Longtime viewers of the popular NBC television show Saturday Night Live probably recall "Emily Litella" an elderly woman with hearing problems commenting on the news on the "Weekend Update" segment, played by the late comedian Gilda Radner.
Litella would read an editorial addressing a public issue, only to be interrupted in the middle of her report by the anchorman, who would point to her error. "Oh, that’s very different," she would humbly respond, adding, "Never mind" and then turn to another topic.
But while Litella was humble enough to admit her mistake and smart enough to change the subject, the proponents of a U.S. military confrontation with Iran will not allow the release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear weapons program to interrupt their march to World War III.
They refuse to accept the collective judgment of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the autumn of 2003, and challenge their conclusions by charging that the "anti-Bush" spooks were trying to launch a "preemptive strike" against the White House aimed at undermining plans for air attacks on Iranian nuclear sites.
One could imagine how the neoconservative pundits would be celebrating the quality of the work of the American spy organizations and their professional integrity if the NIE had concluded with "high confidence" that Iran was actually very close to building a nuclear bomb.
That kind of NIE would have become a central weapon in the arsenal of military hard-liners in their political and bureaucratic battles against those whom they would label "appeasers" of Iran, who were proposing that notwithstanding the intelligence indicating that Iran could soon have nukes, President Bush should not rush into another unnecessary and costly war in the Middle East.
Moreover, if after a U.S. military operation against Iran, Americans were to discover that the leaders in Tehran had indeed terminated their nuclear military program in 2003, the neocons would place the responsibility for the fiasco on the shoulders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, insisting that "virtually every intelligence agency came up with the same assumption, that there would be stockpiles of WMDs in Iran."
Supporters of what would have proven to be a senseless war with Iran would then lament "second-guessing" and "defeatism." After all, they would assert: "We made a decision based on the intelligence that was available. Instead of whining, how about us doing a ‘surge’ of U.S. troops in Tehran?"
The lesson of the blunders of American spy agencies in Iraq is not that Americans need quality intelligence before going to war. The fact is that even under the optimal conditions, U.S. intelligence, or for that matter, any intelligence service in the world, will never be "intelligent" enough in the sense of having complete and accurate information about all the threats facing their "clients."
Bureaucratic inertia, political pressures, and just plain professional incompetence and personal corruption are all part of the cloak-and-dagger business, which is far from being an exact science. Intelligence should be utilized by political leaders with skepticism especially if and when they consider going to war and then only as part of a larger menu of information and ideas, coupled with a sense of history, not to mention common sense.
The decision on U.S. policy toward the Shi’ite rulers in Tehran, not unlike the approach Washington should have adopted toward the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, should be based first and foremost on a clear consideration of America’s national interest as part of an open debate involving Congress and the general public.
Such a serious national debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East has not taken place since the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, in order to decide whether Americans should be deploying troops in the Middle East to fight a war against Iran, Americans need to ask themselves and their leaders a simple question: Does Iran pose a major threat to their core national interests?
Depending on the response to this and such related questions, good U.S. intelligence could certainly provide the American people and their leaders with valuable strategic assets if and when they decide to go to war. But intelligence or a lack thereof should not become the default trigger of that war.
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