Not so long ago – before I was sprayed by political skunks and had to excuse myself to avoid subjecting others to the stench of political vilification – I had occasion to spend some time thinking about intelligence, in the sense of the analysis of information relevant to statecraft. This is an important topic under any circumstance. It is all the more so in the wake of the string of disasters that persistent inattentiveness to foreign trends and events, occasional analytical misjudgments, and frequent policy miscalculations have brought us in recent years.
Intelligence analysis, of which diplomatic analysis is a subset and to which some here have contributed much, is, in short, central to our republic’s formulation and conduct of successful policy. In my experience, the analysts in our intelligence community are, by and large, exceptionally able people who are dedicated to providing us with essential insights into foreign realities and capable of doing so. But, for our leaders to be able correctly to judge what we should do and how they should adjust those moral compasses and approaches they inherit from predecessors, our best informed and most free-thinking analysts must be free to reach considered judgments without censorship and without compulsion. The analytical process must strive to understand and portray reality as dispassionate examination finds it to be, not as ideology or interested parties stipulate it should or must be. It matters greatly whether our executive branch and Congress demand analysts’ honest inferences or insist that they be told only what they or powerful constituencies in our body politic want to hear.
Pressures of Political Correctness
For such polemicists, politically correct delusion is preferable to a realistic view of the external world as the basis of policy. The splendid results of the approach they have advocated are visible around the globe but nowhere more than in the stable, secular democracy that has emerged in Iraq, the shriveling of Islamic extremism our invasion and occupation of Muslim lands has catalyzed, the peace and development we have brought to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the concord that the suspension of independent American judgment has caused to flower in the Holy Land. You don’t have to be a realist to notice discrepancies between the predicted results of policies and their actual catastrophic consequences. And yet, unchastened by empiricism, those who insisted on these policies continue to advocate more of the same.
The concept of analysis as polemic finds its major expression in the myriad of “think tanks” – perhaps, more accurately, “belief tanks” – established in recent decades to spin trends and events to promote the ideological or other theses of their founders and supporters. It is also a key characteristic of the cliquish dialogue of the blogosphere, in which partisan commentary reinforces parochial views and fact-checking or skeptical questioning more often elicit obscene ad hominem attacks than serious reflection. Paradoxically, those obsessed with particular issues have more information than ever before to draw upon, even as general civic literacy on foreign affairs and the space for civil debate on public policy issues continue to contract.
Courses in foreign geography, history, classics, and culture are no longer part of most school curricula. Surveys show the average American to be supremely ignorant of the world beyond our shores. The 2,500 foreign correspondents fielded by the U.S. press 60 years ago have dwindled to less than 200. Our media have been systematically reduced and homogenized by mergers and acquisitions; oligopolies decide what is fit to print. Their owners defer to advertisers but show little if any commitment to journalistic fairness, balance, or depth. The coverage of foreign events in our print media shrinks daily along with the newspapers themselves. The TV news, which bears the same resemblance to news in print media as the funny papers do to serious reportage, long since became the primary source of information for the American public. It’s hard to know whether it’s good or bad that television itself is now being displaced from this role by the highly selective news feeds that cater to niche audiences on the internet.
Effects on Intelligence
In this way, a relatively small group of activists can direct national policy to the advantage of the cause they espouse even when this is arguably contrary to the broader national interest or even the majority in the community of interests they purport to represent. To accommodate these political realities, we have evolved a system of foreign policy by franchise. We turn over the design of policy and the management of its implementation to those Americans most emotionally involved with the issues in dispute, least inclined to weigh them against other priorities, and most committed to one foreign side versus the other.
Seeking Peace in the Holy Land
Is it possible that the suspension of independent judgment by the United States has something to do with the utter failure of our 40-year effort to produce a just and lasting peace between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs? Could it be that in this instance, as in others, foreign policy by franchise serves the interest of the operators of the franchise more than it benefits anyone else? Might our unconditional, unexamined support of the Jewish holy war for land in Palestine have something to do with the expanding holy war against us by some Arabs and Muslims? Israelis regularly ask these questions and vigorously debate them. Until recently, at least, Americans, by contrast, have been effectively enjoined from asking them and hence from considering policies that might secure Israel while securing ourselves.
Such silencing of debate is a perversion of democracy. The Likud lobby does not simply seek to ensure that the positions it advocates receive favorable consideration in the policy-making process, as it is fully entitled to do. It strives to block contrary views by applying odious labels to their spokespersons, distorting their records, ostracizing them, and obstructing the circulation of their views in the media. It prefers to operate in the shadows. Its characteristic mode of attack is the whisper campaign and hit-and-run; having struck, it denies that it was even on the scene. Like the Bolsheviks, the Likud lobby falsely claims to represent a majority – in this case, a majority of the American Jewish community – when it does not. Its thought police are in fact especially vicious in their suppression of contrary opinion among the three-fourths of Jewish Americans who favor peace over continuing land grabs in the Holy Land.
The Likud lobby should not be allowed to usurp the title, “Israel Lobby.” It is pro-settler, anti-Arab, and anti-free speech. It does not care whether those it lobbies hate it as long as they fear it. Its answer to the possibility that its actions might rekindle anti-Semitism in this country is intensified intimidation of Israel’s American critics, whom it conflates with the dwindling band of citizens who object to the extraordinary contributions to our nation’s public life of Jewish Americans. This lobby’s object is not to win debate but to preclude it. To that end, it insists that only those associated with its viewpoints occupy positions of public trust in our government. It is a menace not so much because of what it advocates, with respect to which reasonable men might differ, as because of the profoundly anti-democratic means by which it ensures that no one, Jew or gentile, reasonable or not, can exercise the right to differ with it.
We have seen this phenomenon in our politics before. The “China Lobby,” which, in association with Senator Joseph McCarthy, advocated the interests of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang by branding its opponents as treasonous and silencing them, is a case in point. Americans waited decades for a leader with the vision and guile to devise a policy that served our interests rather than Chiang’s. But not all policy blind spots are the result of such anti-democratic agitation on behalf of foreign interests.
Our conflation of al Qa`ida with the Taliban has caused anti-American terrorism to metastasize. It is now eating away at Pakistan. The recent policy review produced tactical adjustments in our campaign plan but evidently left most assumptions underlying past policies intact and unexamined. To a great extent the adjusted policy is more of the same. This should not surprise. After all, the policy review was begun in the last administration. It was led by the U.S. military and conceived in large measure to vindicate past military sacrifices. Its implicit watchword was “support the troops and stand by the generals,” not “figure out how we can most efficiently deny the region to terrorists with global reach.”
Our military are superb at crafting campaign plans and consistently unsuccessful at designing and implementing politico-military strategy. The new campaign plan was designed from the top down on the basis of domestic political imperatives, general military doctrine, and our experience in the very different circumstances of Iraq. It was not built from the bottom up on the basis of local realities. It pays lip service to narrowing our objectives and pursuing non-military solutions but does not, in practice, do so. For it to work, lots of very improbable things have to happen.
For the first time in thousands of years, Afghanistan would have to develop a strong central government in Kabul. Under military pressure from us, the Pashtun tribes who straddle the border have for all practical purposes withdrawn the limited allegiance they had earlier granted to Kabul or Islamabad. They would have to restore their fealty to these capitals and accept a much greater measure of direct rule from them than ever before. Pashtun and Baluchi heads of household would have to forgive outsiders who intrude on the privacy of their women or kill their kin. They would have to delegate the defense of their honor to foreigners or central government soldiers recruited from the ranks of their traditional ethnic adversaries.
In this context, consider the implications of reports that, at present, for every two members of al Qa`ida we kill with a missile fired from a drone, we cause the deaths of a hundred Afghan or Pakistani civilians, all of them part of extensive social networks built on mutual obligation for protection and revenge. If these figures are even in the ballpark, how does one describe such a policy? (“Counter-productive” seems too wishy-washy. “Immoral” comes readily to mind. Perhaps “catastrophically misguided” is an even better fit.) Yet we now plan to expand the use of lethal drones.
Other Blind Spots
Time does not permit me to cite the many other conditions, trends, and events with respect to which our understanding of the world could use a solid boost from the intelligence community. I will save that for another occasion. I do not want to close, however, without pointing out that, despite the breakdown or near-breakdown of more than a few elements of our socio-economic system, we have not tasked our analysts to look at how other societies have succeeded or failed in addressing similar problems. Such issues range from deteriorating and poorly integrated transportation infrastructure, to collapsing pension systems, to striking an appropriate balance between the open society and security against terrorism, to managing state ownership of significant chunks of the formerly private economy, to many other issues like medical insurance and health care. To take this last example, the World Health Organization (WHO) rates our system thirty-seventh or so in the world in terms of what it delivers. That means there are at least 36 nations that, by some measure, do better than we at supplying affordable health care to their citizens. Why do we not see it as in our interest to learn from foreign best practices in areas like this where we clearly don’t know what to do?
Is it the result of some lingering belief that – despite much evidence to the contrary – we Americans have all the answers? Or is it that the various elements of our medical-industrial complex, insurance sector, trucking companies, unions, and construction companies, and so forth cherish the cushy deals they have worked out for themselves and don’t want the challenges to these that consideration of foreign experience might suggest? Whatever the cause, it’s hard to argue that we could not benefit from a less insular approach to crafting necessary domestic reforms. Why not put our intelligence community to work at mining foreign experiences for ideas for better solutions to our domestic problems? It seems to me, at least, that domestic reform is now too urgent to be left to the self-serving reporting and skewed analysis of the disparate champions of our status quo.
In the end, the quality of American decision-making reflects the vigor and openness of our democracy. On some subjects, I have argued today, our democracy has demonstrably been neither open nor vigorous. In the case of a few, analysts have been conditioned to cringe in silence, not to exercise independent judgment or voice critical challenges to the politically correct conventional wisdom. This is a dangerous weakness in our national security system that invites correction – either through introspection and reform or from further bitter experiences with failure. Intelligence is properly the critical assessor, not the designated cheerleader, of policy results. But the best intelligence in the world is of no avail if those in Congress and the executive branch who must act on it are mentally unprepared to heed it or disinclined to accept it because it contradicts their preconceptions.
To meet the challenges before us, Americans need heightened civic literacy and reinvigorated public dialogue. This means encouraging civil debate about precisely those issues that are most painfully controversial. Realism about trends and events that affect the general welfare, common defense, liberties, and domestic tranquility of our country is the essential basis of wise and moral policies. An intelligence community that is independent and protected against vested interests, not subjected to censorship and direction by them, is the essential prerequisite for this. That is not a description of our current situation. It is, however, something we cannot do without.