Apr 4th, 2008 by MESH
MESH invites selected authors to offer original first-person statements on their new books—why and how they wrote them, and what impact they hope and expect to achieve. Ofira Seliktar is a professor of political science at Gratz College and adjunct professor at Temple University, specializing in predictive failures in intelligence. Her new book is The Politics of Intelligence and American Wars with Iraq.
From Ofira Seliktar
The genesis of my book The Politics of Intelligence and American Wars with Iraq is rooted in my experience teaching a class on the Middle East at Texas A&M University during the revolution in Iran in 1979. Most of my students were ROTC cadets who hoped to serve in intelligence, yet had difficulty understanding how a country could opt for what they defined as a regressive revolution. After having researched a book on the Carter administration’s failure to predict the fundamentalist revolution in Iran, I realized that such problems transcended my classroom, as they represent a more general difficulty in comprehending foreign societies and, especially, the Middle East.
Some of these problems relate to the pervasive influence of realist theory in international relations; countries are considered to be rational unitary actors which are said to share our view of what a nation’s interest is. Naturally, realist theory does not accommodate non-state actors like Al Qaeda or rogue regimes (like Syria and Iran) which have collaborated with terrorist organizations to destabilize the region and, in the process, incurred the high cost of international isolation and sanctions.
Another source of misperception stems from the writings of many Middle East experts who have downplayed the impact of the virulent strand of Islam which gave birth to terrorism on the scale practiced by Osama bin Laden. Indeed, my book documents in great detail how—until 9/11—most observers dismissed the possibility of a mega-terrorist attack and argued that bin Laden was a cold war-style bogeyman.
More to the point, The Politics of Intelligence draws attention to the perils of intelligence gathering and analysis in Iraq since 1980, a country notorious for its secretive ways, a byzantine political system and a hard-to-decipher dictator with a penchant for bizarre behavior. The Carter drive to “clean up” the intelligence community, coupled with the equally energetic Clinton era “scrub,” hobbled the few remaining intelligence assets of the CIA with legal limitations that rendered the operational branch highly risk-averse. All this occurred while the specter of WMD in the Middle East made the issue of Islamist terrorists with murky ties to state sponsors more urgent.
When Clinton bombed the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998, he acknowledged this linkage, for the CIA had determined that Iraqi engineers had developed chemical weapons for Al Qaeda at that site. Yet, criticism of the “wag the dog” presidency made the administration reticent either to pursue bin Laden or to target Iraq. Obtaining evidence about Hussein’s nonconventional weapons program was equally difficult given the virtual lack of American intelligence on the ground. After Iraq expelled UNSCOM in 1998, the United States was forced to rely on assorted sources, including allied intelligence services, Arab leaders, defectors and former inspectors. The resulting CIA Iraq estimate contended that Hussein had retained parts of his WMD program and was intent on enlarging its scope.
The 9/11 attack and the anthrax scare added urgency to the issue of Islamist terrorism and rogue states. The CIA, which had failed to predict the attack, was further disgraced when evidence of an Al Qaeda chemical weapons program was uncovered in Afghanistan and northern Iraq where Saddam Hussein sponsored a terrorist group allied with Al Qaeda. The realization grew that—in the murky world of WMD, Islamist terrorists and less than rational rogues like Iraq—there may not be enough “smoking gun”-grade evidence, a standard for action. Thus, the Bush administration embraced preemption and invaded Iraq.
The failure to find WMD and the high cost of the war have generated tremendous criticism, including the allegation that a group of Jewish neoconservatives in the administration, acting on behalf of the state of Israel, manipulated the intelligence in order to trick the United States into an unnecessary war. The backlash has also rehabilitated the realist idea that the Middle East is populated by rational state actors that play by universal rules.
I hope that The Politics of Intelligence and American Wars with Iraq will contribute to the debate about the difficulties of understanding the highly complex nature of the Middle East regimes. The Iraqi estimate revealed numerous problems: verification of nuclear proliferation, questionable rationality of state actors and their terrorist proxies, difficulty of penetrating such networks, murky and inconclusive evidence. These will continue to plague the United States in the years to come.