November 21, 2005

Walking into the Iran Trap, I: A Decision of Policy -- and the Intelligence Won't Matter

The general terms in which the numerous and profound intelligence failures preceding the Iraq invasion are now being discussed create a very great danger. Without realizing they're doing so, even many strong critics of the Bush administration's foreign policy are making a preemptive attack on Iran more likely rather than less, perhaps an attack that utilizes even tactical nuclear weapons.

I'm not speaking here of the "misuse" of intelligence by Bush and others, although it is beyond dispute that they misrepresented, distorted and even lied about many aspects of Iraq's purported WMD (and probably most or even all of them) and that they heard what they wanted to hear, even from sources no one else believed (such as the notorious "Curveball"). The Bush administration led an extensive propaganda campaign designed to make the American public believe that Iraq constituted a very serious danger that could no longer be countenanced and that, in the wake of 9/11, action had to be taken now, not at some later date. To their shame, much of the national press went along with this campaign and only rarely challenged it. Our media are now repeating this same pattern with regard to Iran, and with Syria as well.

But I'm not talking about the many misuses of intelligence: I'm talking about the crucial emphasis placed on intelligence in the first place. Let me be very clear: accurate intelligence is vital to our nation's defense. We need to know about gathering threats, if a threat must be addressed and, if it must, how and when to best do so. But here I'm talking about a different aspect of the problem, one which ought to be considered separately, but usually isn't: the extent and manner in which intelligence, accurate or not, influences major policy decisions.

Because of the mistaken and dangerous approach that is now so common in this debate, I see that I have to resurrect an excerpt from Barbara Tuchman's invaluable chronicle of calamitous policy failures from history, The March of Folly. Because it is so important to these questions, I relied on this excerpt in several essays over the last few years. I will do so again now.

In discussing the monumental disaster of Vietnam that unfolded over the course of several administrations, Tuchman wrote:
For all their truths, the Fulbright hearings were not a prelude to action in the only way that could count, a vote against appropriations, so much as an intellectual exercise in examination of American policy. The issue of longest consequence, Executive war, was not formulated until after the hearings, in Fulbright's preface to a published version. Acquiescence in Executive war, he 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."

Though he could bring out the major issues, Fulbright was a teacher, not a leader, unready himself to put his vote where it counted. When a month after the hearings the Senate authorized $4.8 billion in emergency funds for the war in Vietnam, the bill passed against only the two faithful negatives of Morse and Gruening. Fulbright voted with the majority.

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.
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.

The opposition conclusion -- the one Myrdal was inevitably led to after 20 years of immersion in the subject -- is that "irrational motives" impel foreign policy decisions. Here is how I concluded a piece on this subject at the end of January 2004:
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 "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.
(You can read that earlier post in its entirety at the Liberty & Power group blog, where I had cross-posted it.)

But the misuses of intelligence by the Bush administration reveal the nature of a critical related point: the distortions of intelligence were used, not as the reasons for the invasion (since they were not true, and since they were not the actual reasons), but as the rationalization -- and as the justification used in the propaganda blitz. The effort to portray Iraq as a serious threat that could reach us even here at home served to make the war acceptable to the American public, even if many Americans still weren't enthusiastic about it. It justified the war for the public, and thus served its purpose.

This returns us to the danger that the current emphasis on "bad intelligence" represents: given the way the question is often discussed, an inevitable implication arises. We are left to conclude that the Iraq war was not justified because the intelligence was wrong -- but if the intelligence had been right, then the war would have been justified. Many commentators fail to go on to the next part of the argument: that, even if Iraq had possessed WMD, the danger still could and should have been contained. It had been for some years -- and, after all, we managed to coexist with the Soviet Union for decades. It's true that we came dangerously close to the abyss on a few occasions, but we managed to pull back in time. And the Soviet Union represented an infinitely greater danger than Iraq ever did. I would argue, and indeed I did argue at the time, that even if everything the Bush administration claimed had been true, the war still was not justified -- and that it was definitely not strategically advisable longer term.

I submit that even if WMD had been found in Iraq, the negative consequences flowing out of the U.S. occupation still argue conclusively against this war. As explained in this post and the Peter Bergen article it excerpts, we vanquished one foe only to breathe life into a worldwide jihadist movement. We traded one enemy for a multitude of enemies. Had Iraq possessed WMD, that is still a remarkably ill-advised exchange. And make no mistake: we would have had a prolonged occupation in any case, and it would have led to the identical, profoundly negative results.

So this is the possible calamity that now awaits us: if we concede, even impliedly, that the war on Iraq would have been justified if only the intelligence had been correct, then what if intelligence indicates that Iran represents a similar or even worse danger today? In fact, almost everyone already seems to be convinced that Iran does represent that kind of danger, a danger that exceeds that represented by Iraq, assuming all the claims had been true, by several orders of magnitude.

This could easily lead you to wonder why the war on Iran hasn't already begun -- or if, someday in the not too distant future, Bush will inform us, via a hastily announced presidential address to a waiting world, called amid black and threatening clouds and whispers of doom, about attacks on Iran only after they have started. I'll consider these aspects of the Iran dilemma and several related issues in future installments of this series.

UPDATE: If you want to read one altogether possible and nightmarish scenario of what might happen if we attacked Iran, I suggest this earlier piece: Unleashing Armageddon: What Then? As I explain, "What then?" is the question that neither the Bush administration nor its most vehement defenders considered with regard to Iraq, or that they appear to be thinking about in connection with Iran. Since the consequences may well be catastrophic, we ought to be talking about them now, not when it is too late -- and consider whether that is a risk we truly care to take.