|The spies who got it wrong
By Sreeram Chaulia
After every major
policy catastrophe in the contemporary
history of the
States, the blame game goes around as to
who "lost it'.
When the Chinese communists triumphed in the civil war of
the late 1940s, the American press and
congress zeroed in on a bunch of career US
foreign service officials involved in intelligence gathering
(the infamous "China
hands") for misleading their own
government and people and undermining the
Kuomintang. The converse view was that president Harry
Truman was the culprit for not providing adequate assistance
to China's anti-communist forces.
When president John F Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion of
Cuba backfired in 1961, the fiasco was
attributed to bungling and serious miscalculations by the
Agency (CIA). The
CIA's own exculpating take was that
Kennedy was plainly at fault for not using the US Air Force
in tandem with the marines.
When Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran was dethroned in 1979, this
pattern was repeated. Hawkish Cold Warriors dug out
embarrassing revelations of how the CIA was reporting just
months before the Islamic revolution that "Iran is not in a
revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation".
However, the left in the US argued that losing the shah to
the ayatollahs was a natural boomerang effect of the age-old
American policy of coddling brutish dictators.
In recent years, the US body politic performed a laborious
stocktaking of the multiple failures that led up to the
terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with intelligence
failure being bandied about as a prime contributing factor.
The 9/11 commission of inquiry concluded that fragmentation
and shoddy coordination among the panoply of American
intelligence agencies caused a preventable disaster. But
here too, the longer-term view was that the problem went
much deeper than incompetent turf battle among spy
organizations and that it was actually a come-uppance for
misguided American foreign policies in the Middle East.
Post mortems of events that generate a crisis for American
overseas interests essentially go along two opposing lines.
The first one is technical, which involves dissecting the
minutiae of why the nation's assortment of spies did not
provide accurate advance information so that the dreaded
outcome could have been occluded or at least hedged against.
The second one is political, which asks why American
interests were poorly defined and executed by the highest
office holders in power when the realities on the ground
were clearly headed towards a shocking denouement that would
set back US influence in a country or region for decades.
The current self-introspection in the wake of the overthrows
of pro-American despots in Tunisia and Egypt fit neatly into
this dualistic framework. The US intelligence community is
finding itself under a heap of brickbats from politicians
and hindsight-equipped pundits for turning a blind eye to
signs of the popular mobilization and protests that have
toppled two solid US allies already and threaten to scalp
some more in a hurry.
The House and senate committees on intelligence are grilling
defensive personnel of the CIA and the Director of National
Intelligence (DNI) for their alleged failure to catch the
pulse of youth movements and online chat rooms, which ended
up damaging US assets in the Middle East much more than
violent Islamist terrorist cells of al-Qaeda.
Feisty American politicians have labeled the double whammy
loss of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's and Egyptian
Hosni Mubarak's regimes as a "wake-up" call for US spies
apparently snoring on their jobs and feeding a false sense
of complacency in Washington by rating these former
strongmen as stable in their seats. According to the widely
followed liberal website, The Huffington Post, President
Barack Obama told the DNI, James Clapper, that he was
"disappointed with the intelligence community and its
failure to predict the unrest".
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tallied lessons
that the US can learn from the democratic surge in the
Middle East and opined that "we need better intelligence"
that can "hang out with the powerless" and which can predict
impending political storms.
As in the past, the other side of the coin is also in full
bloom, with stinging critiques of US foreign policy
priorities and tactics in the Middle East now gaining
credence even in the mainstream public debating space. The
Obama administration and its predecessors are coming in for
rebuke in the media for propping up vile authoritarians in
the name of "stability" in the Middle East.
If the attacks of 9/11 unearthed the "why do they hate us?"
refrain, the largely peaceful deposing of decades-old
pro-American tyrants today has uncorked the "why do we
always back the bad guys?" soul-searching.
The present crisis of the unknown in the US foreign policy
establishment as to the degrees of independence or even
hostility of proto-democratic polities in the Middle East
has unleashed a frenzy of scapegoats and alibis about how
and why these developments could not be anticipated to
Clapper has excused himself and his rank-and-file in the
intelligence agencies by admitting that "we are not
clairvoyant" and that "specific triggers cannot always be
known or predicted".
To be fair to the spies, predicting behavior in the complex
social world has never been easy because history often gets
remade in mysterious bouts of energy spurts and realignments
The most colossal failure to foretell occurred in the late
1980s, when it was assumed by almost everyone that the
Soviet Union would survive and remain a global threat right
through to the new millennium. The entire industry of "Sovietologists"
in the US government, academia and think-tanks were as
surprised as the lay public when the USSR collapsed like a
house of cards.
Equally unpredictable was the financial crash of 2008 on
Wall Street, with most experienced economic intelligence
analysts taken aback by the swiftness with which the
meltdown shook the foundations of global capitalism in a
matter of months.
There always were some sagacious (or plain lucky)
forecasters of doom on the stability of the USSR (Russian
dissident Andrei Amalrik said so as early as 1970) and on
the sustainability of the longest financial boom in American
history (economist Nouriel Roubini saw the writing on the
wall for the US economy in 2006 itself). But such views were
always in a minority and became household topics only in an
ex post facto setting.
One of the dilemmas intelligence agencies face in hyping
threats is the likelihood of these warnings not panning out
due to the uncontrollable nature of history, which the
Russian savant Leo Tolstoy depicted masterfully in his
magnum opus, War and Peace.
For an intelligence station chief or an agent on the ground,
the problem is often that of receiving alarming news from
various sources but exercising discretion on how much of
these titbits should be passed on to higher-ups who might be
skeptical about overly frightening scenarios. The mark of a
quality spy has always been supreme alertness to danger, but
agents are wary of crying wolf far too often and then losing
the ears of policymakers who get inured to scaremongering.
The unforeseeable force of historical developments can be a
legitimate defense for intelligence agencies, but it does
not imply that politicians and definers of national interest
at the helm of the US state structure can be absolved for
misguided policy. Washington's bipartisan consensus during
and after the Cold War in favor of cultivating strong
relationships with totalitarian regimes that repress their
people remains the ultimate cause of anti-Americanism in
many parts of the world, including the Middle East.
Tunis and Cairo are symbols of the yawning gap between the
American self-image and political rhetoric of promoting
democracy on one hand, and the continued preference for "big
men" with whom Washington can easily "do business with" on
The revolutions in the Middle East reflect the disconnection
between American ideals and practice. Intelligence failure
is a charade or, at best, a minor glitch compared to the
larger problem of policy failure.
Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School
of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author
of the forthcoming book, International Organizations and
Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in
Conflict Zones (I B Tauris) .
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