David Petraeus and the Failure of American Intelligence

My evaluation of the state of U.S. intelligence after the Petraeus scandal appears this morning at Asia Times Online.

No one rises through the ranks of intelligence services by reporting pertinent facts that politicians don’t want to hear, Edward Luttwak observes. Bad policy produces bad intelligence. If you believe that Hitler is an ally, at least of convenience, as Stalin did in 1941, you will reject as fraudulent hard evidence of an imminent German invasion of Russia. If you believe that the Soviet Union is a prosperous, peace-loving land, as the foreign policy establishment did when Reagan took office, you will ignore evidence of Russian vulnerability and fear-aggression, as did Robert Gates, then head of the CIA’s Soviet section. CIA Director William Casey brought in an alternative team headed by Fortune magazine editor Herbert Meyer to produce an alternative, correct analysis.


If you believe that elected Islamists are democrats before they are Islamists, you will blunder as badly as Stalin or the U.S. foreign policy establishment of 1980. Whatever details emerge about the Benghazi disaster last September, the incident reveals an intelligence failure embedded in a policy failure. The Islamist parties that rode the Arab revolts to power are hostile to the United States by construction, and incapable by their nature of stabilizing the economies and political systems of the non-oil-exporting Arab countries.

Gen. David Petraeus probably would have made a good CIA director. In 2010, I poked some holes in his reputational bubble:

Petraeus’ surge of 2007-2008 drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq by absorbing most of the available Sunni fighters into an American-financed militia, the “Sons of Iraq,” or Sunni Awakening. With American money, weapons and training, the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime have turned into a fighting force far more effective than the defunct dictator’s state police.

As I wrote in today’s Asia Times essay:

It was a doubly clever stroke, winning with cash what could not be won with bullets. Aligning with the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime was the right approach (first advocated in 2004 by Marc Ericson on this web site – see Why Saddam’s arrest did matter, Asia Times Online, January 24, 2004). Of course, it set the stage for an escalating civil war in the future. That is a defect in the policy only if its author expects something other than another iteration of violence.

Petraeus perpetrated a fraud by elevating this gambit into a counterinsurgency doctrine and accepting the accolades of grateful and relieved Republicans. Applied to Afghanistan, the doctrine failed miserably; the Taliban took the American money, like the Iraqi Sunnis, but – unlike the Iraqis – they continued to kill Americans.

Petraeus became a Republican hero by paying off the Sunni opposition, creating the illusion of stability in Iraq long enough for the outgoing George W Bush administration to claim a victory of sorts. The neo-conservatives clove to Petraeus even when he dutifully repeated in 2010 the Obama administration’s view that a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons depended on a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.


A minority of conservative analysts — including Andrew McCarthy, Diana West, and this writer — excoriated Gen. Petraeus for repeating the Obama administration’s outrageous claim that a nuclear weapons deal with Iran depended on a settlement of the Palestinian issue with Israel. The opposite was true: take Iran out of the picture, and terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas would lose their main backer, alleviating the Israel-Palestinian problem to some extent. The conservative mainstream, though, was so enamored of Petraeus that Max Boot, writing at the time at Commentary magazine, demanded the expulsion of the estimable Ms. West from the conservative movement “as has previously happened with Pat Buchanan, Joe Sobran, and other right-wing embarrassments” — in other words, the right-wing antisemites. The difference is that Diana West was defending Jews while Buchanan and Sobran were attacking Jews. Anathema was read over me from the Commentary blog as well.

Why was there so much vitriol over Petraeus? Why such embittered loyalty even when he echoed the administration’s outrageous “linkage” argument?

The answer was visible in the third presidential debate, when Mitt Romney went out of his way to agree with President Obama on major points of foreign policy. Like the ghost of Jacob Marley dragging chains forged of his past sins, the Republican Party still drags behind it the legacy of the Bush administration’s nation-building legacy in Iraq, with its thousands of dead, tens of thousands wounded, millions of disrupted lives, and trillion-dollar expense. The ingenious Gen. Petraeus found a way to allow the Bush administration and the proponents of nation-building to claim victory. Never mind that we left behind a pro-Iranian government and a country constantly threatening to disintegrate. Never mind that voters weren’t buying it; the taste of Iraq remains so bitter that Romney had to leave the foreign policy field uncontested. Petraeus saved Republican reputations, and that comes first.

We Americans love no one better than he who helps us delude ourselves. The consequence of our self-delusion is a new isolationism among the electorate, and the election of a president who thinks that American influence in the world is an evil thing and wants to remove it. No Republican candidate dare say the obvious — that America should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities in a surgical strike — because the voters don’t trust us.


Now we are less important. After four years of American strategic withdrawal, and the prospect of yet another four, the rest of the world is working around us. As I wrote in Asia Times today:

Intelligence services uncover information not by gazing at stars but by stirring up muck. Sometimes the muck is mined. Whatever ultimately comes to light about the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and his guards at Benghazi, it almost certainly will show that the intelligence failure – the failure to anticipate and respond to an organized attack on an American installation – stemmed from a policy failure.

The Obama administration’s fixed idea of engaging radical Islamists will have the same result as trying to cuddle with your pet scorpion. Whether ambassador Stevens ran into blowback from a plan to run Libyan weapons to jihadists in Syria, as former CIA officer Clare Lopez conjectures, we may or may not find out. What is clear, though, is that the United States finds itself within stinging range of some nasty creatures in consequences of delusional policy.

There simply isn’t any reason to bring information to Washington these days. The Obama administration cannot be argued out of a failing policy, and the path of least resistance for America’s allies and adversaries alike is to humor the obsessives on the Potomac and work around them.

After four years of strategic withdrawal, and the prospect of another four with the new “flexibility” that President Obama promised then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev over a mike accidentally left open last March, the world’s secondary powers are left to their own devices. Every one of them will play a double game.

  • Israel will make its own decision as to whether to attack Iran’s nuclear capacity, on the strength of military criteria that outsiders are poorly prepared to judge;
  • Russia will threaten to arm Iran with its best surface-to-air missiles while negotiating with Israel;
  • China will maintain its alliance with Pakistan but deal ruthlessly with Pakistani-supported Muslim separatists in Xinjiang, the so-called East Turkistan;
  • Turkey will threaten Iran over its intervention with Syria while bartering billions of dollars in gold to the Islamic Republic each month to help it beat the boycott;
  • Saudi Arabia will continue to fund Turkey as a bulwark against Iran while sabotaging Turkey’s efforts to put the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Syria; and
  • Germany will affirm its commitments to Europe and North Atlantic Treaty Organization while quietly diversifying its energy sources towards Russia.
The screens are flickering out. Our intelligence services will not know what is happening, because no-one will perceive a need to tell them. There will be no penalty for ignoring the United States. We are flying blind, because we did not wish to see. I concluded:

It is a good time for General Petraeus to leave. His greatest success in the mirror-world of intelligence was deluding his own masters into believing that they were in control of events in Iraq. He was unsuccessful in Afghanistan; it may emerge that he failed catastrophically in Libya.Before America can restore the functioning of its intelligence services, it must have a strategy in furtherance of which intelligence is sought. Such a strategy requires leaders who are more concerned about American interests than about the reputations of their employers.


Image courtesy shutterstock /  Braam Collins


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