February 21, 2011

Egypt and the Wider Middle East: The Limits of Intelligence

by Hal Gershowitz

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The stunning speed of events in the Middle East that brought about the fall of Tunisia’s strong-arm dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, followed by the resignation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak might suggest that our intelligence services were caught napping.  While the final chapter of the ousters of Mubarak and Ben Ali have not yet been written, depending upon the outcome, political recriminations are certain to follow.  After all, some historians still are asking the question:  “Who lost China?”  While blame is invariably a by‑product of political debate in a democracy, particularly where our intelligence services seem to have been caught flat‑footed, we suspect there is less here than meets the eye.

To over simplify, we might categorize intelligence failures into two main areas:  those that involve state secrets that could be uncovered only by traditional cloak and dagger work; and those that derive from actual political conditions on the ground that can foment potential revolutionary change.  Even though the latter can involve tens of thousands of people when they erupt, they are more apt to be missed than intelligence that is gathered through traditional sleuthing.  We will get back to the reason for this later in this essay.   Our failure to know that Saddam’s nuclear arsenal didn’t exist or that North Korea would suddenly conduct nuclear tests or that some shadowy group would attack the USS Cole and later the World Trade Center, are failures of our traditional intelligence assets.   Although those events were planned virtually under cover of strict military secrecy, which is obviously difficult to penetrate, it is not an excuse for poor undercover work given the billions of dollars we spend on it.

Contrast that with political explosions in Tunisia, Egypt. Libya, Bahrain or Iran, which toppled from power the likes of President Ben Ali, President Mubarak, or, 35 years ago, the Shah of Iran.  Those events, once triggered, seem to take on a life of their own often leading to chaos with participants having different goals . . . or no simple unifying objective.  Sometimes they operate like mobs without leaders.  The forces that are unleashed seem to know what they don’t want (the current despotic leadership) but typically can’t articulate a coherent set of demands.  What is even more difficult to predict is the potential ripple effect of a sea change in a despotic form of government.

While 20 years from now scholars will be explaining what happened in the past few weeks and what we could or should have done to have influenced the outcome, we cannot believe that any of our nightly talking heads or venerated syndicated columnists predicted that the overthrow of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali would swiftly lead to the exile of President Mubarak or that, after his overthrow, a wave of further threats to Middle East despots would continue.

Nearly 2500 years ago, an ancient Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu, highlighted the drawbacks of intelligence when he said, “What is called foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits nor from gods. Nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation.”

Anthropologist and political scientist, Paul Stoller a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, West Chester provides an excellent perspective,

“Just how much do our senior diplomats know about conditions on the ground in places like Tunisia, Egypt and other African or Middle Eastern countries?  If my many years living as a field anthropologist in sub-Saharan Africa are applicable, most senior diplomats appear to be far removed from the realities of the street.  Staff meetings and official receptions, often take up their daily routine, contact with other diplomats, and consultations with members of a nation’s political elite.  Sometimes they speak the language of the nations to which they are assigned.  Often, they do not.  They have probably read widely and thought deeply about the political, social and economic problems of the region, but do their reflections enable them to know the street?  With some exceptions, I would suggest, most of our senior diplomats and political officials do not know the street.”

What Mr. Stoller is in effect saying is that our diplomats have little knowledge of the country to which they have been posted.  They often don’t know the language so how can they be in touch with the ordinary frustrations in the daily lives of ordinary citizens; they largely overlook the throngs in the streets in Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi or Manama.   Diplomats live in protected environments, eat chef prepared food, drink fine wines and are chauffeured to and fro in official limousines.

This raises the question of whether our ambassadorial ranks ought to be filled more often from the ranks of a diplomatic corps, knowledgeable about the history and the problems of the nation to which they are sent.  Far too often prospective ambassadors are given their assignments as political favors or rewards for support of winning presidential candidate.

Another guideline for diplomats that should be established is a variant on President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous admonition “Walk softly, and carry a big stick.”  With diplomacy, it is quite advantageous to have the big stick of the nation’s military might and economic strength behind you, but all of it can be neutralized by talking too much. Diplomacy requires confidential communication and nothing can torpedo peaceful dispute resolution faster than loose lips.  The political word of the decade may be “transparency” but in diplomacy it can be a deal killer or, at a minimum, can make diplomatic officials appear to be unqualified rank amateurs who cannot be trusted.  Witness the silly spectacle of CIA Director Leon Panetta who touched off an avalanche of confusion when he testified before Congress during the Egyptian uprising that there was a strong likelihood that President Mubarak would step down by the end of that day.  How did he reach that premature conclusion?  Mr. Panetta had based his statement not on senior intelligence, but on media broadcasts.

We need to face it; we will not always get it right.  Events take on a life of their own and the momentum of those events flow with little opportunity either to shape them or know with any reasonable certainty what the outcome will be.  Moreover often what seems to be the likely outcome is supplanted in short order by further developments unleashed by forces freed from constraints imposed by the old regime.  History is filled with such outcomes, including the French revolution, the Russian revolution, the revolutions in Ukraine and Belarus and numerous Latin American coups and counter-coups.  Even in Iran a secular government succeeded the Shah, but that government did not last and was quickly ousted by the mullahs lead by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Since our influence is limited, and our position in the midst of turmoil often requires great nuance, we need to be sure that our overarching policy is consistently to stand for the principles that have always distinguished us.  This nation above all else stands for freedom, human dignity, opportunity and individual liberty.  While we need to encourage those attributes in our foreign relations, we have, at the same time, to realize that we cannot simply impose our will all over the world and that we will need to maintain peaceful diplomatic relations with nations that fall short of that goal.  But the people living under despotism should never be led to believe that our diplomatic intercourse with their rulers constitutes an endorsement of oppression or an abandonment of our principles.  This is the best we have to sell.

As Michael Gerson stated it in his op-ed piece in The Washington Post on February13 in referring to the current events unfolding in Egypt,

The outcome of the current confused struggle in Egypt matters greatly to American interests.  The emergency of a Sunni version of Iran in Egypt would be a major blow.  A democratic transition, even a messy and partial one, might eventually isolate or domesticate the extremists and defuse hatred for America.  But the course of events in Egypt is determined by an internal balance of nationalism and religion, fear and hope, that America can only influence on the margins.  That is frustrating, but hardly new.

At this writing, the final chapter has not been written in Egypt, nor do we know if a cascade of other Mideast despots will follow Mubarak’s downfall.  We strongly believe that the final chapter hasn’t been written. Indeed, we merely may have just concluded the prologue to this work in progress.  This is not the end of history.  For certain, in the months and years ahead we obviously will need to confront radical Islam, sadly, often by force.  We cannot placate this medieval religion or accede to any of the demands of its leaders who call for the establishment of their barbarian system of Sharia law within the boundaries of any free nation.

The best weapon we have, however, is not force, but rather diplomacy that advances the principles which made this great nation unique and the envy of people all over the world.

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8 responses to “Egypt and the Wider Middle East: The Limits of Intelligence”

  1. […] the original post: Egypt and the Wider Middle East: The Limits of Intelligence More Of Thee I Sing « Our Blog – Little One Books – Children's Books …President of […]

  2. Iyablans says:

    To summarize….. The U.S. and the rest of the western world needs to watch and wait. We are witness to a sea change in history and any attempt to meddle too soon would probably work to our detriment.
    I would agree that the diplomatic corp.has been woeful in it’s failure to train and hire qualified people familiar with the cultural realities of the region.
    A clarification….You suggest that It was the failure of our intelligence to know that reports of WMD’S in Iraq were false. That won’t work.It was the administration’s desire to selectively believe what it needed to make the case for war.
    That has been quite clearly documented.

    • We haven’t seen the “clearly documented” material that shows the (Bush) Administration “selectively believed what it needed to hear to make the case for war”, although we have seen considerable press speculation to that affect. As Condoleeza Rice testified, the administration acted on the information it was provided which was the same information the Congress had and (she said) we couldn’t wait for a “mushroom cloud” for final verification. Former President Clinton also stated based on, essentially, that same information, that Saddam unquestionably had weapons of mass destruction.

  3. Iyablans says:

    There IS ample”CLEARLY ‘DOCUMENTED” reportage that records the deceit that led this country to war . When George tenet of the CIA advised bush in 2002 that Iraq posessed no WMD’S ,the president dismissed the information as worthless. Bob Woodward’s book does a very good job of reporting a lot of what went on during the runup to the invasion.You may call it speculation.It sounds a lot like the truth to me. And Yes,there were democrats as well, who are guilty of sophistry in their desire to eliminate a bad man by any means necesary,Both clinton’s and John Kerry to name a few.

    • Actually, Iyablans is, in this instance, incorrect. While Tenet clearly took issue with Vice President Cheney’s determination to draw a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam, we find no evidence that he believed there was no WMD to be found in Iraq. To the contrary, from the New York Times review of his book on the Iraq war, and in his own words…”Tenet takes blame for the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s weapons programs, calling the episode “one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure.” He expresses regret that the document was not more nuanced, but says there was no doubt in his mind at the time that Saddam Hussein possessed unconventional weapons. “In retrospect, we got it wrong partly because the truth was so implausible,” he writes. Despite such sweeping indictments, Bush, who in 2004 awarded Tenet a Presidential Medal of Freedom, is portrayed personally in a largely positive light, with particular praise for his leadership after the 2001 attacks.
      “He was absolutely in charge, determined and directed,” Tenet writes of the president, whom he describes as a blunt-spoken kindred spirit.

      • We did not cite the American Revolution because it was never “hijacked” as was the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Iranian Revolution. Although the American revolution was in response to being ruled by a monarchy totally unresponsive to its subjects, it was greatly influenced by the writings of John Locke and further nurtured by the thinking and writing of Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, Jay and others of the founding generation. A violent resetting of the American revolution (the Civil War notwithstanding) never occurred although Aaron Burr, quite possibly, might have taken a shot at it had he had the following. We agree, however, that the current fervor sweeping the Middle East is, very much, a work in progress. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “those who commence revolutions, seldom conclude them.”

  4. charles anderson says:

    It is interesting that among the current and historical revolutions you cite you do not include the American revolution. Our revolution started as a reaction to monarchist insensitvity and evolved goals and direction slowly in the aftermath; perhaps we will see the same process evolve in the middle east, though it may not be to our liking, much as it was probably not to the monarchies of the late 1700’s.

  5. SFC MAC says:

    There is PLENTY of ample evidence to support the case for the Iraq war and remove Saddam Hussein from power.

    He DID have WMD. READ at the link:


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