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.