Leftwing lessons from Langley about Iraq


by Gracchi    
12:54 am - November 26th 2007

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When Tony Blair in 2004 sought to justify the foreign policies of his Premiership, he mentioned his belief that the era of Westphalia was over and that a new era of foreign policy had begun. Blair earned for thoughts like this a place in the anthology of American neoconservative foreign policy thinking, but Blair’s ideas boil down to a key concept. Blair argues essentially that politics now spreads beyond the bounds of nation states. He isn’t alone in suggesting that this is true, various other people make the same argument. The Congressional Research Service recently for example put out a fascinating paper about Burma (pdf) which suggested that the military dictatorship was exporting all sorts of problems- particularly crime, drug and people smuggling- beyond its borders and creating instability within the region.

Lets leave aside for a moment the more divisive questions about when to go to war, whether Iraq was right and what it is right to do in various situations, let us just accept a simple fact that today’s foreign policy is not merely Westphalian.

We are not merely concerned with the defence of the principle of international borders. Whether it be for human rights reasons, terrorism reasons, or more mundane economic and criminal reasons problems have a habit of overspilling their borders. Almost everyone agrees with this argument- from those who opposed the war on Iraq but support forcing Isreal and the PLO to a peace treaty to those that supported the war in Iraq but can’t see a need for much acceleration in the Middle Eastern Peace process. Obviously there is a minority who are purely libertarian and would argue that foreign policy itself is misconceived- Ron Paul is perhaps their most prominent leader- this article doesn’t address their arguments. We all are, whether we like it or not, internationalists now.

That mundane premise leads us to another vital issue. International policy depends on knowledge. Knowledge not merely of the way that other countries dispose their forces in order to attack international borders, but knowledge about life inside a country. Evaluating the risk from a Pakistani revolution which might bring Fundementalists to power, a North Korean bid for nuclear weapons, an armed confrontation across the South China Sea involving Taiwan, Russia closing the pipes upon which Europe depends for gas or Cuban influence in Latin America, all requires information and knowledge. That’s a worrying conclusion for the one thing that we all do know about the last ten years is that our knowledge about the world, particularly the dangerous parts of the world is not that great.

If anything proves that, it is the Iraq war. In the invasion of Iraq in 2003, just in case anyone here has forgotten, it was the threat of weapons of mass destruction that was cited again and again as the casus belli. All the intelligence agencies of the West it appears supported that assessment. Our knowledge about that threat it now appears was built upon one particular informant, codenamed Curveball, who was captured by the BND, the German intelligence service, in 1999 and questioned by them until 2001.

Bob Drogin has written a recent book about the case and I reviewed the book myself on my own blog, giving a longer account than I can here of Curveball’s impact and importance for the WMD allegations. But what emerges is two structural flaws in the way that we collect intelligence and the way that we think about politics, structural flaws that I think the left is better able to think about than the right.

Firstly the real mistake with Curveball lay in the failure of communication between the BND and the CIA. Petty nationalistic rivalries meant that both sides had only pieces of the evidence and didn’t trust the other intelligence agencies: they never dealt with each other fairly as partners. The BND refused to let the CIA actually meet Curveball, the CIA didn’t trust the BND when they said that Curveball was untrustworthy. Neither intelligence service listened to the other and the consequence for both was unpleasant surprise: the BND when they heard Powell’s speech at the UN, the CIA when they finally interrogated Curveball himself.

The second big mistake was the fact that the CIA responded so easily to political pressure. The CIA was working towards the designs of Dick Cheney and George Bush. Ultimately noone got promoted for questioning the agency’s account of the weapons in Iraq, you got promoted for supporting it. At crucial points dissidents weren’t listened to as opposed to proponents because the bias of the meeting was towards the line of least resistance.

The politicians wanted information to look a certain way and because the CIA’s leading men depended on those politicians for patronage they went to pursue that way. Ultimately the bureacratic incentives all worked one way- and this took place within a structure in which the CIA competing for the attention of politicians was also constantly downplaying the efforts of other agencies- ignoring other agencies and not sharing information in case it would lose them their privileged position.

We have therefore two key facts about what went wrong. Essentially the evidence that came from Curveball which was crucial in persuading Colin Powell amongst others that there was a case for the UN, would not have got through had the intelligence agencies of western powers (and its not only Germany and America, the UK and Isreal had parts to play in this too) talked to each other more and talked to the UN more. Furthermore this would not have happened with a truly depoliticised civil service machine generating advice for politicians.

Leftwingers keen to think about politics should absorb these two lessons- one prompts us to be more internationalist in our approach if we are to think about transnational problems on a global scale, the other pushes us to the advocacy of a civil service independent of political patronage.

W.B. Yeats once said that the problem at the beggining of the Twentieth Century was that the centre would not hold. Assuming a Blairite, liberal, neo-conservative or even conservative foreign policy at the end of the century, the question is whether the international centre can hold.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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Reader comments


Inteisng piece – i think it shows how intlligence sharing is central – and the key thing is to make intellince services trust each other (which means giving them reason including guarees of secrecy)

having said that to what degree should Bush and Cheney be peculairy blamed for this-after all the same attitudes on iraq were true under Clinton and Tenet was also ion charge them- surely part of the point is about the CIA leadership. having a particular viewpoint ( I don’t think just for external reasons-also from instiutional inertia and credenbily) which helped produce this.

And this works in many ways- see the first gulf war where they had no idea of how far advanced saddam huessains programmes were- I think institutional overreacion to this humilation is as much the course of the mistakes of the 2000′s as any other.

here’s a better spelt version!

Interesting piece – i think it shows how intelligence sharing is central – and the key thing is to make intelligence services trust each other (which means giving them reason including guarees of secrecy)
Having said that to what degree should Bush and Cheney be peculiarly blamed for this(which is not to say they behaved perfectly far from it!) -after all the same attitudes on iraq were true under Clinton and Tenet was also ion charge them- surely part of the point is about the CIA leadership. having a particular viewpoint ( I don’t think just for external reasons-also from institutional inertia and credibly) which helped produce this.
And this works in many ways- see the first gulf war where they had no idea of how far advanced saddam’s programmes were- I think institutional overreaction to this humiliation is as much the course of the mistakes of the 2000’s as any other.

3. douglas clark

W.B. Yeats once said that the problem at the beggining of the Twentieth Century was that the centre would not hold. Assuming a Blairite, liberal, neo-conservative or even conservative foreign policy at the end of the century, the question is whether the international centre can hold.

No, it isn’t. It is whether wise folk, such as Conor Foley, have a grip on the policy. Or idiots. That is the choice.

Douglas maybe but the question is how we attain wisdom and that must be based on better knowledge- I don’t think just a lack of wisdom is the problem. Conor is a great guy but if he were told what George Bush was told in 2003 he would still have been making policy on the wrong premise about the facts of the world, even if it were true that he would not have done the same things. That’s what this is about, we depend on our intelligence services for information and therefore its vital that they are organised in such a way as to provide us with good information not bad information.

Gracchi: I think you’re too kind to those in power on this issue. There will always be genuine mistakes in intelligence work, but Cheney (in particular through his setting up of alternative intelligence analysis bodies) put huge pressure on the CIA to come up with the “required answers” on Iraq.

LIkewise, there will always be cases where people hear what they want to hear (the Psychology of Military Incompetence is a good book on this) but there’s a difference between misinterpreting evidence and working actively to influence the evidence you are presented with.

George Bush was told what he was told in 2003 because he made (and his underlings) made it very clear in 2001-2 what they wanted to hear and that you would only be promoted if that’s what you said. So, in 2003, they were told what they wanted to hear.

Gracchi, this is a good piece, but I’m liable to agree with Metetone above in that you’re being very kind to Bush et al. There are of course genuine mistakes but it was obvious in the way people were being smeared left right and centre (the head of the IEAE, Valeria Plame) etc that the Bush team had an agenda and other pieces of evidence had to fit around it.

This doesn’t negate the need for good intelligence of course, but my view is that sometimes politicians create narratives and then look for evidence that fits into it, and ignore that which doesn’t. Rather like most partisan bloggers :)


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