Whistling in the Dark

May 22, 2010

“Courage is the resistance to fear, the mastery of fear – not the absence of fear.” – Mark Twain

Dennis Blair’s commentary for the opinion pages of the Washington Post on 18 December is a world class contribution to the literature of denial. His assessment of American national security since 9/11 is notable only for what it ignores. The Director of National Intelligence uses the fifth anniversary of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Act of 2004 to celebrate a 16 agency US Intelligence Community that is not lean, mean, agile, or effective.

Let’s deal with denial first. Mr. Blair wastes an opportunity by writing about Intelligence reform without once mentioning “Islamic” terrorists or two costly wars in progress in two “Muslim” theaters. Reading his assessment, you could be led to believe he can not or will not identify the threat or the enemy. It is as if the words Islam and Muslim had been stricken from the strategic vocabulary. In this he is not alone.

The President, speaking in Cairo and Istanbul, exhibited the same reticence. Reading the Cairo transcript one might conclude that the sources of genocidal Islamic rage are things like French dress codes. In a similar vein, the Secretary of State, more recently, in Berlin described bin Laden and al Qaeda as the “core” of the administration’s national security concerns. Mrs. Clinton’s false narrative seeks to narrow the threat to one man and one terror group. Clinton also repeats a chestnut often offered by her husband, former President Bill Clinton:

“And we do bear some of the responsibility, frankly, for helping to create (sic) the very terrorists that we’re now all threatened by.”

Mr. an Mrs. Clinton are fond of arguing that the United States, and Israel by implication, are at the heart of Islamist angst. Ironically, this is the same rationale that has been provided by ayatollahs, imans, and mullahs for the past half century.

A clear picture of the Obama national security doctrine is emerging as we sift the specifics from the President, from Secretary of State Clinton, and now from the Director of National Intelligence. For the moment, this doctrine appears to have three components; denial, threat minimization, and guilt. We should first believe that Muslims and Islamists do not share what they so obviously have in common; we should also accept bin Laden and al Qaeda as the only “core” issues; and, adding insult to injury, we must recognize that we Americans (and Jews) are two of the sources of Islamic jihad, terrorism, and the quest for kalifa.  Corollaries to this doctrine are provided by the policies for Iraq and Afghanistan; both of which could charitably be described as exit strategies with expiration dates.

This policy of denial, if not appeasement, should be a winner in Europe and at the United Nations, but it leaves a lot to be desired if the safety of America (or Israel) is a concern. Indeed, if the Sunni threat can be reduced to a bearded man and forty thieves in a cave somewhere in Pashtunistan, then surely the nuclear menace from Shiites and Iran is a kind of strategic chopped liver.

Mr. Blair’s holiday manifesto, after ignoring the Islamist menace, provides a definition of Intelligence strategy with a bizarre wish list of primary concerns:

“The new (US) National Intelligence Strategy provides the blueprint …  for effectiveness…  and a focus on cyber security, counterintelligence and … problems such as pandemic disease, climate events, failed states … scarce natural resources…(and) such issues as energy, trade, drug interdiction and public health… Continued commitment and investment in this reform are vital.”

Does cyber security include those unsecured downlinks from reconnaissance drones in Iraq and Afghanistan which are being hacked? Does counterintelligence effectiveness include that Muslim Army major who shot up Fort Hood? And what do disease, climate, natural resources, and public health have to do with an enemy that might make all those other concerns irrelevant. What Mr. Blair’s intelligence “strategy” seems to lack most is focus.

The Director of National Intelligence goes on to tell us:

“It has been famously argued that information is power and, therefore, should never be shared. The Sept. 11 attacks showed the fatal flaws in that logic. Our nation is becoming safer every day…..”

Who is it that says information shouldn’t be shared? And speaking of 9/11, how are we doing with bin Laden and Mullah Omar after a decade of looking? And who among us feels safer every day?

Those “stovepipes” which Mr. Blair celebrates are part of the problem also, not the solution. He fails to mention that the major element of the “reform” he celebrates was the addition of two new stovepipes; the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counterterrorism Center. The 16 separate Intelligence agencies are still defended in the name of analytical diversity; yet when the diverse fail to converse, we are led to believe that “sharing” solves the problem.

Mr. Blair’s celebration of sharing didn’t anticipate the catastrophic failure to communicate a week later; precisely the flaw that allowed the “underwear” bomber, Mr. Abdulmutallab, to board a Detroit bound Northwest Airbus with nearly 300 souls on board on 25 December. Tragedy was averted by a few courageous passengers and crew, not an alert Intelligence Community.

Other than “sharing”, the key word in Mr. Blair’s 18 Dec argument may be “investment,” a shop worn euphemism for bigger is better. In this arena, Blair seems to be oblivious to the “tumescent threat” a bloom that sinks many an enterprise. Institutions may be the product of good ideas, but when size becomes unmanageable, the institution often becomes the enemy of the idea. If Mr. Blair’s analysis provides any clues, the bloated US Intelligence Community may have reached a tipping point.

In his analysis, Mr. Blair also fails to mention Israel, America’s lone democratic ally in theater. This omission is becoming part of a pattern. President Obama has visited two major Muslim capitals since coming to office. He has yet to go to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. One of the lessons that Mr. Obama might take away from a visit to Israel would be an appreciation of virtues of compact, focused Intelligence efforts.

Israel is often characterized as the “canary in the coal mine.” If we read the signals coming from the Oval Office, we might think about changing the metaphor from canary to sacrificial lamb.

And if Dennis Blair’s analysis of the national security threat and associated Intelligence requirements on 18 December represents the best thinking of the American 16 agency consortium, he and his colleagues, like the White House, are whistling in the dark.

(This article appeared in the 18 Dec 09 edition of American Thinker)

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G. Murphy Donovan is a former USAF Intelligence officer and author of “Escaping the Wilderness of Mirrors,” an argument to privatize national estimates, which appears in the December edition of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.


What is to be done?

May 20, 2010

“The most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.” –  George Orwell

At the start of the 20th Century, Vladimir llyich Ulyanov penned a short polemic called “What is to be done?” In this essay, he laid the intellectual foundation for a rebellion and a future that was to become the Soviet Union. Lenin argued that while revolution might be made in the name of the proletariat, the heavy lifting was actually done by an elite “vanguard” of intellectuals. This oligarchy would latter bloom into such institutions as the Politburo, Central Committee, the Congress of People’s Deputies, Committee for State Security (KGB), and other euphemisms for nomenklatura. Lenin also rejected moderation; setting the stage for the Bolshevik/Menshevik split, a long civil war, and a delusion of world revolution – the Internationale.

Ironically, while tilling the ground for revolution, Lenin was also sowing the seeds of internal contradiction that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union and put the lie to Communism.  His brand of socialism made all the right noises about equality, pluralism, and democracy; yet, the truth became the face of Joseph Stalin – a dictator. For fellow travelers in the West, the first doses of reality therapy came from two quarters; a British author and a minor American Foreign Service officer. In 1945, George Orwell lampooned socialism as an Animal Farm where some critters would inevitably be more equal than others. And George Kennan argued, in a 1947 Foreign Affairs essay, that if the spread of Communism were “contained” by means short of nuclear war; it and the Soviet Union would implode from the weight of contradictions. Oddly enough, Kennan couldn’t overcome his background as a diplomat; he spent the rest of his life complaining that “containment” didn’t mean military force.

Nonetheless, the combined pressures of containment, deterrence, and flexible response provided the policy synergy necessary to hold the line and prevail in the Cold War. By the late decades of the last century, a revolution without guns was underway. In 1987, Ronald Reagan blew on the Berlin Wall and the animal farm imploded.

A new debate about the fate of the world arose soon after. By 1989 the optimists were represented by Frank Fukuyama who argued in the End of History that the demise of Fascism and Communism represented a triumph of tolerant democracies. Like Hegel before, Fukuyama saw history as an evolving rational unity. Alas, equating the passage of time with progress doesn’t explain regressions like the Dark Ages, National Socialism, nor the irredentism of contemporary Islam.

Samuel Huntington responded to Fukuyama’s optimism with The Clash of Civilizations, a more pessimistic view of Islamism. Huntington was half right; clash yes, civilization no. Ayatollahs and Imams seldom refer to Western culture as civilization; and “civilization,” as the West knows it, is hardly the goal of Islamists. Like every other war, the clash is political, not cultural. The goal of Islamism is to replace secular with theocratic; while replacing bikinis with burkhas could still be a lesser social objective. Islam, in its most animated forms, is an aggressive political ideology.

The Afghanistan War is now nearly a decade old. The White House has concluded its “top to bottom” policy and objectives review. The narrowly focused results were announced on 1 Dec 09 at West Point. Charitably, the new plan could be described as an exit strategy with an expiration date. The problem with any extended effort in Afghanistan is its potential to obscure or encourage more dithering on existential threats – like Iran.

So what is to be done?

The first step might be a dose of reality therapy. We must recognize the conflict with Islamism for what it is – a global conflict. There are no wars of “choice” (Iraq) or “necessity” (Afghanistan) and no separate archipelagos of terror. This is a single phenomenon with unitary tactics, strategy and objectives. The enemy is not a bearded man hiding in a cave somewhere or simply AL Qaeda, as many administration sources have suggested. The foe is an extensive and remarkably effective net of decentralized proselytizing and fighting cells which have secular and theocratic state sponsors. Their reach is global and that includes domestic sleeper cells.

If we can bring ourselves to rebrand the threat, we might rethink our alliances. Oriana Falacci may have been correct about the “cicadas,” her acid characterization of the European Union. At the moment, we may have more in common with the state Capitalism of Russia, the market Communism of China, the democratic pluralism of India, and the social security state of Japan. Other partners might include South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Israel; but the big four would be a start. The US has more of a future with any of these nations than any nation in the Muslim world – and possibly much of Europe.

The recent Ali al Megrahi pandering to Libya by Great Britain is a symptom of how viral European appeasement has become. The one person convicted in the Lockerbie mass murder has been granted amnesty. If a few bombs on Spanish trains can change a government in Madrid, imagine what changes might be wrought in Europe with   nuclear weapons in Sunni and Shiite hands? We can let the Norwegian Parliament’s pandering associated with the last year’s Nobel Peace Prize speak for itself.

We might also rethink our strategy and tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every measure of effectiveness; force to force, force to population, and strategy to strategy metrics suggests that ground war can not possibly result in anything that approximates victory or even stability in Iraq or Afghanistan (see appendix below). Contrary to White House claims, save technology, the war plan for South Asia is little different from our strategy in Vietnam or the Soviet strategy in their Afghan war. Making forays against terrorists or insurgents from defensive cantonments, with extended lines of communication, then as now, cedes most of the initiative to the enemy. The imperative is to move from defense to offense and let the Ummah (Islamic world) do the nation building and stabilize their insurgents.

To this end we should gift the so called “war on terror” to Islam; their problem to solve – or else. Jihad doctrine, fighters, finances, and moral support all originate within Muslim world. All Muslims are not terrorists, but just as surely nearly all terrorists and their supporters are Muslims. If Islamism is a greater threat to Muslims, then Muslims should carry the burden of fighting.

Instead of wasting precious lives and expensive munitions on remote mountain roads, we might contemplate the occasional shot across the bow, or more if necessary, over Tehran, Damascus, Cairo, Riyadh, Karachi, or Tripoli. Surely such offensive initiatives put our energy sources and debt service in play, but Muslim autocrats have even more to lose; and we might make that clear.

If our cities are at risk, then their cities must suffer the same anxiety until the madness ends. The alternative is an endless, one-sided, war of attrition against the West by Islamist rules, on their turf – all of which is designed to bleed Dar al Harb (literally “house of war” or we infidels) into submission.

Recent arguments have parsed the Afghan front into two options; a war on terror (specifically against al Qaeda) or a war on insurgency (aka “nation building”). Choices here are distinguished by troop requirements; the Biden option argued for less troops and the McChrystal option called for more. Unfortunately, after nearly a decade, neither strategy offers a clear path to victory or stability.

Afghanistan not only represents another potential graveyard for Western empire, but it is a tactical distraction from a larger strategic question. We need to ask ourselves why European and American troops need to die in any political desert to save the Islamic world from itself. If Iraq was a distraction from Afghanistan, we should ask also why Afghanistan is not a distraction from the existential threat from Iran.

We might also serve notice also on Muslim co-religionists worldwide that those who advocate or rationalize jihad of the sword, kalifa, sharia, anti-Semitism and other seditious polemics will not be welcome to America as immigrants, teachers, students, or visitors. The Bill of Rights was written to protect America not some global village. In short, kill two birds with one stone; turn the Islamic population bomb, “revenge of the cradle,” back on itself and end the oxymoronic policy of tolerating intolerance in the name of tolerance.

And finally, we need to be crystal clear on the question of future Holocausts. No theocratic state or their “non-state” actors should possess the capability to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth”. We can take Islamists at their word on their intentions; it’s their growing military capability, those weapons of mass destruction, which need to be neutered. The idea that passive missile defense in Europe, or in the Mediterranean, will act as a deterrent is an assumption and nothing more. There is no evidence to suggest that defensive missile technology works or that “supreme rulers” in any theocratic state subscribe to Deterrence or any other rational actor theories.

Israel can not do anything about her geography or her history; and to be candid, Israel has done more with her modest sand box in fifty years than Persia or Arabia has done in the last five hundred years with all of the Levant and North Africa. Ralph Bunche once said that “when two peoples claim the same land, someone has to lose.” Indeed! We need make it clear to Americans and the world that our immutable policy on Jews and genocide is “never again”.

There are more than a few practical advantages to adopting the foregoing policy initiatives. As a group they are deficit neutral; indeed, there is every reason to believe that there might be Mid-East and South Asia dividends if we turn “nation building” over to the natives. The new American administration ran on the slogan; “change we can believe in.” Surely, like Lenin at the start of the last century, Barack Obama is the most articulate and persuasive revolutionary of the new century. The world is still waiting to be told; “what is to be done?”

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Appendix;

The following is a brief summary of (operations research) measures of effectiveness, statistically based ways of assessing the probability of military success; success is defined as victory or stability. None of these measures comes remotely close to a positive reading for a ground war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

S. J. Deitchman, “A Lanchester Model of Guerrilla Warfare,” Institute for Defense Analysis, 23 May 1963: Lanchester models of force ratios are thought to apply best to conventional warfare. However such modeling has established a number of axioms: all other things being equal (which they seldom are), a bigger force is a better force; technology does offset the numbers; but numbers still matter in important ways.

James T. Quinlivan, “The Burden of Victory; the Painful Arithmetic of Stability Operations,” Rand Review, summer, 2003: The combined Iraqi/Afghan populations are over 50 million; suggesting more than a million trained personnel might be required just to stabilize these two countries of the Ummah. Or in the words of a mathematician: “The extremely low force ratio for Afghanistan, a country with a larger population than that of Iraq, shows the implausibility of current stabilization efforts by external forces”. This is the polite way of saying there are not enough US troops in the field to do the job – nor is an adequate force likely to be deployed. For a government contractor, Quinlivan’s candor is rare, indeed.

Ivan Arrequin-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars; A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,” International Security, summer 2001, pp. 93-128: Toft’s strategy to strategy findings are consistent with force to population models. Yet, it is less clear that Islamists are weak or small, but Toft’s bottom line is hard to dispute; “If history is any guide, the insurgents (Islamists) will win”.

Aside from the low probability of success, Afghanistan has the same “distraction” potential that Iraq had. For the moment, Iraq and Afghanistan are still secular states; Iran, on the other hand, is a theocracy about to go nuclear. Our inability or unwillingness to prioritize the targets in the Islamist threat matrix is the most alarming and dangerous development of the new century.

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This essay appeared in the  20 May 10 edition of Family Security Matters.



The Wilderness of Mirrors

May 18, 2010

“It is not certain that everything is uncertain.” – Blaise Pascal

There was a time when most National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) were classified, restricted and rarely read. Recurring estimates were dusted off periodically and circulated in the Intelligence Community for coordination.  “Happy” might be changed to “glad” and the cycle would begin anew. Indeed, the NIE was formatted not to be read, they all began with the punch lines, “Key Judgments”. Most readers stopped there.

All of this changed in the wake of the 2002 NIE on Iraq. The subsequent estimate on Iraq was sifted above the fold like the ashes of Herculaneum. We have come full circle on analysis, from cooking to opening the books. CIA, especially, is clearly trying to address a credibility problem. Unfortunately, the recent publications relations blitz opens select products not the process; the effort does not speak to the two faults at the heart of the analysis problem; competence and integrity.

Off the Gold Standard

As far as anyone knows, any given estimate might be drafted by some unknown staffer at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and amended by one or sixteen nameless intelligence agency hands. Dissenters appear in footnotes. In most cases, the point men represent agency politics not expertise. Few experts of national repute work at the NIC or in the bowels of Intelligence agencies. Believing that our intelligence agencies still hire the best analysts is a little like believing that our best lawyers work on Capitol Hill. Most national estimates are not just group-think, worse still; they are bureaucratic group-think. They don’t represent good analysis so much as they represent consensus, however brief.

The sixteen agency “community” is defended in the name of analytical diversity. Yet, these same agencies are then condemned as “stovepipes” when the diverse fail to converse; a classic ‘cake and eat it’ argument.

Boosters regularly insist that the NIE is the “gold standard” in the Intelligence Community. This is a classic example where hope and optimism seems to have overcome recent historical experience.

Conversely, uninformed critics often sneer at Military Intelligence (aka Tactical Intelligence) as an oxymoron. In fact, our seamless web of strategic and tactical collection, processing, identification, targeting and weapons applications is the real Intelligence Community gold standard. (Thanks to General James Clapper). This is not to say that the tactical folks never get it wrong. But when they do, their systems are self medicating. National security estimates, on the other hand, have been a basket case for decades.

Integrity is the predictable victim when the key dynamic of the process is bureaucratic log-rolling. The closet battle between Air Force Intelligence and all other agencies during the Cold War is a classic example. In that period, Air Force footnotes to strategic force NIEs would exceed the word count in the body of estimates. Those infamous bomber and missile “gaps” were products of this struggle.

Maxwell Taylor’s, Uncertain Trumpet (1960), documents some of the blow back from this era. Strategic force assessments are unique insomuch as the threat is tied directly to budgets. The math is simple, bigger threats equal bigger budgets. The late Kevin Lewis of the RAND Corporation tagged this phenomenon as the “tumescent threat’.

In those days the Air Force was a young divorcee. Separated from the Army; she was determined to spread her wings. With the help of Intelligence, a ‘ten foot’ Soviet foil was fashioned.

Reform and Controversy

The Soviet threat was embellished again by the “B Team” controversies of the 1970s. A 1974 Foreign Policy article, by Albert Wohlstetter, then at the University of Chicago, suggested that our strategic NIE might be underestimating the threat. The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) requested that then CIA director William Colby host a competitive analysis with outside experts. Colby refused; believing that no outside group could do better than his intelligence officers. The issue resurfaced in 1976 when Colby was fired and replaced by George H.W. Bush; and the B Team project went forward.

The B Team was staffed by 16 mostly hard line civilian intellectuals and they predictably reported that the national assessment of the Soviet military capabilities and intentions was seriously flawed. In retrospect, it’s fair to say that the B Team report was half right on capabilities and justifiably prudent in their assessment of doctrine or intentions.

Three years earlier, William Colby had abandoned the founding analytical paradigm; one created and nourished by Sherman Kent. The small and centralized Office of National Estimates (ONE) and the Board of National Estimates (BNE) was cashiered. It was replaced by a larger and more ecumenical system of National Intelligence Officers (NIOs) in 1973; latter to be incorporated into today’s even more complex National Intelligence Council (NIC) et al. In a decade, the analytical paradigm shifted from small and focused to large and decentralized – all intelligence agencies became NIE players. To date, there is little evidence to suggest that estimates have improved and considerable evidence to suggest that they have become easier to manipulate or taint with politics.

Abandoning Kent’s Wise Council

Sherman Kent, legendary second chair of the original BNE (1952-1967), at his introspective best, catalogued many cases where national estimates missed the mark, including the Soviet missile deployment to Cuba.  Any human institution gets it wrong from time to time. And critics who do not expect mistakes are naïve; Intelligence assessments and estimates are not prophesies. The contemporary problem is much more troubling; truth now seems to serve power.

Kent formalized early analytical tradecraft. He created and preserved the first paradigm for national intelligence analysis; one which insisted on a prudent space between analysis and policy. Today’s analytical superstructure and its products have become something he would not recognize. The spectrum of fakery includes feigned ignorance, data manipulation and outright invention – probably motivated by politics.

Cases of  historical premeditated ignorance would include the Israeli nuclear weapons program, the August 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident and the KAL 007 shoot down of September 1983, just to name a few. Blatant statistical manipulation was part of the heady brew during the McNamara years of the Vietnam War. Bomb damage, infiltration, strategic hamlet, pacification and Vietnamization statistics, masquerading as measures of effectiveness, were all used to obscure an unpalatable ground truth. More recently, since 9/11 and in the run-up to the second Iraq War, evidence seems to have been manipulated wholesale to support foregone conclusions.

The most egregious recent example of cooked Intelligence was Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations on 05 February 2003 just prior to the second Iraq expedition. On that occasion, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and sitting Secretary of State, with the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency posing behind him, delivered an assessment to the world that was an embarrassment to General Powell and Director George Tenant and the institutions they represented. The briefing to the UN, presumably based on NIC estimates, was fatally flawed as fact and analysis.

Blatant exaggeration was the most bizarre part of the Powell address. Did someone think the threat in this part of the world needed to be embellished? Unfortunately, the final paragraph in the 2002 Iraq NIE is yet to be written. Crying wolf on Iraqi weapons may make analysts wary of making the tough calls on Iran’s missile and nuclear weapons capabilities. Once bitten; twice shy!

After any real or imagined intelligence failure, the inevitable ad hoc commission comes to tell us how to fix the beast. Invariably, the answer is more money and more bureaucracy. Bigger is always better. The 9/11 Commission and the more recent Iraq Study Group (March 2006) are illustrations. The Intelligence Community is now larger and deeper and, of course, more expensive. In short, it’s business as usual.

Obvious Solutions

No recent task force or congressional bromide addresses the obvious solution to better national security analysis; ending the Executive Branch monopoly and removing national estimates from the Intelligence cloister. There is no good reason for national security analysis to be the exclusive purview of any branch of government or worse still, a cabal of agencies with vested interests in outcomes. Privatization may be the only answer for analytical competence, transparency and product integrity.

A small group of independent experts could convene as required to prepare assessments. The membership might vary as the subject requires; rotating diversity if you will. Experts might be compensated on a per diem basis. Politicians, lobbyists and obvious partisans need not apply. Intelligence agency functions could then be restricted to what they do best; all source collection, tactical and strategic warning, and intelligence support to deployed or engaged forces. The resources now devoted to assessments, estimates and forecasts should be reallocated to an independent analytical body.

Transparency might also eliminate special interest ad hoc analysis within the Intelligence Community. The Douglas Feith cowboys that recently freelanced from the Pentagon come to mind.

Assessments from an independent group of experts might also benefit from single hand and named authorship, much like Supreme Court decisions. Dissenters would write minority opinions. Court analysis is attributable and transparent. Should national security arguments have lesser standards? Indeed, the current practice of giving the Executive Branch an exclusive on national security analysis is a little like giving the power of  judicial review to Congress.

Calling our national assessments “intelligence” estimates is also a perennial source of confusion. The issue is national security not Intelligence. Intelligence is merely one of the ingredients of analysis. Most data, method and even thinking that go into analysis are unclassified. Surely sources and methods of intelligence collection need to be protected by classification. So be it. Nonetheless, classification should not be used as an excuse to obscure the process and product of national security deliberations.

The Case for a  New Paradigm

The advantages of government sponsored privatized national security analysis seem to be self-evident: The analysis could be done by acknowledged experts with known credentials; Intelligence would be subordinated to national security analysis; secrecy could not be used to mask weak evidence or shabby method; transparency would boost public trust; and all branches of government and the taxpayer would be exposed to available evidence, rigorous reasoning and the arguments of dissenters.

Limiting the influence of politics on Intelligence and analysis would be the most important advantage of an independent and transparent process. There is no government activity that does not benefit from sunshine and the “wisdom of crowds”.

Any argument against a more open system would surely raise security and secrecy questions. Indeed, secrecy and compartmentalization is the favorite post mortem finding that no one ever cares to do anything about.

Secrecy has always been a self-inflicted wound within the Intelligence cloister. Those with SECRET clearances do not have access to TOP SECRET material; those with TS clearances do not have access to CODE WORD material; and those with CW clearance do not see EYES ONLY product. Analysis takes place at all these levels, yet the very system of compartments restricts the flow of relevant information. New categories of restriction are invented on a regular basis because of parochial or real security concerns. The Intelligence Community is now so big that it is impossible, if not imprudent, to give all analysts access to all relevant data from every security compartment. Yet, we expect them to perform.

The blind alleys of security are crafted with precious little regard for the burdens placed on analysis. Even a hypothetical super analyst at the Pentagon or at the NIC with every Intelligence clearance may be half blind because he or she will not have operational clearances. Rear echelon observers seldom know what friendly Intelligence or military operations are ongoing at the flashpoints. This is less of a problem at the tactical level where the military has attacked cognitive dissonance with a vengeance. There is little public evidence to suggest that this issue has been addressed at the top of the analytical food chain.

In theory, all data from all categories of Intelligence and all levels of classification are joined in a mystical fusion process at the top of the national security pyramid. In reality, the pyramid is more like a prism or as James Angleton might have put it; “a wilderness of mirrors”. Nobody seems to know where the “fusion” takes place, if it happens at all. Angleton coined his metaphor to describe the agent business. Had he been an analyst, the metaphor would have been even more colorful – and probably unprintable.

An Analytical Star Chamber

The argument here is to create a national security star chamber; a specific place with specific analysts for a single purpose – national estimates untainted by log rollers or politicians. A key assumption would be that America’s best and brightest would possess enough civic virtue to participate.

The process of selecting a panel would not be without its own problems. Finding a good cadre to serve and winnowing the ideologues would be difficult but not impossible. Surely no more difficult than selecting and confirming federal judges. The likes of Paul Johnson, historian, and Bernard Lewis, Islamic expert, analysts of proven talent with an expansive world view, would be ideal. Indeed, the paper trail for civilian experts is explicit and relatively easy to audit.

Such an analytical star chamber would of course be interdisciplinary with a rotating chair depending on the subject at hand. This rarified air should not be limited to academics; institutions like the military, Intelligence, the science laboratories or even the Press might participate. In the latter category, a stellar analytical mind with a sharp quill could make significant contributions to the form and logic of national estimates. There is no reason why national security findings should not be good literature. Here someone of Claudia Rosett’s (Wall Street Journal) stature comes to mind.

The Consequences of  Inaction

A final and paramount consideration is the potential cost of not changing the existing analytical paradigm. An observer outside of the classified cloisters might be led to believe that the only change afoot today in the national security arena is a shift in political winds. Reading the tea leaves of public statements, the threat is being repackaged with charm and sanitized with soft soap. Whether this represents new analysis or new policy is difficult to determine.

Rational actor models informed most of our strategic analysis during the Cold War. A theocratic threat hardly fits that paradigm. There are no Herman Khans, Bernard Brodies or Albert Wohlstetters discussing mutual deterrence in Sunni or Shiite seminars.

When policy colors analysis, the only relevant tool in play maybe a wet finger in the wind. The predictable result will be more confusion and risk, not stability.

We seem to have a good war and a bad war at the moment; the latter hostage to a campaign promise. And we are admonished to see both as mere “contingencies”. We are not to associate enemy combatants with the culture or religion they share; in short, “we are not at war” – with a world-wide growth business. On the flanks of actual combat, one sect already has a nuclear weapon and the other sect is an aspirant. Indeed, Pakistan has a weapon and is one bullet removed from theocracy and Iran already has the theocracy and may be a few tests away from a nuclear weapon. If we were to use a Sherman Kent set of weighted adjectives to describe this dilemma, we would have to say that a dark future is not merely probable; it is very likely.

Kent formalized our “words of estimative probability”. Yet, thinking about futures in terms of probabilities began with Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Today, all national estimates or forecasts still need to pass a Blaisean test. The potential benefits of belief should always outweigh the likely return on skepticism.

An overestimate is a no-lose hedge. If the threat fails to materialize, what is lost? On the other hand, an underestimate is always dangerous and often fatal. Weakness is more provocative than strength; any thug understands this. Trying to sugar coat a clear and present danger is not simply a poor tactic; it is a reckless strategy.

The two most important values for any human institution are trust and regret. Without trust, no relationship is possible; neither with colleagues, policymakers nor the public. Without regret no progress is possible. For those who can not or will not recognize error and change their behavior, the future is forever a receding green light.

One Key Question

A host of difficult questions are always associated with any suggested change; especially a radical change to the apex of a complex Intelligence and national security analytical apparatus. Yet, only one question is relevant here: Do we want to limit the corrosive influence of politics on national security analysis? Or put another way, do we want power to serve truth? If the answer to this question is yes, then all other questions are subordinate and solvable.

The National Security Council has always been a political hothouse; and now the National Intelligence Council has become a sauna. The solution is not a return to the BNE. That institution was flawed because it was part of the Intelligence cloister and operated at the whim of a political appointee. We should not return to the B Team either because that group was cherry picked for its politics. Nonetheless, they made their point; competing views should be included in all national security analysis. And the personalities of a star chamber shouldn’t matter either; at least not as much as their credentials, talent, and demonstrated independence.

If we are to address the persistent competence and integrity problems that plague the national security process, “top tier” national security analysis needs to be isolated from the vexations of secrecy and the venom of politics. And we could do worse than heed Sherman Kent’s wise counsel; “…great discoveries are not made by second rate minds.”

[The following source material is arranged by relevant subject starting with early trade craft; followed by reforms, controversies and a sampler of contemporary thoughts about national security analysis.]

Jean Mesnard, Pascal: His Life and Works (translated by G.S. Fraser), Harvill Press, 1952.

Blaise Pascal was a late Renaissance physicist and mathematician who had a unique influence on modern analysis. He introduced notions of probability and risk/benefit analysis; not just as ways of calculating odds, but more importantly, as ways of looking at the world – ways of estimating the costs of everyday choices. His most important contribution may have been humility; we ignore his frequent cautions about the limits of reason, technology and “scientific method” at our peril.  If Pascal and Sherman Kent had been contemporaries, they would have been soul mates. Both had a profound understanding of human frailty and the limits of our “key judgments”.

Sherman Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, Archon Books, 1978 (revised edition).

“Words of Estimative Probability”, Studies in Intelligence, Fall, 1964.

Sherman Kent is the godfather of modern Intelligence analysis. He was the second director of the Office of National Estimates. The original staff was no more than three dozen and for the 16 years of Kent’s tenure it never exceeded 75. He began his analytical career on the Yale faculty and served with the OSS before coming to CIA in the early 50s.

His essay on probability is a classic of its kind. Kent was not trying to assign numerical precision to the language of estimates so much as force analysts to think about their judgments in precise orders of probability – or improbability. Indeed, all things are possible yet few are certain.

Kent believed that good analysis required a small, centralized, critical mass of expertise; insulated from politics. The standards that Kent set for rigor and integrity seem to be honored in breach today.

Harold P. Ford, Estimative Intelligence, University Press of America, 1993

This is an update of Sherman Kent’s 1978 classic on the subject. Ford and Kent were colleagues at the original Board of National Estimates. In Ford’s recent testimonial for William Colby in Studies, he doesn’t mention that Colby changed Intelligence analysis in ways that have yet to prove themselves. This omission is true of many contemporary accounts of Colby’s tenure. Perhaps the “family jewels” crisis, the Pike/Church Committee investigations, the 1773 Middle East war, and the B Team flap all conspired to obscure Mr. Colby’s most lasting mark on Intelligence process: turning national security analysis into a bureaucratic goat rope.

P. Gill, S. Marrin and M. Phythian (editors), Intelligence Theory: Key Questions and Debates, Routledge, 2008.

This is a good anthology of essays on intelligence trade craft and the current state of play in strategic analysis. The Richard Betts piece is notable for seeing the “dominance of operational authorities over intelligence specialists”. Betts is way too polite; the politicization of national security analysis is too serious a problem to obscure.

The Center for the Study of Intelligence does credit to the memory of Sherman Kent by sustaining a literature of Intelligence; unfortunately, their journal, Studies, is still classified. Classifying professional literature is a little like talking to yourself.

Albert Wohlstetter, “Is There a Strategic Arms Race?” Foreign Policy, Summer 1974.

The national estimates debate was well under way when this essay fanned quality of analysis smoke into a house fire. Wohlstetter may not be the father of the B Team but his arguments had the gravitas to launch a thousand lips – and many haven’t stopped moving since. He attacked the “arms race” myth and argued that our relationship with the Soviet Union was more like a managed competition. So far so good.  After living with the bomb for half a century, the principal players are still “rational actors”.

Wolstetter’s wife, Roberta, was the true Intelligence scholar in the family; her contributions to the study of strategic warning are unique.

Richard Pipes, “Team B; the Reality Behind the Myth,” Commentary Magazine, October 1986.

This is a defense of the Team B analytical model by one of its distinguished members. The eminent and always articulate Dr. Pipes makes his case for dueling analysts and robust threats, erring always on the side of international cynicism and domestic prudence. The B Team analysis of Soviet capabilities might have been off on the high side; yet their take on Soviet doctrine was probably spot on, given what we knew at the time. In threat analysis, inflation is only a venial sin.

Anne H. Cahn, “Team B: The Trillion Dollar Experiment,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1993.

Here we have what’s known in the business as a shot from the grave. A quarter century after the fact, the B Team still annoys people. Ms Cahn, and like minded disarmament advocates, has made the “B Team” a Nicole Kidman; an issue with great legs. If hyperbole were an argument, Ms. Cahn might have a better case against competitive analysis. And there is something more than a little off key when she writes complains about “excess” in a journal for the  wizards who brought us the hydrogen bomb.

Ms. Cahn expanded her arguments to book length in 1998; Killing Détente: The Right Attacks CIA. The “Right” didn’t kill Détente, but Wolhstetter and Pipes did help to kill the Soviet union, the major Communist exemplar. They spent, we spent and the wheels came off their bus; a good investment, considering the alternatives.

Ms. Cahn seems only to understand part of the logic of threat assessment. Yes, bigger threats are a rationale for bigger budgets; but, threat inflation is also a hedge against an underestimate, which could be fatal – and intentions which can change overnight. The price of freedom isn’t just “eternal vigilance;” it is analytical prudence. If there is a very high degree of uncertainty about the threat; there needs to be some corresponding rise in vigilance – and capability to respond.

Colin Powell, “Transcript of the Presentation to the UN Security Council on US Case Against Iraq,” posted at CNN.com on 6 February 2003.

This might be the best example of the worst analysis in the history of recent history. This briefing, and the NIE that proceed it, is a case study of much that ails the Intelligence Community. Just the mobile biological weapons allegations made by Secretary Powell serve as an example. The only potential gain of putting a weapons lab on the functional equivalent of a Good Humor truck would be mobility. On the other hand, the potential risk is enormous. A minor fender bender might lead to a national disaster. A little back of the envelope Blaisean analysis, or better still common sense, should have killed Powell’s agnotology.

Greg Bruno, “National Intelligence Estimates”, Council on Foreign Relations (backgrounder), 14 May 2008.

Bruno’s essay is an excellent unclassified summary of the current NIE process. It is also a good critique of the notorious pre-war estimate on Iraq. Beyond the obvious problems with facts and analysis, there were two footnotes (dissents) to the 2002 estimate. To its credit, Air Force Intelligence questioned the logic of putting biological weapons on RPV’s; State Department intelligence officers questioned the evidence for nuclear weapons in Iraq.

While State analysts were officially skeptical about the NIE, Secretary Powell reflected none of this uncertainty in his Security Council presentation in early 2003. Indeed, if Powell was provided five days of personal preparation by DCI George Tenant before his UN speech, we are left to wonder what happened to make Powell contradict his own Intelligence officers?

“Report on the US Intelligence Community Prewar Intelligence Assessment on Iraq,” US Select Committee on Intelligence, 9 July 2004.

Unfortunately, most Congressional reports are too little and too late. This official critique of the now famous 2002 assessment on Iraq is an example. Had such analysis been available a year and a half earlier, Messrs Powell and Tenant might have been able to salvage their reputations before the UN Security Council. Congressional committees may never get the hang of oversight, but they are the best Monday morning quarterbacks inside the beltway.

Maxwell Taylor, The Uncertain Trumpet, Harper and Brothers, 1960.

General Taylor was probably the most important military figure in the last 60 years. Scholars like Wohlstetter may have made the intellectual case, but it was Taylor’s influence with the Kennedy/Johnson administrations that made things happen. He argued for flexible military capabilities, forces that could respond short of a nuclear exchange, at a time when strategic forces held center stage. His influence laid the groundwork for the Special Forces that now play such an important role in asymmetric warfare. Ironically, three of the four major recommendations in Uncertain Trumpet concerned strategic capabilities – including fallout shelters. Yet, Taylor is best remembered for the doctrine of Flexible Response and the capabilities that followed.

[The next two reports are samples of current thinking about Intelligence analytical tradecraft. Their banality is underscored by comparing them with the proceeding entries in the bibliography above.]

Deborah Barger, “Toward a Revolution in Intelligence Affairs”, RAND Corporation, 2005.

This paper, written by an assistant deputy director of national Intelligence, calls for a revolution in Intelligence and then fails to say what such a “revolution” might look like; no plan, tactics, strategy or  objectives. It goes on with a clarion call for “bold and unique solutions” and then recommends none. In short, this report is 150 pages of govenrnment sponsored twaddle; a polemic telling us how we might think about thinking.

G. Treverton, S. Jones, S. Boraz and P. Lipscy, “Towards a Theory of Intelligence,” 15 June 2005 Conference Proceedings, RAND Corporation, 2006.

These proceedings are a group version of the Barger paper. One speaker suggests that Intelligence has two “unsolvable” (sic) problems; “predicting the future and changing minds.”

In fact, these problems are not only solvable, but they are what Intelligence does. Every estimate is a forecast of some sort and every analytical argument is an attempt to confirm the conventional wisdom or change it. Any analyst who believes that he can not bridge the gap between analysis and acceptance might just as well stay in bed in the morning.

The RAND report goes on to wonder; “what should Intelligence do?” and their answers do not include recommendations about collection, warning, or national estimates – primary Intelligence functions. If  national security analysts are still wondering what to do some sixty years on, then to use Sherman Kent’s Words: “… Intelligence is through”.

In Memoriam

Kevin Lewis (1955-2008), “The Tumescent Threat,” unpublished RAND Corporation paper, (author’s library), circa 1981.

Nearly thirty years ago Kevin Lewis, then a young analyst at RAND Corp in Santa Monica, wrote a satirical research report that was a hilarious send up of missile envy, bomber gaps and ever growing budgets. It became an instant underground success on the beach and on the E-Ring. Lewis, like his colleagues Alex Alexiev, Ben Lambeth. Bob Nurick, Gordon McCormick, Lee Marvin and others were regulars at the Chez Jay seminars on Ocean Boulevard. Lewis thought outside the box on his way to breakfast every day; his wit and wisdom will be missed.

(A version of this essay appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of the Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.)


Kicking the Can in Afghanistan

May 16, 2010


“Kick the Can” is a child’s game familiar to kids from large cities. The only equipment required is an old tin and a few willing children. The skills in play are stealth and speed. Like “Hide & Seek,” all but one of the group hides; and then they are sought by the solitary player.  With “Kick the Can,” all initiative is ceded to the quarry – a kind of fool’s game for solitary hunters.

At the risk of abusing a metaphor, we have now embarked on a national strategy that looks for all the world like a fool’s game; and, in the process, ignores rules even a child might understand.

The first rule is that one side doesn’t get to make the rules. In Afghanistan, declaring an arbitrary time limit, not only telegraphs punches, but does little but raise the pressure on the home team. Set aside for a moment the nonsense about wars of “choice” and wars of “necessity,” we might consider the blowback from Iraq. Having reversed the sectarian poles in Baghdad, might not the “progress” we see there be a kind of prudent economy of force? The Shiite majority may simply wait for the clock to run out now that we have set a date certain for withdrawal. The King of Jordan warns of a Shiite Crescent to the north of Israel. Is he wrong?

One side doesn’t control the number of players either. The arbitrary designation of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the “core” of the problem ignores a larger threat with a global reach. Islamic fundamentalism is not limited to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Indeed, the ideology and financing on the Sunni side originates in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, our erstwhile “allies.” The militant threat on the Shiite side originates with Iran – now a nuclear aspirant. If Iraq was a distraction from the real threat in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan not a distraction from the real threat in Iran?

The truth about Iraq is that it was a corrupt totalitarian menace to its corrupt theocratic Arab neighbors. Now Iraq is a corrupt Shiite state that might pursue a sectarian alliance with Iran. The truth about Afghanistan is that it isa tribal, if not feudal, mix beset by naïve Westerners. The truth about Pakistan is that it is a corrupt, if not duplicitous, janissary that might be one bullet away from theocracy. The truth about Iran is that it is the world’s largest Shiite theocracy; a so-called Islamic “republic.” The truth of all of this is that the threat is not a specific terrorist, terror group, state sponsor, or Muslim state.

The bloom of jihad and theocracy within Islam world wide is the true threat. This menace is not simply demographics or immigration; it is also political. Theocracy is the goal of Islamists of every stripe; to replace secular law with a religious monoculture. The final and inadmissible truth is the inability or unwillingness of national security specialists, in general, and Western politicians, in particular, to acknowledge any of this.

Tehran is yet another example in the Islamic constellation where we presume to make the rules of the game; we assume that the Persians can be jawboned or threatened with “sanctions” to relinquish their nuclear ambitions.

And now there is a new strategy announced on 1 December of last year by President Obama at West Point. The new course has two major components: moderation and denial. With the moderate approach we are neither “all in” nor “all out” in Afghanistan. We have limited our targets to one leader and one terror organization – and a kind of half-baked “nation building.” In Afghanistan, the US aspires to do what the British and Soviets could not. The English used to strap insurgents to the busy ends of cannons and the Soviets used to level villages from the air. American tactics are different; we plan to conquer Islamist fanatics with kindness – moderate on moderate.

As the moderate card is played we should remember what Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to say on the subject; “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam….”

The second component of the President’s West Point proclamation is denial. “Islam is one of the world’s great religions” we are told. We are led to believe that Jihad, Sharia, cultural irredentism, misogyny, and fifty years of terrorism have nothing to do with Muslims in general or Islam in particular. Never mind that prominent Muslims tell us otherwise so frequently that we can not or will not hear what they say.

The modest reinforcement in Afghanistan, constrained by an 18 month timeline, appears to be an attempt to replicate the “surge” strategy of Iraq. Here we should remember what President Obama said about such comparisons, “You never step in the same river twice.”

Military Operations Research (MOR) has been looking at counter insurgent campaigns, including Afghanistan, for decades. MOR is an aggregate of disciplines that attempts to size forces and examine the variables that might lead to victory or stability. These disciplines include: statistics, probability theory, game theory, modeling, and simulation among others.

Three variants have been applied to Afghanistan and insurgency in general: force to force comparisons, force to population models, and most recently, strategy to strategy comparisons. All three reach similar conclusions; numbers and strategy matter.

In Afghanistan alone, 500,000 troops or police might be required; not for victory, just for stability. Or in the words of the RAND Corp. report, “The extremely low force ratio for Afghanistan, a country with a larger population than that of Iraq, shows the implausibility of current stabilization efforts by external forces.” Another analysis, looking at comparative strategy, simply says the insurgents will prevail.

These are polite ways of saying there are not enough US or allied troops in the field to do the job – nor is an adequate force likely to be deployed. This kind of candor is rare, indeed, especially for government contractors. The idea that the allies will fight al Qaeda and the Taliban while training and equipping 400,000 competent Afghan cops and soldiers, in 18 months, is nothing short of delusional. The majority of recruits would have to come from the Pashtun tribes, fighters most closely allied with the Taliban and their Arab sponsors.

In short, General McChrystal probably underestimated the theater problem to begin with – and President Obama certainly did not give him what he wanted anyway. We have to assume that the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and the White House are aware of the studies and have chosen to ignore their conclusions.

As in “Kick the Can,” numbers matter and we appear to be playing a fool’s game. The allied expeditionary force has no edge or margin of error in South Asia. In 18 months, if catastrophe does not end the game early, we will still be asking “what is to be done” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we will still be playing word games with the larger problem in the Muslim world.

For the moment, the policy sketched by President Obama at West Point on 1 December 09 can fairly be characterized as an exit strategy with an expiration date.

(Originally published in American Thinker on 08 Dec 09)


Soft Power in Afghanistan & No Plan for Iran

May 15, 2010

Self-delusion reaches new heights when clueless Westerners defend Sharia, the “moderate” … and “mild” Islamism – Youssef M. Ibrahim

Anyone who remembers the Vietnam War might be having hot flashes of déjà vu today. We are again engaged in a grand campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of an implacable foe in a place where we do not understand the language, the religion, the culture, or the opportunity costs. The macro strategy is “nation building”; a policy which explicitly admits, unlike Vietnam, that there are no “kinetic,” or military, solutions to the Afghan insurgency.

So strategy begins with an oxymoron: 100,000 troops deployed to secure, police, and train – not to kill and break things. The assumptions here are twofold; that Afghan troops or cops will serve for reasons other than pay; and that NATO troops are best used as secular missionaries – teachers and social workers first, warriors only as necessary. Put aside for a moment the practical difficulties of such tactics. The purpose of this nation building is to convince a semiliterate theocratic peasantry that a corrupt central government in Kabul, and a bevy of naïve NATO philanthropists, has the best interests of the locals at heart. Reserve judgment! It gets worse.

Flawed premises are a stones throw from false assumptions.  Spokesmen from Kabul, thru Brussels, and on to Washington argue that a little (or a lot, depending on who is counting) nation building, might drive a wedge between the “people” and the Taliban/al Qaeda axis – an axis underwritten by powerful shadow sponsors with deep pockets. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Pakistan are just some of the players behind the scrim. These are states that NATO is unable or unwilling to confront for their support for Islamist incitement, insurgency, and terrorism in the Mid East, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Nation builders earnestly argue that the Taliban and al Qaeda are “foreign” radicals, not native to Afghanistan; fair enough, yet still only a half truth. The Taliban, literally religious “students,” are mostly native to Pastunistan, a tribal area of six million souls that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Arab sponsors are indeed foreigners, but compared to whom? Surely Pashtun fellaheen have more in common with native mullahs and Arabian imams than they do with Americans and Europeans.  NATO and the elites in Kabul are playing on the slippery slope; and the radical coalition of Islamists is the home team with the high ground.

Reasons for not confronting Arab and Persian sponsor states are clear enough; fears about energy, debt, and nuclear proliferation. Western politicians are reluctant to put their pecuniary or kilowatt excesses in play. Arabia carries the liens on many Western furnaces and significant sovereign debt. Sunni Pakistan, another erstwhile “ally,” remains a safe haven for serial nuclear proliferation and serial terror. Recall the recent Mumbai massacre.

Nonetheless, wishful thinkers on both sides of the allied political spectrum insist that they know the minds of illiterate tribesmen in Afghanistan, most of which live under the Taliban thumb. The reliability of opinion polls in places where we can’t drive a Hummer, no less take a political pulse, is more than a little suspect. However, there are many other polls in the Ummah (community of Muslim nations) which put the lie to the myth of moderation among Muslims.

Recent opinion surveys taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in the Arab/Muslim world indicate that terror groups and their tactics (jihad) have enjoyed significant support in many countries for years. These figures would surely be higher still if countries like Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Libya, and Iran were included in the polling. Anti-Jewish (not anti-Israeli) sentiment consistently comes in at 90% plus in the Arab world. Selective as they are, the Pew surveys clearly show that support for Islamism is hardly a “fringe” phenomenon in the Muslim world.

Beliefs of Muslims, in general, and Arabs and Persians in particular, are guideposts to a larger question of opportunity costs, questions that four successive American administrations have been unwilling to confront. If the “war choice” in Iraq was a diversion from the “war of necessity” in Afghanistan, how is the war in Afghanistan not a distraction from the sufficient threat from Iran? The Teheran menace is not simple nuclear proliferation; the entire Levant is slipping its strategic moorings under the fog of a banal debate about micro tactics, like “soft power,” in South Asia.

Exhibit one is Turkey, a NATO member state. Ankara is distancing itself from Israel and mending fences with Arab and Persian neighbors. Visa restrictions have been lifted between Turkey, Syria, and Iran. More ominous is the recent purge and persecution of military Kamalists (secular Turks) by the ruling religious party of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Exhibit two would be Iraq where the Shiite majority, using democratic elections and Persian financing, could become the permanent majority and make Iraq the second Shia state, forging another link in a theocratic Islamist crescent.

Exhibit three would be the unholy trinity on the flanks of Israel itself; Hizbollah (in Lebanon) to the north, Hamas (in Gaza) to the south, and Fatah to the east (on the West bank). All three terror groups are now supported by Persian and Arab donors. Shiite and Sunni activists make common cause when it comes to the elimination of Israel.

Exhibit four would be the Persian nuclear program where everyday that passes lowers the threshold for a strategic war that would make Iraq and Afghanistan irrelevant overnight. Persians have taken the point; picked up the gauntlet of Muslim militancy after 50 years of Arab incompetence.

Picture now yet another war where Israel and Iran are involved in an aerial exchange, while Israeli borders are besieged by Islamist irregulars on three sides.  NATO forces could not be easily redeployed without tedious international dithering, assuming the West supports Israel at all. Geography, space, and time are not IDF allies.  The risk of another Holocaust is the most obvious opportunity cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan sideshows.

The renaissance of theocratic militancy within Islam worldwide is a rapidly escalating peril to believers and infidels alike. The subway bombings in Moscow on 29 March again underline the global scope of the problem. The nexus of the threat is political, yet the varied instruments are lethal. Religion is the burkha for an ideology that seeks to: use and then curtail democratic processes, eliminate secularism, and ultimately replace democracies with a kind of utopian monoculture.  Surely such totalitarian schemes must fail; the damage they do in the interim is the danger.

The most immediate existential threat comes from Iran. A recent Department of Defense memo addressed to the National Security Council expresses alarm that the Obama administration has no contingency plan should sanctions against Tehran fail. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates claims the “the United Sates does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability.” According to the 17 April NY Times report, unnamed White House officials have dismissed the “wake up call” from DOD.

National security analysts have been looking at the evolution of ‘modern’ Islamic irredentism for fifty years now. As the recent correspondence between DOD and the NSC suggests, experts remain reluctant to clarify the threat or prioritize the targets therein. Riflemen refer to such navel-gazers as “poges,” military slang for useful idiots; unwitting apologists who campaign vigorously for flaccid or ambiguous policies that put deployed allied soldiers, partners like Israel, and true democracy in harm’s way.

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This article appeared in the 21 April  edition of American Thinker.