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    Middle East
     Feb 19, 2011



The spies who got it wrong
By Sreeram Chaulia

After every major foreign policy catastrophe in the contemporary history of the United 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 communist Cuba backfired in 1961, the fiasco was attributed to bungling and serious miscalculations by the Central Intelligence 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 minimize damage.

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 of actors.

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 other.

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) .

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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