Much Ado Over Not Much

Although Afghan president Hamid Karzai may not be much of a ruler of the kind that firmly establishes control of the entire country – which might not be a bad thing in less parlous times in Afghanistan, which has never really cottoned to central government – he clearly excels President Bush at one aspect of being presidential: explaining his policy preferences in plain English. Being articulate, however, is not the same thing as being right. One aspect of his joint appearance with President Bush – and I still want one of those Afghan cloaks he wears so well – deserves some critical perusal.

Karzai made a point of noting, as have many defenders of administration policies, that the United States had not invaded Afghanistan or Iraq on 9/11 five years ago. The comment was an obvious attempt to rebut the Sunday leak story in the New York Times about the April National Intelligence Estimate, which according to those who leaked to the Times assessed that the Iraq war had made the problem of terrorism worse.

Karzai’s statement is true but irrelevant. Nobody I know of denies that there was a jihadist terrorism threat before 9/11, though few of us took it as seriously as perhaps was warranted. The question regarding the estimate was whether the threat was more compelling in the wake of the Iraq war. Clearly it is in certain important respects, and there’s little doubt that the snippet of the 30 page report that the administration selectively declassified and released to the public was relatively pessimistic about the overall threat, judging that the jihadist movement – which includes al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda-inspired-but-not-controlled groups and freelance groups, is more dangerous now than before and is likely to remain so for the duration covered by the estimate – which a source for the Washington Post said was intended to be between now and 2011.

While it’s true that factors other than the Iraq war have played roles in spreading this overall terrorist threat, then, the excerpts make clear that while the jihadist movement – if that’s the right word for a phenomenon that has dispersed and decentralized to a remarkable degree – has vulnerabilities, it poses more of a threat to the United States than it did before. And while the report – at least in the excerpt and from most reports in the entire document – is an estimate rather than a set of policy prescriptions or even policy options, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of U.S. policies and actions to date.

So it is true that the aspects of the report the leakers to the Times chose to emphasize – and it’s a near certainty that some had partisan motives, though it’s difficult to pinpoint them when all the sources are anonymous, which is only one of the problems with relying so heavily on anonymous sources – were not the entirety of the report, as administration defenders emphasized in the first few days. But a discerning reading of the entire report should not give much aid and comfort to the administration and its defenders. Like most bureaucratic reports it was carefully hedged, and people on either side of the great debate over the Iraq war can find aspects to cherry-pick to support their policy preferences. But an assessment that the threat of terrorism is more serious than before and likely to remain so at least through 2011 (!) hardly suggests that taken in totality the U.S. response has been particularly effective.

There was sensation, but the only real news in the New York Times‘ story saying that, as one anonymous intelligence official put it, “the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,” is that the assessment is contained in a reasonably official document, acknowledged by the intelligence community leaders. Despite recent speeches filled with hope and bravado from the president – we’re safer but not safe yet, as if we ever really could be 100-percent safe – and other administration officials, this has been blindingly obvious for months, even years.

Those of us who opposed the unprovoked invasion of Iraq from the outset warned at the time that one of the likely results would be to increase the ability of al-Qaeda and other terrorist-inclined organizations to recruit people willing to undertake acts of terrorism. As it became obvious that the United States, after what seemed for a while like a stirring military victory, was undertaking a long-term occupation of Iraq without a serious plan that took into account the ethnic and religious diversity of a country whose borders reflected British convenience after World War I rather than local history, the fears quickly became reality.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq, a predominantly Arab and Muslim country – despite a brave and sometimes laudable attempt at a “unity” government made up of Iraqi citizens, it must be classified as an occupation – has served as a recruiting poster for Islamic jihadists worldwide, and anybody who casually glanced at newspaper and television coverage already knew it. Further, some foreign fighters have gone to Iraq to learn guerrilla tactics and be “blooded” in insurgent and terrorist techniques, then returned to their country with more knowledge and determination than before.

In trying to defuse the leak of the document, even White House spokesman Tony Snow had to acknowledge that Iraq was among several factors that “fuel the spread of jihadism.” He went on to point out that other factors, including “longstanding social grievances, slowness of the pace of reform, and the use of the Internet” were also important factors.

The trouble with noting those other factors is that the United States can do little to cure social grievances or speed up the pace of reform in the Middle East, as has become painfully obvious in Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention Kazakhstan and other stubbornly autocratic regimes. Nor can it uninvent the Internet.

No doubt if the United States withdrew from Iraq immediately, jihadists would take it as an admission of defeat, and it is possible – though not as inevitable as some would argue – that Iraq would become even more chaotic than it is now. But simply “staying the course” with current levels of U.S. troops seems unlikely to bring about victory (assuming there is a consensus on what constitutes victory, which there isn’t). The Army is currently seeking to increase troop levels in Iraq, though only modestly, and seeking a 41 percent increase in its budget to pay for it.

So a near-obsession with deposing Saddam Hussein in Iraq has led to 2,700 Americans killed and about 20,000 wounded, and there’s no vision of victory and no end in sight. And far from making us safer, as administration spokespeople insist, it has probably increased the worldwide threat of terrorism.

The fact that intelligence “czar” John Negroponte jumped almost immediately into the fray to support the administration version of “reality” suggests strongly that the U.S. intelligence community is far from being reformed enough that it can be genuinely useful to the U.S. as a whole, as distinguished from the particular administration in power. A proper intelligence agency’s job is to provide assessments that are as honest and nuanced as possible, as a guide to those making policy rather than as support or lobbying for any particular policy. That ideal has hardly been maintained through the history of the CIA – the director has always been a presidential appointee, after all – but it’s an ideal many mid-level careerists try to uphold.

The disastrous directorships of John Deutch and George Tenet of an agency that was already floundering since it had lost its real mission with the collapse of the Soviet empire left the “intelligence community” (what a delightful white lie) almost entirely politicized rather than professional. These directors toadied to whatever administration was in power rather than striving for independence.

With the best will in the world it would have been virtually impossible to turn the agencies around in less than about five years, and useful results might have been 10 years away. Any bureaucracy’s permanent members will resist political appointees, even if they engender confidence from the rank-and-file. But there was the opposite of the best will. George Dubya retained Tenet, whose instinct for toadying turned out to be transferable. The came the disastrous Porter Goss, who inspired active resistance from the career types. And now John Negroponte has confirmed (as if there were serious doubt) that he would rather suck up to the president than build a genuinely independent intelligence capability.

Without decent intelligence, which we still lack about Iran, North Korea, al-Qaeda and the rest of the jihadist threat, it is unlikely that the threat will be substantially reduced anytime soon.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).