of criminal irresponsibility it reveals. Americans and Iraqis were being killed and wounded for a year, untold amounts of American taxpayer dollars were being spent, Iraq was spiraling out of control -- and only after a year does "a Bush policymaker" ask for "an assessment of post-invasion Iraq."

In evaluating the danger that non-state terrorists represent, and in assessing the danger that a potentially nuclear Iran might constitute, commentators often utilize the "rational actor" concept as a means of analysis. They usually argue that non-state terrorists are especially dangerous because they are not constrained by the same "rational" factors that tend to inhibit state actors. And many commentators now use the same kind of argument about the allegedly "unacceptable" threat represented by a nuclear Iran: Iran's leader is crazy, they say. It's impossible to predict what he'll do. The kinds of restraints that affect "normal" people are inoperative in his case.

So I have a question. In view of everything we know about what the Bush administration was told about Iraq, and considering the endless warnings they received about every aspect of an invasion and its aftermath -- all of which they entirely disregarded and completely failed to plan for in advance -- and noting that all of this is confirmed by new evidence almost daily, with this WaPo story being only the latest example, who exactly is it who's not behaving like a "rational actor"?

This is why the standard objections to the likelihood of U.S. military action against Iran are of highly questionable persuasiveness: they assume that this administration is behaving rationally. Is it? Consider the evidence, and reach your own conclusion.

I will have considerably more to say about this in the final installment of my Iran series. The most recent part of that discussion is here, and it has links to the earlier entries.

[New related post: More Cartoon Lies: Authoritarians for "Freedom".]