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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Lessons of the Iranian NIE

In the spring of 1969 I was about to graduate from college. This was, of course, a significant achievement and was in theory supposed to be a joyous occasion, but I can see now that it was not. I didn't want to leave the first place that I had felt totally at home, and the future in any case was totally uncertain because of the looming draft, which eventually resulted in my enlisting in the Army Reserves. But as often happens for me, the intellectual world provided various escapes. I was finishing the popular course on modern France given by Stanley Hoffmann--then as now one of the giants of the Harvard landscape--and the reading period assignment was Alexis de Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution. It turned out to be one of the most intensive and influential reading experiences of my whole life.

Tocqueville wrote that book in the 1850s as the first volume of a study of the French Revolution--one which he was unable to complete because of his death. ("The best excuse," I once heard a fellow academic comment, and one we shall all one day have an occasion to use.) Its real subject was the bureaucratization of French political life--a development he traced back to the reign of Louis XIV and followed through the eighteenth century. Step by step, he showed how power once exercised by the aristocracy, town governments, and, in various ways, even the common people, had been drained by officials appointed and maintained by the Crown. Moreover, he argued, the French Revolution had only briefly interrupted this process, which under Napoleon had resumed with a vengeance and, half a century later, Tocqueville, living under the new Empire of Napoleon III, found things worse than ever. (Professor Hoffmann frequently pointed out to us that things hadn't changed much during the following century either; different Republics came and went, but the centralized bureaucracy remained.) Tocqueville contrasted his native land unfavorably with both Britain (his wife's homeland) and the United States. In Britain, he argued, the aristocracy had continued to govern by maintaining a variety of links with the common people and paying more than its share of taxes, and the people of the United States, while lacking any aristocracy, governed themselves at the local level with hardly any other central government as well.

I was stunned by all this because, as a good mid-twentieth century student, I had grown up learning to idealize the growth in power of central governments, not least in the United States. Tocqueville presented his arguments with an appealing combination of data, logic, and personal fervor. I can see now, thanks to Strauss and Howe, that those traits appealed to me (more than to most of my professors, except Hoffmann) because he was a fellow Prophet, born in 1802, just as things had settled down in France under Napoleon. (Not until 1814-5 did war reach France itself again, and that interlude was brief.) I was also struck by his belief in aristocracy as a superior form of government, simply because aristocrats could provide an alternative power center to the state and thus a source of support for average folk. But I knew that Tocqueville did not believe that any nation could return to aristocracy--he had seen democracy in action across the Atlantic, and while he worried that it could easily lead to despotism, he knew that it was the wave of the future and that the past would not return.

Having lived his entire life under the stultifying burden of a bureaucracy that did not even allow free speech or assembly, Tocqueville had come by his views honestly. Max Weber, who came from the next batch of European Prophets and lived under the equally strict bureaucracy of imperial Germany, made similar complaints. The bureaucracies of totalitarian states did frightening and horrible things in the first half of the twentieth century. But bureaucracy also stands for something positive--indeed, indispensable--in western life. Because it runs on rules, it is the repository of rationality. It generally attracts men and women who prefer stability to risk, and who remain at their posts long enough to build up an institutional memory. And bureaucrats are, in their own way, problem solvers--and nowhere more so than in the diplomatic world, where they are trained to understand the point of view of the other side.

And thus, for the last seven years, a battle has been raging between the bureaucrats of our national security establishment on the one hand--the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department--and the ideologues of the Bush Administration on the other. The battle has been one sided, largely because of the determination, it would seem, of one man, Vice President Cheney. In 2002 the political leadership and neoconservative ideologues managed to corrupt and intimidate the intelligence process in order to fight a war to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. (To do so they also had to discount the warnings of international bureaucrats Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradei, who were slowly and carefully doing their job in Iraq and who would in a few months have been able to reassure the world that Iraq had no such weapons.) The State Department, led by Colin Powell--himself a military bureaucrat--was generally ignored by the White House, especially with respect to the Middle East. Indeed, opposition to the bureaucracy has been a neoconservative principle for 30 years. Neocons have always attacked the intelligence analysts of the CIA for being too sanguine about possible threats, be they from the Soviet Union or Iraq, and State Department diplomats for being too pro-Arab. For the last seven years they have had their way.

Last week one important part of the bureaucracy fought back, when the Board of National Estimates finally released its long-delayed NIE announcing that Iran's nuclear weapons program had been suspended four years ago. (In so doing, we should note, it confirmed what Mohammed El-Baradei had been saying--that there was no clear evidence that such a program existed.) Despite (or because of?) two changes of leadership at the CIA since the Tenet regime had buckled in 2002, the men and women who had to make this judgment on behalf of their fellow citizens did their jobs and finally managed to get their conclusions published. (I suspect that involved quite a struggle about which we may eventually hear.) This has already provoked howls from necons like John Bolton and Norman Podhoretz (the latter needed less than 24 hours to accuse the intelligence analysts of trying to undermine the President's policies.) It has also probably made it impossible for the President to build some kind of bipartisan consensus for an attack on Iran, or to get any significant international support for one. But it has NOT changed the President's own views at all--and that is a good illustration of why we need intelligent and courageous bureaucrats.

"Nearly everyone now agrees that Monday's National Intelligence Estimate takes war with Iran off the table. Even those who lament the fact, or who question the NIE's findings, realize that the case for airstrikes has just gone up in smoke," Fred Kaplan wrote in Slate on Wednesday. I immediately emailed him that I was quite sure President Bush would announce at his press conference later that day that nothing had changed, and I turned out to be right. In fact, the NIE has provided another service--it has shown what the Administration's policy towards hostile regimes really is. It is based less on non-proliferation than on thoughtcrime. All a regime has to do to be worthy of sanctions, American attacks, and renewal, is to combine opposition to American policies and values with thoughts about having nuclear weapons or exploratory research programs. And indeed, the President's own rhetoric, as a few people noticed, had shifted in that direction in the last few months, most notably during another press conference on October 17, when he was asked once again about the danger.

"I think so long -- until they suspend and/or make it clear that they -- that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon. And I know it's in the world's interest to prevent them from doing so. I believe that the Iranian -- if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace. But this -- we got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I've told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously."

The President and I are almost the same age, and we have both been heard a great deal about the possibility of a nuclear Third World War for the first half-century of our lives. Older generations, however, trusted that deterrence could prevent one--and they were right. But the President, as I've remarked so many times, shares the Boom generation's disregard for anything its parents believed, and like his neocon mentors, he rejects the whole idea of deterrence, preferring enforced American restrictions on what weapons other nations can have. This statement, however, also provides a clue to another current mystery--that of when the President knew about the intelligence community's new conclusions. Seymour Hersh reported them in the New Yorker a whole year ago. The White House now claims that the President heard in August only that the CIA had unspecified new information about the program, but it does not seem possible to me to believe that the President's change in rhetoric in October--from claiming that Iran's nuclear program had to be stopped, to claiming that Iran had to prevented from acquiring the "knowledge" to build a nuclear weapon--had nothing to do with new information.

The CIA is also under attack now for destroying video tapes of interrogations--but that involves the covert, operational branch of the CIA, which is not really a bureaucracy in the classic sense of the term. Bureaucracies run on the exchange of written information; covert intelligence agencies write down as little as possible and share as little as possible both with the outside world and among themselves. (That conclusion emerged from my research into my new book, which shows CIA agents freely concealing important information from their own director.) Bureaucracy has been under bitter Republican attack for almost three-quarters of a century, since the beginning of the New Deal, and in the last three decades the attack has been extraordinarily successful. The size of our domestic bureaucracy and of our armed forces have been drastically reduced, and most civilian federal pensions have been cut in half (though supplemented by an IRA program), making federal service less attractive. But only in the last seven years has foreign policy been turned over to ideologues. The results, I suspect, would make even my old friend Tocqueville think twice.


StV said...

Nice post, David. You might want to reflect on the distorting effects of money on the democratic process. Career bureaucrats are relatively poor. As a result, they can be intimidated by threats of job loss, demotion, or loss of reputation (that hits future earning power). The Bushes and Cheneys of the world are independently wealthy so they have no fear of what I call "economic terrorism". Take a look around. Any dissent in this country is punished by attacking someone's economic security (i.e. their job or if that fails with a costly lawsuit). In a sense, the aristocracy is fighting back against the democratic project.

P.S. When I first came to this country 10 years ago I couldn't believe the low voter turnout at elections. Having seen the immense spending by lobbyists to buy the right candidate (democrat or repulican) I can understand the reluctance to vote for either side.

Anonymous said...

Not surprising nor exclusive to spying that CIA agents would withhold information from each other and their management. Information is power in a bureaucracy.

This can be overcome somewhat by an enlightened management that shares credit with the underlings and makes it clear that it sees them as essential to the enterprise.

But enlightened management is as rare in bureaucracy as anywhere else. The problem is that there are few other motivations (like profit) to share information, so each rational participant must weigh each sharing of information for its value to him/herself. And far too often, that value can be not just a wash, but actively deleterious.