Monday, September 29, 2014

The intelligence community’s chronic blunders bring to mind Casey Stengel’s exasperation with the New York Mets: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Sunday, on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” President Obama confessed that the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., had been blindsided by the rapid rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. The director had also wrongly assessed the ability and willingness of the Iraqi army to fight Sunni extremists.

These twin errors were inexcusable.

In power vacuums, extremists rise. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda climbed to power in the vacuum left by the departure of the Soviet Red Army. In Libya, multiple extremist militias plunged the nation into chaos following the the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. The extremist murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens predictably ensued.

Both Syria and Iraq feature power vacuums indistinguishable from post-Soviet Afghanistan or post-Gaddafi Libya. The rise of IS or its equivalent should have been foreseen.

The decrepitude of the Iraqi army in fighting Sunnis should also have been known. Massive corruption and sectarian enmities were notorious. Sunni and Shiite militias refuse to fight under an Iraqi army banner. As reported in The New York Times, a brigadier general for the Defense Ministry in Baghdad voiced complete bafflement (“I don’t know”) at how to address these daunting problems.

Mr. Obama’s bombing war against IS have swelled its ranks in a war IS conceives as against Western infidels and their Muslim cronies.

Why didn’t the intelligence community warn Mr. Obama against serving as an unwitting recruit tool for IS?

Mr. Obama’s war has turned the Nusra Front — an al Qaeda affiliate — against the United States and away from fighting our arch-enemies Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In a videotaped speech, Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani warned: “People of America, Muslims will not stand watching their children bombed and killed and you staying safe in your homes.”

Where was the intelligence community to warn against this Nusra Front development?

These adversities might have been justified if a bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq could destroy IS. But military experts all agree that bombing cannot succeed, even if coupled with the ground forces of the Kurds and Iraqi army. Nations in the area with strong armies, like Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, will not supply combat troops. Thus, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress, “We need 12,000 to 15,000 [ground troops] to reclaim lost territory.”

The intelligence community comprises 17 discrete intelligence organizations with a collective budget exceeding $80 billion and tens of thousands of employees. But the return on the investment seems less than suboptimal.
Staggering sums and massive manpower was devoted to clandestine collection and analysis of the Soviet Union. Yet the intelligence community was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev, wrong about the fall of the Berlin Wall and wrong about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.

We squandered $4 trillion to 6 trillion and thousands of lives in Afghanistan and Iraq in a futile effort to make them stable and peaceful with a few trappings of democracy.

Where was the intelligence community to warn against the follies undertaken at such extravagant cost? Even an assembly of geniuses could not transform tribal, sectarian, misogynist and pre-Magna Carta political cultures into stable nation-states.

Intelligence community stumbles are not just of recent vintage. The 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, for example, was born of the CIA’s grossly flawed assessment of Fidel Castro.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat and former vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, twice introduced legislation to abolish the CIA.

That goes too far.

But if there is no accountability for intelligence community incompetence, huge mistakes will continue at huge cost to the nation.

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