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Commentary (July 22, 2004)

Iraq: Myths of Intelligence Exposed

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

One reads with anger the conclusions of the U.S. Senate report and the British Butler report on the false intelligence reporting used to justify the U.S.-British attack on Iraq.

To any impartial observer at the time, it was obvious that the justifications were almost certain to be false. The weakened Iraqi regime was in no condition to be preparing or even hiding weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations had reported no findings. Previous U.S. reports of WMD stockpiles had turned out to be false.

As for claimed al-Qaeda links, these had to be fantasy. The regime itself was busily executing Islamic militants as a threat. The al-Qaeda leaders were on record condemning the Iraqi regime both for the executions and its secularism, i.e., for its lack of Islamic fanaticism.

Some, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now argue that the intervention helped get rid of a brutal dictator. But that claim would have more validity if the United States and Britain had not actively supported that dictator when he was at his most brutal in the 1980s. By the time the attack occurred, U.N. and other sanctions had done much to end the brutality. The jails had been virtually emptied.

And does one brutality deserve another? The cruelty and mistakes of the U.S. intervention not only canceled out any moral basis for the U.S. intervention. They also guaranteed the anti-U.S. resistance we see in Iraq today.

The likely result, as some of us predicted at the time, is that the former dictatorial but secular regime in Iraq will be replaced by an equally dictatorial and antisecular regime far more hostile to Western interests. The nation that once refused al-Qaeda connections is now awash with Islamic militants and fanatics, with some lapping over into Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region.

The militants no longer have to go to New York to find targets. They have them outside their front doors, patrolling the Iraqi streets.

The one good result from all this is that the Bush doctrine of preventive war against all and anyone whom the U.S. dislikes has had a battering.

How and why did our "best and brightest" intelligence experts manage to get it so wrong, again? The U.S. Senate report mentions "group-think" -- the pressure to say what everyone else is saying. As someone who once worked on the fringes of a foreign affairs/intelligence bureaucracy, I would add the pressure to say what the political masters want to hear. Promotions do not come easily to those who go against the prescribed wisdom.

The fact of bureaucracy itself is a problem. Bloated intelligence organizations like the CIA spend so much time and effort managing and protecting their continued existence that they have forgotten the purpose of their original existence.

But it is the monopoly over intelligence that does most harm. The volume of information flowing into the hands of the military/intelligence/foreign affairs complex is enormous. Viewed impartially, it could put an end to most conflicts. But as the information passes up the line, increasingly it moves into the hands of the insiders who can be "trusted" -- the my-country-right-or-wrong hawks and ideologues unlikely to show any understanding toward the alleged enemy of the day. The more impartial are excluded; they are seen as too dovish.

U.S. intelligence and military officials happily deciding the future of Iraq managed to include almost no Arabic speakers or people with Middle East background. When a group of former British ambassadors and experts with Middle East experience got together to criticize the policies of the Blair government over Iraq, they were quickly dismissed as "sour-grape Arabists."

Iraq is significant because of the speed with which the faults of these insiders have been exposed. Over Vietnam more than a decade was needed before the mistakes of our "best and the brightest," and their myths of Chinese expansionism and communist dominoes, could be exposed. They too had little understanding of Vietnam, or China. But by that time, there was little urge to find out why and where policies had gone wrong.

Over the Soviet Union and the Cold war, more than a generation was needed before the myths of aggressive and irreversible communism could be wound back. And even now the conventional wisdom cannot get it right. Many want to give credit to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan for his policy of military confrontation. In fact, the credit lies with one man, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, himself a product of the so-called evil empire.

As anyone with understanding of Soviet mentality could have told you at the time, it was the policies of military confrontation that created the Cold War and then extended it three decades longer than necessary. But anyone with that kind of understanding would have been denied access to the corridors of information and policymaking power.

There is a strange contradiction in all this. When it comes to the economic affairs of the nation, we do not tolerate this kind of bias. Information is freely available. Mistakes are quickly corrected. Control over interest rates and money supply is taken away from the politicians and put in the hands of impartial, nonpolitical experts in the central bank.

Something similar is needed in foreign affairs, where mistakes can be far more damaging. An impartial group or organization with free access to intelligence information is needed to monitor the policymakers. The various foreign affairs research organizations and institutes that exist today cannot do this. They are too beholden to the foreign affairs/intelligence/military complex for funds and information.

(This article appeared in the July 22, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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