December 04, 2007

Played for Fools Yet Again: About that Iran "Intelligence" Report

The opening paragraph of my essay, "The United States as Cho Seung-Hui: How the State Sanctifies Murder," reads as follows:
The most crucial argument concerning the horrifying killings at Blacksburg, Virginia, last week -- the argument that implicates the foundational moral and political principle that ought to most concern us at this moment in history -- was, of course, the one that almost all mainstream commentary studiously avoided. The monolithic, unassailable mythology that is America's lifeblood is never to be questioned; the cacophony of national voices may disagree about numerous other subjects, but American culture is united in its conspiracy of silence on every matter of genuine importance. In our blindness, we have brought ourselves as close to perfection as is possible for human beings: we obliterate and distort the past, we render ourselves incapable of grasping the present, and we blindly plunge into an increasingly desolate future, with all our cognitive abilities rendered permanently disabled. Our ignorance is complete.
With full justification and comprehensive accuracy, the same can be said with regard to "every matter of genuine importance," exactly as I maintained. It is true in spades of the reaction to yesterday's news concerning the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran: that the combined assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies is that "Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remains frozen..."

Our political establishment, our media and, with only a handful of exceptions, all bloggers are akin to the tenth-generation products of a relentless experiment in genetic manipulation, one designed to select exclusively for gross stupidity and an unerring ability to miss every relevant point completely and utterly. We have generously been provided with "authoritative" takes on the Iran story from both right (broadly defined), courtesy of Instapundit, and left (broadly defined), courtesy of Digby.

It deserves emphasis that this latest NIE tells us nothing -- let me repeat that, nothing -- that was not entirely obvious to a reasonably intelligent layperson who followed mainstream media reports about Iran for the last several years. As just one example, see my post, "Iran: The Growing Threat that Isn't," from close to a year ago. It is true that "official" government recognition of the non-threatening status of Iran, but only in this one respect, is of marginal importance, but it is only that: marginal. It simply means that the warmongers -- whether of the Republican or Democratic variety (and please let us not forget the Democratic warmongers, who have been far more resolute and consistent in the pursuit of the glories of war over the last century than the Republicans, with the hugely notable exception of the criminal gang in charge of the executive branch at present) -- cannot easily avail themselves of this particular bogeyman for the moment. For those who seek to begin the next phase of this neverending war, there are many other bogeymen available for use to the identical end, as we shall see in a moment.

Let us start with the most crucial point. The reaction from all quarters to the NIE relies on several interrelated central assumptions, ones that are regarded as so unquestionably true that no one thinks they need to be stated: that major policy decisions, including decisions of war and peace, are based on intelligence in the first place; that a decision to go to war is one made only after cool and careful rational deliberation; and that nations go to war for the reasons they announce to the world.


I put this fact in bold capital letters because I have explained these dynamics in detail in numerous essays over the last several years. I hasten to add that I suffer from not even a single illusion that this new article will make the slightest dent in "conventional wisdom," for I know it will not. Nonetheless, for the ten or twelve of you who are amenable to considering them, here are the facts.

From "You, Too, Can and Should Be an 'Intelligence Analyst'":
Intelligence is completely irrelevant to major policy decisions. Such decisions are matters of judgment, and knowledgeable, ordinary citizens are just as capable of making these determinations as political leaders allegedly in possession of "secret information." Such "secret information" is almost always wrong -- and major decisions, including those pertaining to war and peace, are made entirely apart from such information in any case.

The second you start arguing about intelligence, you've given the game away once again. This is a game the government and the proponents of war will always win. By now, we all surely know that if they want the intelligence to show that Country X is a "grave" and "growing" threat, they will find it or manufacture it. So once you're debating what the intelligence shows or fails to show, the debate is over. The war will inevitably begin.

To repeat: the decision to go to war is one of policy, and the intelligence -- whatever it is alleged to show -- is irrelevant. Don't argue in terms of intelligence at all. If you do, you'll lose. The administration knows that; many of its opponents still haven't figured it out, even now.
In the same article, I later wrote:
I therefore repeat my major admonition, and give it special emphasis:
It is always irrelevant to major policy decisions, and such decisions are reached for different reasons altogether. This is true whether the intelligence is correct or not, and it is almost always wrong. On those very rare occasions when intelligence is accurate, it is likely to be disregarded in any case. It will certainly be disregarded if it runs counter to a course to which policymakers are already committed.

The intelligence does not matter. It is primarily used as propaganda, to provide alleged justification to a public that still remains disturbingly gullible and pliable -- and it is used after the fact, to justify decisions that have already been made.
For newer readers, here are two notable statements of this principle that I have often referred to, and please be aware that this principle is nowhere to be found in all the commentary I have seen and heard about the latest Iran story. From 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.
From Gabriel Kolko:
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.
A few comments are in order about the blog posts noted above. Several of the reactions collected by Glenn Reynolds advance the notion that, assuming the NIE is accurate, this demonstrates that the invasion and occupation of Iraq did in fact lead to the elimination of a gravely serious threat, namely, the threat that an Iran with nuclear weapons would have represented. If the invasion and occupation of Iraq prevented such a development, that means the Iraq catastrophe was justified.

It is difficult to imagine a more heinously bankrupt moral argument. Iraq itself was no threat to the United States, and it was known to be no threat. We have destroyed Iraq completely, unleashed a genocide that continues with every blood-drenched day that passes, created refugees in the several millions, and wreaked havoc and devastation in numerous other ways. Because Iraq was known to be no threat to the U.S., the U.S. did all this in a criminal war of aggression -- precisely the kind of crime against peace for which we properly condemned the Nazi regime. Yet now it is suggested that all this was morally justified -- because it may have prevented a threat from arising in another country. Because most Americans know only the mythologized, sanitized version of our history, many of you may be surprised to learn that this was one of the "justifications" used to defend the incineration of hundreds of thousands of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- to deliver a "message" to Soviet Russia. It was abominable then, and it is abominable now.

On what is allegedly the "other" side of the political divide, Digby writes:
I can't wait to see how the Iran hawks spin [the NIE story] ...

I suspect they will just drag out their old tried and true tropes against against [sic] the intelligence agencies, perhaps even start up a new Team B project. In fact, they'll likely have to dredge up how the CIA supposedly screwed up the Iraq WMD assessment, in which case we should bring out the Orville Reddenbacker [sic]. It should be quite a show.

But time runs short for this administration. I don't know for sure that this means we can breathe a little bit easier, but I think it probably does. It's hard to see that Bush could push the button with this kind of assessment in public.

Of course, they are nuts...
On that last point and insofar as the crucial general principles involved are concerned, may it be duly noted that the leading Democrats are just as "hawkish" and "nuts" on this issue: Hillary Clinton, who speaks of our inalienable "right" to take "offensive military action against Iran"; Barack Obama ("In today's globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people," which is license to intervene anywhere and everywhere, on any pretext whatsoever, real or imagined); and all the other prominent Democrats, with their endless trash talk of keeping "all options on the table."

Note how Digby implicitly relies on the erroneous notion that if the intelligence had been correct on Iraq, a reasonable conclusion might have been reached, and thus the invasion of Iraq might have been forestalled. That is the meaning of, "how the CIA supposedly screwed up the Iraq WMD assessment..." If only the CIA had been allowed to tell the "truth" without political interference, there might have been a better chance that all would have been well. But that only makes sense if one assumes that policy decisions are based on intelligence. Again: they are not.

Digby's larger argument is coherent only from the standpoint of purely partisan politics. Of course, since the Democrats took control of Congress, it often appears that the exclusive concern and endless preoccupation of the major liberal and progressive bloggers is to prevent anyone from questioning the wisdom of voting for Democrats, since, it is alleged, any alternative is so much worse. That is an increasingly impossible case to make -- with regard to the absolute necessity of impeachment if anything like a republican form of government is to survive, with regard to civil liberties at home, and about any other issue you can name. Moreover, in their ongoing determination to corral votes for Democrats, many of the same bloggers who earlier condemned "false narratives" now repeatedly utilize identical tactics themselves.

Is Digby seriously suggesting that we should not acknowledge that one critical part of the "old tried and true tropes against the intelligence agencies" is correct -- that is, that those agencies are almost always wrong? In addition to my own essays -- and see "How the Foreign Policy Consensus Protects Itself" and the additional essays listed at its conclusion for much more on these issues -- I suggest you consult Chalmers Johnson's review of Legacy of Ashes, about the decades of failure by the CIA (to say nothing of its covert criminal activities). Here is one excerpt to give you the flavor:
From 1967 to 1973, I served as an outside consultant to the Office of National Estimates, one of about a dozen specialists brought in to try to overcome the myopia and bureaucratism involved in the writing of these national intelligence estimates. I recall agonized debates over how the mechanical highlighting of worst-case analyses of Soviet weapons was helping to promote the arms race. Some senior intelligence analysts tried to resist the pressures of the Air Force and the military-industrial complex. Nonetheless, the late John Huizenga, an erudite intelligence analyst who headed the Office of National Estimates from 1971 until the wholesale purge of the Agency by DCI James Schlesinger in 1973, bluntly said to the CIA's historians:
"In retrospect.... I really do not believe that an intelligence organization in this government is able to deliver an honest analytical product without facing the risk of political contention. . . . I think that intelligence has had relatively little impact on the policies that we've made over the years. Relatively none. . . . Ideally, what had been supposed was that . . . serious intelligence analysis could.... assist the policy side to reexamine premises, render policymaking more sophisticated, closer to the reality of the world. Those were the large ambitions which I think were never realized."
With very rare exceptions, the intelligence agencies always get it wrong. That they got it wrong with Iraq, and possibly with Iran (either earlier, or now, or both) is not news: that is what they do.

Yet it appears that Digby now suggests we should ignore this incontrovertible history, because the particular conclusion in this NIE is one that supports the argument she wishes to advance. So much for a principled and serious approach to these issues, and so much for stepping beyond the thought-stopping, constricted limits of "conventional wisdom." (I obviously agree with her argument, since I am unalterably opposed to an attack on Iran in the present circumstances and in the foreseeable future -- but not for these particular reasons.)

In the most critical sense, I don't care about this latest assessment, just as I did not care about the earlier ones, about Iran or on any other subject at all -- for in addition to the rather important fact that such assessments are invariably wrong, I recognize that policy decisions are made on different grounds altogether. Moreover, in terms of U.S. foreign policy, I don't care if Iran does get nuclear weapons. As I have noted before, I do not view it as a remotely good thing that any nation has nuclear weapons, including the U.S. -- and I remind you once again that it is only the U.S. that has used them, when it did not have any legitimate reason for doing so and when it lied about every aspect of its actions and their consequences. But in terms of an Iran with nuclear weapons five or ten years in the future: "So Iran Gets Nukes. So What?" But the bipartisan commitment to American world hegemony has not altered in the slightest degree. The criminal catastrophe of Iraq is irrelevant to our ruling class, and it has not caused them to alter any of their most crucial goals.

As I said above, this latest NIE makes it considerably more difficult for the administration to use this particular argument to justify a criminal act of aggression against a non-existent threat. But if the administration is determined to attack Iran, they have plenty of other arguments to use, and many of those arguments have the full and enthusiastic support of the Democrats. See "The Worsening Nightmare," and the numerous related essays listed there: the drive to worldwide dominance, by means of military force as required, is a fully bipartisan affair, as it has been for over a century and especially since World War II.

This brings us to the most likely way in which a conflict with Iran may still occur in the very near future: as the direct result of the continuing, ghastly, genocidal, criminal occupation of Iraq. In moral and historic terms, it is unforgivable that the Democratic Congress has not defunded the Iraq occupation completely. They have the power to do so, and they refuse to use it. Some people object to defunding on the grounds that Bush will use other funds to pay for it -- and the Democratic Congress has obligingly provided plenty of those. But if Bush is going to do that, then make him do it. It is only the nauseating corruption of our politics that makes it necessary to point out that decent human beings would choose not to have blood on their own hands. With two or three exceptions, there are no such decent human beings to be found in Washington.

On the connection between the occupation of Iraq and Iran, I can do no better than to point you to "Living Under the Guillotine's Blade." I discussed four deadly blades hanging over us: the first blade is the Military Commissions Act, to which the Democrats offered only the most lamentably pathetic opposition, far too late to prevent its passage, and they have shown no seriousness at all about repealing this abomination; the second is the ease with which Bush can now impose martial law, a result also made possible with the indispensable aid of many Democrats; and the third is the bipartisan drive toward an attack on Iran. See the earlier essay for the details.

About the fourth and final blade, the criminal occupation of Iraq which the Democrats have no intention of ending for years and, more likely, decades to come, I wrote:
If we are fortunate enough to make it through the remainder of Bush's term without a U.S. attack on Iran, it will not be because of anything anyone has done to prevent it. No one has done anything to prevent it. It will simply be because we were lucky. But as the remarks from Hillary Clinton and every other leading Democrat make clear, the danger will not pass away with Bush's exit from the national stage. As long as our governing class and the foreign policy establishment remain committed to American global hegemony as our foundational foreign policy goal (see "Dominion Over the World" [and a more recent essay, "One Hundred Routes to War"]), I consider it certain that the U.S. will attack Iran at some point, if not during this administration, then probably during the next one.

The fourth blade is, of course, the unending occupation of Iraq. As I explained yesterday, it will be unending, even if the number of American troops is reduced to 50,000 or 70,000 in the next few years. We will be there for decades into the future; no prominent politician, Democrat or Republican, opposes that plan, which was the plan from the outset. As a number of knowledgeable people predicted prior to the Iraq invasion, Iran has been the primary victor in this imperial disaster. The episode with the British sailors recently demonstrated, as have any number of other incidents, that the longer we remain in Iraq, the greater the likelihood that some incident, real or manufactured, will lead to open conflict with Iran, and to the attack on Iran that every leading politician seems to long for. Our ruling elites are determined to effect "regime change" in Iran in any case, but a border incident or one of some other kind might hasten the schedule, and make a U.S. attack easier to "sell" to a gullible American public.

So we see how the fourth blade connects to the third, and how all the blades interconnect and multiply the dangers. We have already destroyed Iraq, and we may yet destroy Iran and much of the Middle East. We may cause an international economic collapse, or severe economic dislocation at a minimum. We may see the final end of liberty here at home, and the installation of a dictatorship via a declaration of martial law.

And almost no one speaks of the incomprehensible catastrophes that lie in wait. Almost no one takes action to prevent even one of them. Our lives proceed as if nothing at all unusual is transpiring in our world, either abroad or at home. Occasionally, a few people shout warnings. They are almost entirely ignored.

The blade is suspended above us. With every moment that passes, the rope that holds it back frays and weakens still more.

Death hangs in the air.

We will not move.
Now, with the news of the latest NIE about Iran, many people breathe sighs of relief, believing the danger has lessened. It has not, except perhaps for a tragically brief moment. Their relief, even in the smallest degree, reveals their inability and/or refusal to understand the lethal forces in play, and their inability and/or refusal to comprehend that those dangers continue on their murderous and bloody path.

And so we still refuse to move, even now.

Even now.