Thursday, October 05, 2006

Publish the NIE Report

One issue that's buzzing in Washington these days is the NIE report that claims that the War in Iraq is making the terrorism problem worse. Recently, John Negroponte has taken to saying that the report he commissioned was selectively leaked - i.e. with the intent to do damage to the Bush Administration. The actual report, he claims, is nowhere near as damaging as e.g. the New York Times story on it would have people believe.

Naturally lots of pundits are crying foul. Negroponte, a Bush appointee, must obviously be trying to muddy the waters ahead of elections to minimize the damage to Republicans. A typical such analysis is here.

The editor's note at the top reads:

This week, when George W. Bush found himself on the defensive over a U.S. intelligence estimate that recognized the obvious -- that the Iraq War had enflamed anti-Americanism and made the terrorist threat worse -- his intelligence czar John Negroponte tried to soften the political impact.

"Recognized the obvious?" But that's just it. For me, it's not at all obvious that the War in Iraq should be making the terrorist threat worse.

I think people have false conceptions about how terrorist organizations operate. Terrorist organizations are organizations like any other. If they want to pull off an operation, they need planning, funds, and preparation. People talk as though terrorist recruits grow on trees. Well, maybe they do - but opportunities for them to cause trouble do not.

This is perfectly obvious to me when I think about trying to cause trouble myself. I'm an American citizen and I fit no kind of terrorist profile. Presumably, should I decide to become a terrorist, I would be perfectly free to carry out my masterplan. But that's just it - what masterplan? I can sit here all day and think of ways to cause trouble - but nothing comes to mind. And that's the point. However many willing recruits Al Qaeda has, terrorist plots still need to be ... well ... plotted. If a reasonably intelligent and well-educated American citizen such as myself has difficulty coming up with plans (admittedly, only as a thought experiment - I'm not motivated as the Islamofascists are), imagine how hard it is for the average dumb schmuck Islamofascist? And yet people talk as though mere recruitment was enough, as though each new recruit for Al Qaeda represented some kind of linear growth in the terrorst threat. It simply doesn't work that way. Like any organization, Al Qaeda will only hire as many as it actually needs. It's like saying that rising unemployment means there will be more manufacturing jobs - you know, because ifs are fifths. Please!

What's even more outrageous about this perception, though, is the premise I just left alone - that recruits themselves grow on trees. Do they? I doubt it very seriously. Just sit down and think for a minute what being a recruit in a terrorist organization involves. It means that you are putting your life on the line for a cause in a much deeper sense than, say, a Marine recruit. The Marine recruit at least believes it's likely he will come home. The terrorist? I'm sorry - but I cannot believe that there is an endless supply of suicide bombers. The world just doesn't work that way. There is a profile for these things, and very few people fit it. The Japanese famously sauced up their kamikaze pilots before sending them on missions - and this was in an ueber-nationalist nation that beleived it was fighting for its survival. If even Imperial Japan had trouble finding recruits, I'm really not buying that the Arabs have no problems here.

So what might the profile be? I'm no expert here, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that in order to be a suicide bomber you pretty much have to have no prospects at home. (Please spare me the line about how Bin Laden is a rich kid. Bin Laden is not a suicide bomber. He prefers to make decisions for others rather than blow himself to bits, thanks.) And wow - my theory seems to work in the case of Palestine. Demi-nation with 50% unemployment produces lots o' suicide bombers. Who'd have thought? Well, in that sense it's believable that destabilization in Iraq is fanning terrorism, yes. Country's in ruins, no propects on the horizon - sure, I'll blow myself to bits and you can take care of my family. Thanks. It's plausible, certainly. But now let's look at what Mr. Negroponte actually said, shall we?

"The Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives," Negroponte said, using a previously scheduled dinner speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center to discuss the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). "However, should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight," Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, said. (source)

In other words - Negroponte's line about how the NIE report, taken in its entirety, does not indicate that the War in Iraq is increasing the terrorist threat in the long run would seem to accord with intuitions about the nature of Islamic terrorists.

It's as though people have never heard of the saying "you have to spend money to make money." Sometimes you have to take temporary losses in order to make gains, yes. Nothing about taking losses now means that gains are not coming.

So, to sum up - I think it's first of all questionable that even with an endless supply of recruits, terrorist organizations would have a commensurate supply of things for these recruits to do. Recruiting is not a linear algorithm. Second of all, I don't even buy that there is an endless supply of recruits. And finally, even if there is an endless supply of recruits in Iraq, then it was a calculated risk that may yet pay off. Crucially, it will only pay off if we stay and finish the job.

What's completely implausible to me is that the invasion of Iraq somehow convinced anyone sitting on the fence about Al Qaeda to turn to the dark side. I think there can't be more than 5 or 6 people in the whole world who said "C'mon, the US will never invade Iraq - why do you hate them so much? What??? They invaded??? Oh, shit, it's ON. Give me that bomb, I'm dyin' for Allah now!" Honestly - no. Whatever recruits are currently in Iraq are probably disgruntled Iraqis - who, in fact, have every right to be disgruntled since we're botching the reconstruction so badly. But such people do not stay disgruntled after things have gone back to normal.

There might be a marginal increase in Al Qaeda's rosters as a result, sure. But I think Negroponte has understood the situation well when he says if the insurgency is perceived as being defeated volunteering will lose it's glamor. That, too, is intuitive. We celebrate heroes who achieved something. People who gave their lives for a futile cause - how many of those did you read about in school? People take comfort in knowing that their loved ones died for a cause. They take considerably less comfort in knowing that their loved ones died and nothing changed.

In the long run, the War in Iraq seems likely to reduce the terror threat. For one thing, it gives us an excuse to kill off the terrorist demographic. Anyone who wanted to be a suicide bomber but couldn't get Al Qaeda to add him to the payroll is now fighting in Iraq - where our armed forces are mowing them down. It's like asking everyone who is a potential Al Qaeda recruit to raise their hand and then shooting them when they do. We're thinning the recruitment herd, decimating the labor pool. Meanwhile, provided we see the war through, we're giving the whole movement a huge black eye. After September 12, when being a suicide bomber must have seemed pretty hip (because it accomplished something, for once - got the Great Satan to take notice), I can well imagine that Al Qaeda netted a better-than-average recruitment quarter. But after the Taliban fell? After Iraq fell? And now after so many of their buddies died in Iraq? And now after they know that they can throw themselves at US convoys all they want, the US has a bottomless pit of such convoys? I strongly suspect the glamor has worn off quite a bit. True, not in the western papers - but our reporters aren't living the life.

All this, of course, is speculation - just hunches, really. We have no way of knowing what was actually in the report until we read it. And in that light, I would like to say that this WSJ editorial makes a lot of sense. It calls for President Bush to declassify the report. Apparently NIE reports aren't really all that secret. The secrecy rating is more a function of the fact that they occasionally contain references to classified things. But as the WSJ rightly points out, those bits could be excised or summarized.

The editorial notes that secretive NIE reports have gotten Bush into trouble before. They mention the one dealing with Saddam buying yellowcake in Niger. Of course, we all read in blaring headlines at the time that Colin Powell just made that up. But as it turns out, it's true (ah - but you didn't read that in the New York Times headlines, eh?) - Powell didn't make it up at all, and the full NIE report on the issue made that clear. Had the Bush Administration declassified that report, the argument goes, they could have saved themselves some trouble. ("Some" is the operative word here for me. I believe that Bush Derangement Syndrome is real and the mainstream media suffers from it. When the truth finally broke, the NYTimes buried the story in the backpages - which they would have done with the declassified report too - just that more people would have been reading it back when it was still a hot news item, and the egg on the Times' face might have been a bit more visible.)

The point is surely that the War on Terror IS an election issue - rightly so. Bush has mostly gotten what he wanted from Congress on War on Terror issues - so if the population objects to this then midterm elections are an appropriate time to voice that objection. It is unacceptable for the Bush Administration to simply expect people to take it on faith that everything he's done is working out. One problem this Administration - love it or hate it - definitely has it giving straight answers to questions on its terrorist policies. Bush styles himself as a straight talker - and I guess he is in a lot of ways. Certainly he comes cleaner than his predecessor did... But I also think he's a dumbed-down talker. Like his father, he seems to think that people who heckle him about his policies are being rude or disloyal or something. In fact, it is his job to take such abuse and suffer such scruitiny. He's the head of the Executive Branch - and in our system, that means answering questions you might not want to - and in more detail than simply saying "freedom is on the march" to absolutely bloody everything. If the NIE report says what he claims, I see no harm in releasing a somewhat censored (for security reasons) version of it. It is, after all, completely plausible that the NIE leaks are selective and politically-motivated, just as Negroponte claims. But plausible is not the same thing as proven, and I'm not going to vote on Negroponte's word.

Actually, to come clean, I'm not going to vote for the Republicans even if they do release the full NIE - nor the Democrats if they don't. I'm planning to vote straight-ticket Libertarian as usual, and there is a Libertarian running for House in my district. I do generally make a practice of voting Republican when the Libertarians field no candidate for a particular position, though. But the point is that average voters shouldn't take him at his word. Politicians are sort of like my cat here. If I give him treats a couple of days in a row, he comes to expect them and then pesters me for them. If it's a rare thing, though, he doesn't pester as much. We shouldn't train politicians to think that they can get away with saying things like "I have access to information you don't, and that information makes me look pretty damn good, let me tell you." If Negroponte is telling the truth, let him demonstrate it. I, for one, am ready to believe him.


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