Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 October 2004

Intelligence Does Matter

The political firestorm over intelligence supporting the war in Iraq may soon burn itself out. Two blue-ribbon reports—one on each side of the Atlantic—show how poor that intelligence really was. The Bush Administration insists that it did the best with what it got. It denies trying to influence, slant or spin the intelligence, far less to deceive.

But there are other, more important problems of intelligence in the Bush Administration. The English word “intelligence” has two meanings. We have all focused far too much on spying, and far too little on our leaders’ grey matter.

Of course the two meanings of “intelligence” are connected. You can’t get good intelligence from spying unless you are smart in how you spy. World War II showed us that. Our Navy won the crucial battle of Midway, despite the devastation of Pearl Harbor, in large part because of a clever trick. We had only partially broken the Japanese code, so we didn’t know where they would attack next. We aired open messages pretending that a water condenser on Midway had been broken. When we were able to decipher a coded Japanese message locating the “broken” condenser at the site the Japanese had code-named for their attack, we knew where they would go.

The British did more of the same in Europe. With a prodigious effort and rooms full of mathematicians, they were able not only to decipher the Germans’ battle codes but, by clever deception, to conceal that they had done so until the end of the War. In key battles, knowing the Germans’ plans nearly as soon as their troops did gave our allies a decisive edge.

Breaking the Germans’ codes and concealing success in doing so required tremendous investment, organization, discipline, and—most of all—brains. It took brains to understand that the Germans had developed a new mechanical device (before the advent of digital computers) to create hard-to-break codes. It took brains to realize that the machines’ codes could be broken. It took both brains and imagination to realize how important such a breakthrough would be and who could accomplish it, and so to organize that room full of mathematicians, keep them secret, and pay them secretly throughout the war. The British effort was comparable in size, scope, cost and secrecy to our Manhattan Project, which built the A-Bomb. All this became known to the public only recently, for the entire program had been classified for over a half-century.

Other evidence of our intelligence in World War II is better known. We Americans started and completed the Manhattan project, at great expense and effort. When the Japanese occupied Malaysia and cornered the world’s supply of rubber—a crucial raw material for war—we went to work on a crash basis and invented synthetic rubber. The government-run project in which we did so has been likened to the Manhattan Project in its scope, expense and success.

We and our British allies also created one of the greatest Potemkin armies of all time—a mighty force of inflatable rubber tanks and planes—to deceive the Germans into thinking that our great invasion would come at Calais and not at Normandy. The ruse worked and helped ensure our victory at Normandy while saving countless lives.

An objective look at the Second World War shows that we won because we were smarter than our enemies. We were not noticeably stronger, braver, or more productive. But we used our brains—the chief survival trait of our species—to better advantage.

Contrast this encouraging past with the recent history of the Iraq war. Forget for a moment whether invading Iraq was right or wrong. Just look at the conduct of the war after the first initial flush of victory. The public record reveals blunders in planning and execution that call into question the intelligence of our leaders in the second sense of that word.

The most important blunder was not recognizing that our initial rush to Baghdad was only a first step. Colin Powell and the State Department warned as much. So did General Shinseki. All were ignored. Just days before the invasion began, Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s then Foreign Minister, warned the world openly on international television. When American troops reached Saddam’s palace, he said, they would grab only smoke. His meaning was clear: Saddam’s army would not fight us directly but would melt away with their weapons and live to fight again at a time and place of their choosing. That is exactly what happened. The Administration failed to heed these explicit warnings from both inside and outside his government and therefore failed to plan effectively to win the peace.

After Baghdad fell, Iraqis looted virtually every institution of public importance in their nation. Not only did they loot the Iraqi National Museum. They also looted Iraq’s center for disease control, its national bank, virtually every ministry except the oil ministry, and innumerable water, power, and sewer facilities. In many cases (including, famously, the National Museum) heavily armed American troops were as close as across the street and did nothing to stop the looting. The unstopped looting destroyed the infrastructure of a civil society, created the conditions for chaos and disorder that still exist today, and began the long, slow process of turning the liberated, happy majority of Iraqis against the United States.

Questioned about our failure to stop the looting, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld quipped that the Iraqis were just enjoying their new-found liberty. That quip will go down not only as one of the cruelest jokes, but as one of the most outrageously and spectacularly stupid remarks of any leader in human history. It belongs in the same class as Marie Antoinette’s infamous jibe about peasants starving for lack of bread before the French Revolution: “Let them eat cake!”

The list goes on. Virtually every great general and wartime leader in human history has had one consistent piece of advice: “Know your enemy.” It is difficult to know your enemy when you don’t speak the enemy’s language. Yet Arabic translators are in very short supply. They are in such short supply that 120,000 tapes of intercepted Arabic telephone conversations lie untranslated, and therefore unused, inside the United States alone. Where have all our scarce Arabic translators been since Saddam’s statue fell? They’ve been hard at work in Iraq, not finding Saddamists and terrorists, but searching fruitlessly for weapons of mass destruction to justify the Bush Administration’s decision to invade.

The greatest blunder of all, however, is probably the “plan,” if there was one, for reconstructing Iraq. About 60% of Iraqi young men are unemployed. They have nothing to do and no way to make money. Saddamists and terrorists offer them $150 to fire rocket-propelled grenades at our troops or to plant improvised explosive devices in front of our convoys. No doubt some do it because of growing anti-American sentiment, but probably many do it just for the money. Yet the Bush Administration has done virtually nothing to hire Iraqis to rebuild their own country. Instead, the money is going to Haliburton, which has yet to make a visible start on reconstruction after eighteen months.

Remember the $600 million in cash that our troops found in one of Saddam’s palaces? It could have been used, right on the spot, to put Iraqis to work rebuilding their own devastated infrastructure. The symbolic value of such a gesture, let alone its jump-start to the Iraqi economy, would have been tremendous. Did the Bush Administration even think of doing this? No.

That $600 million also could have been used, right away, for another crucial purpose. The Russians built most of Iraq’s electrical grid and much of its water and power infrastructure during the Cold War. Russian equipment is incompatible with the stuff that American companies like Haliburton eventually plan to supply. When Iraqis looted Iraq’s infrastructure, they took every piece of equipment that could be stolen and sold, in some cases down to wires, nuts, bolts and conduits. That left two options for reconstruction: (1) getting the old Russian equipment back, or (2) rebuilding the entire infrastructure from scratch.

The Bush Administration could have used the $600 million windfall, or some of our own money, to get the old Russian equipment back in place. It could have offered an amnesty to the looters, most of whom were just ordinary Iraqis trying to find a means to support their families in uncertain times. It could have offered to pay for looted parts, no questions asked, if reinstalled in working condition within, say, thirty days. Instead, the Administration chose to go it alone, rely on Haliburton, and rebuild the infrastructure from scratch. The result is that the lights, water and sewage in Baghdad still don’t work eighteen months after Saddam’s statue fell, and otherwise neutral or friendly Iraqis hate us for it.

The Bush Administration’s missteps and missed opportunities in Iraq go on and on. The blunder of entirely dissolving, instead of “thinning,” the Iraqi army is well known and widely discussed. The new Iraqi government is in the process of reversing that policy, but far too late. The window for easy pacification closed long ago.

Equally apparent is the blunder of relying too much on long-time exiles for intelligence, political guidance, and even political governance. That blunder is again in the process of reversal, but again far too late. Yet another blunder was leaving Iraq’s borders so porous as to allow any jihadi with a thumb for hitchhiking to enter and cause trouble.

These blunders are far from isolated mistakes. They are consistent and interrelated, and they compound each other. We could have “vetted” the Iraqi military and separated friend from foe a lot more easily using the translators assigned to the fruitless search for WMD. Which was more important, winning the peace or justifying the invasion? Security provided by a “thinned” Iraqi army could have allowed the rebuilding process to get a much quicker start. That, in turn, could have provided a boost for the Iraqi economy and productive jobs for the youth who are now shooting at us. And so it went: blunder after compounding blunder.

The picture of these interlocking and compounding blunders makes one thing crystal clear. There was no coherent, intelligent leadership from the top. The pieces of the puzzle did not, and still do not, fit together into a coherent plan. Making policy coherent, realistic and effective is the job of a leader, especially the top leader. As Harry Truman proudly confessed, pointing to his presidential desk, “The buck stops here.” A smart president could have and would have avoided these stupid blunders.

It would be better, of course, if President Bush could credibly claim that he had, like any good manager, hired smart people to work for him. He does have a few smart folk, but he doesn’t listen to them. Colin Powell warned him beforehand of exactly what was going to happen in Iraq; Powell was right. Condoleeza Rice tried to convince him that the larger “war on terror” is a war to win hearts and minds. Yet Bush has marginalized both Powell and Rice.

Bush does listen to Rumsfeld and Cheney, but there’s the rub. Not only has Rumsfeld horribly mismanaged war in Iraq since Saddam’s statue fell. He has done more harm to our cause in Iraq and the world with his mouth than many fighting against us have done with their weapons. Remember his wartime press conferences? Remember how he insulted the intelligence of friend, foe and news media alike by saying virtually nothing, at great length, in a variety of aggressive and sarcastic ways? Remember his remark about the looting? Remember his disparaging our NATO allies as “Old Europe”? Rumsfeld the anti-diplomat has given America just the sort of aggressive, selfish, sarcastic and arrogant face that emboldens our enemies and pushes our allies away.

Before war came, Rumsfeld had done a good job strategically modernizing our military. But that was a desk job for an ivory-tower thinker. When war came, events proved Rumsfeld a miserable tactician and an abysmal wartime spokesman. He made the classic error of all arrogant political leaders: thinking he is smarter than his generals. Any president with an ounce of common sense would have fired or at least muzzled and marginalized him shortly after Saddam’s statue fell. But Rumsfeld remains our Secretary of Defense, responsible for winning a war that his arrogance, stubbornness and spectacular blunders have already dragged from the high road of victory to the low road toward defeat.

Then there’s Dick Cheney, who seems to have the President’s ear on all matters, foreign and domestic. Cheney famously declared that Reagan proved deficits don’t matter. Doesn’t he remember the 18% interest rates in the eighties? Even members of Bush’s own Administration, let alone his party, worry about the gargantuan deficits that Bush’s inattention to budgetary detail have laid on the back of our children.

Finally, there’s George Tenet. His remark that Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk” is one of the greatest bloopers in the history of espionage. We had three years since September 11 to build up human intelligence in Iraq and the Islamic world. Yet for three years after September 11, Tenet did virtually nothing to reform our nation’s woefully inadequate intelligence but protect his own behind and those of his immediate underlings. Effective foreign spy agencies like Russia’s FSB (the successor to the KGB) and Israel’s Mossad must alternately laugh and cry.

The astounding thing is how quickly we forget. Bush’s intellect (or lack of it) was a signal issue in the 2000 campaign. Commentators then wondered, even in peacetime, whether he could escape the stigma of a “dim bulb.” Yet somehow, over the course of the last three years, the public and the media seem to have gotten used to a president who can’t express a coherent thought longer than a bumper sticker and can’t seem to make decisions without driving us deeper and deeper into global economic, military and political trouble.

Smart presidents hire and heed people smarter than themselves. They also obtain information from numerous sources. Franklin Roosevelt consulted hundreds of people from all levels of government, in part to make sure those immediately below him were telling him the truth and giving him good advice. So did Lincoln. Bush, on the other hand, relies exclusively on a narrow and secretive circle of confidants, and that circle appears to be growing still smaller under the pressure of well-deserved criticism. As his administration circles its wagons, our nation’s future falls more and more into the hands of two aging, arrogant, stubborn men whose time (if it ever existed) has long ago come and gone.

Brains, realism, imagination and flexibility matter now more than ever, for the real storm clouds are gathering. Iran’s mullahs want nuclear weapons, and no one has an effective plan to stop them. Pakistan has nuclear weapons, and its friendly government hangs by a thread over a sea of Islamic extremism. North Korea has nuclear weapons and a history of selling whatever it has to the highest bidder. Ninety-five percent of containers reaching our shores are uninspected. This means that a nuclear weapon hidden in one of those containers now has nineteen-to-one odds of reaching its target, probably Washington, D.C. or New York City.

No “Star Wars” missile shield—even if it works—will save us from the threat of smuggled nukes. Nor will “steadfastness” in blundering tactics, faith in God, or utopian visions of worldwide democracy. Not even complete victory in Iraq will assure us safety from smuggled nukes and other WMD. Only our own intelligence, realism, tactical cleverness, and imagination can save us. President Bush and his team have shown over and over again, in word and deed, that they lack those qualities. To re-elect an amiable bumbler as president under these circumstances might be the most fatefully tragic mistake “we the people” could make.

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