Tuesday, February 03, 2004
So, David Brooks thinks it's the CIA's logocentrism that's the problem.
(For the uninitiated: "logocentric" is the key deconstructionist putdown of Western philosophy. The idea is that Western philosophy is oppressive and destructive because it enshrines reason at the top of the hierarchy of values; the liberating thing is to have no hierarchy and just let the values fight it out in a war of all against all. Or perhaps not, but once you have tenure you can stop worrying and learn to love anarchy.)
I'm with him part of the way here. The CIA thought Castro would be easy to knock off. (Wrong.) They thought there was a missile gap. (Wrong.) They thought the Soviets wouldn't invade Afghanistan. (Wrong.) They thought the Shah was doing OK. (Wrong.) They thought Khomeini's revolution wouldn't be so bad. (Wrong.) They thought Iraq wouldn't attack Iran, or Kuwait. (Wrong, and wrong.) They thought the Soviet economy was booming. (Wrong.) They thought Iraq was years away from getting the bomb in 1991. (Wrong.) They thought Iraq still had substantial biological weapons capabilities, and an active nuclear weapons research program, in 2002. (Wrong.) Sometimes they overestimate the threat; sometimes they underestimate. That's not the pattern. The pattern is they often get it wrong.
So what are we supposed to do? If I understand Brooks correctly, what we're supposed to do is not let the facts get in the way of a good policy.
Am I missing something here? Am I misreading him? The CIA's job is to provide intelligence - in its most basic form, information. What's happening out there. Who's trying to kill us. Who could be persuaded not to kill us, and who can be turned into at least a neutral. They've done a mediocre job over the years of providing accurate intelligence of this type. So Brooks wants us to . . . wing it? Go with our gut?
Let me assess the practical implications of this. Dick Cheney is convinced that Iraq is a threat. Why? Because he's sure of it. So we prepare to go to war, and try to marshall the rest of the world behind us, and all we've got to persuade them is Dick Cheney's gut? All we've got to persuade the American people, for that matter, is Dick Cheney's gut?
And further: Brooks' complaint is that the CIA tries to be too disinterested, too scientific in its assessments. So presumably it should be more . . . interested? In other words . . . biased?
Biased in which direction? For decades we were in a state of Cold War with Russia in its incarnation as the Soviet Union. Now, Russia is back in the hands of a former KGB agent, and is rapidly turning into a dictatorship. It continues to play a double game with American enemies (e.g., Iran). Should we restart the Cold War with Russia? Suppose someone in the CIA is an inveterate Russophobe, convinced that trusting Putin is madness and that Russia is about to emerge as the big new threat. So he brings his biased assessment to bear on everything he does: reports worst-case scenarios of Russian intentions, hypes the Russian threat at every turn, and generally makes the case for his preferred policy by artful selection of facts. Meanwhile, another CIA mucky-muck is a Chinaphobe, and does the same thing with respect to China. Another one is a Saudi-phobe. Another one thinks Israeli intrasigence is the big problem. Another one frets about India's intentions.
You get the picture. What is the President supposed to do with a series of reports indicating that, variously, everyone on earth is a terrible threat to the security of the United States, no one can be trusted, and we had best be prepared for total war against just about everyone?
This is why I'm starting to worry about paranoia. You cannot make policy this way. If Brooks, and Ledeen, and the rest of those who refuse to understand the implications of the intelligence mistakes with respect to Iraq keep going the way they are going, they are going to wind up right down the rabbit hole.
I want to stress: I understand the point Brooks is trying to make. He's trying to say that you have to have a strategic vision, and make sense of facts within that context. Facts don't speak for themselves. But we *had* a strategic vision of the situation in Iraq, and it led us to *miss* the facts. We understood just how unstable Saddam was, and that led us to assume that anything awful he might be doing he was doing, hence the elevated threat assessment - an assessment which turned out to be *wrong.* If Brooks was being honest, he'd say that the process was fine - we assessed the threat within a contextual vision that enabled us to make sense of things - but that the resulting intelligence failure proves that the strategic vision was wrong. What else could it mean?
The only other thing it could mean is that intelligence assessments of the Iraqi threat were not an important part of the real case for war. That the Bush Administration did not really care whether the Iraqi WMD threat was serious. If that's the case (and it's a case that Tom Friedman - a liberal supporter of the war - has made, among others) and the strategic rationale for the war is to be found almost entirely elsewhere, then that strategic rationale may remain intact, and the case for war as well, but two other things follow. First: the Bush Administration must take the hit for having based the public case for war to such a degree on the threat assessment, for putting American credibility on the line for "facts" that turned out to be specious. That was an Administration decision, not a CIA decision, and the buck cannot be passed. Second: Brooks' thesis must be jettisonned. Because if threat-assessment is not really very important to the Administration's case for war in Iraq, then the CIA was itself misled by those who urged them to evaluate the equivocal data they had in the context of a Saddam Hussein bent on vengeance against the United States. You can hardly blame the CIA for that.
There's a more rational - logocentric, even - response to what we have learned. That is to admit error. The case for war had many pillars. One of them - the one we overwhelmingly relied on in making the public case for war - has turned out to be almost entirely false. We assessed the Iraqi threat - reasonably - in light of Saddam's past behavior, and in light of our overall strategic vision. That - not some CIA cultural flaw - led us to error. We wanted to believe that the best public case that could be made - Iraq is bulding atomic weapons, so we have no time to waste in getting rid of Saddam - was also true, because that would make it easier for us to justify what we had independently decided was a necessary and just war. That wishful thinking - precisely what Brooks is calling for more of - led us to error, and has had costs.
If the Bush Administration adopts the Brooks/Ledeen/Frum/etc. line, that would be entirely in keeping with its predilections. But it would be a mistake. I don't worry so much about Bush's credibility, and its electoral prospects. I do worry about America's credibility, and the consequences for America's ongoing war.