A pair of recent news items unintentionally demonstrated the ways the Intelligence Community is a primary source of our confused foreign policy in the Middle East, while also undermining President Trump here at home.
First, substantial doubts have arisen regarding the source and even the actuality of the 2018 gas attacks in Syria. These attacks allegedly took place in the Damascus suburb of Douma and were first publicized by the Soros-funded White Helmets. Later, the American Intelligence Community pinned the blame on Assad and the Syrian government. Rather swiftly, President Trump issued grave warnings about future attacks and our armed forces commenced modest, retaliatory bombing raids. Trump had directed a similar air strike after Syrian gas attacks were reported in 2017. In both cases, Trump’s commitment to reducing American engagement in the Middle East appeared to be in jeopardy. While his ideological fellow travelers, including Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter, were very critical, these bombing attacks garnered praise from interventionists like Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and Bill Kristol.
Like Russian interference and other tall tales from overseas intelligence agencies, it turns out the United States may have been had. According to leaked internal discussions that became public in November 2019, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) downplayed dissenting views in its initial report regarding the 2018 gas attacks. In the words of one of the investigators, the report “misrepresents the facts he and his colleagues discovered on the ground.” Notably, the original OPCW report never conclusively blamed the attack on the Syrian regime. It now appears in doubt whether chemical weapons were used at all.
Second, CNN recently aired a report involving Susan Gordan, who resigned from her position as Deputy Director of National Intelligence over the summer after being passed over for promotion. According to CNN:
One of President Donald Trump’s most common responses to intelligence briefings is to doubt what he’s being told, former Deputy Director of Intelligence Susan Gordon said Tuesday.…Trump had two typical responses to briefings. ‘One, “I don’t think that’s true,”’ Gordon told the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.… ‘and the other is the second order and third order effects. “Why is that true? Why are we there? Why is this what you believe? Why do we do that?” Those sorts of things.’
The CNN report and Gordon’s implicit criticism of Trump is rather telling. The ruling class sounds exasperated that the president would not simply go along with the Intelligence Community’s conclusions about the facts, nor follow their recommendations. With Syria in particular, it turns out Trump’s more general skepticism was well warranted.
The idea that the Syrian regime would court disaster and guarantee Western involvement by using chemical weapons in 2018, just as the remnants of the ISIS caliphate were being defeated, never made logical sense. That the Intelligence Community never apparently took seriously the possibility that the gas attacks were a false flag used by rebels (or some other interested party) to direct American forces against the Syrian regime shows remarkable credulity—or cynicism—among those whose job is to provide useful information to the president.
Bad intelligence has been the source of America’s follies in the Middle East stretching back to the 2003 Iraq invasion and earlier. It has confused America about its friends and enemies, has ignited some conflicts while prolonging others, and, in nearly every case, has failed to support a sound and sustainable foreign policy. Bad intelligence tends to agitate and redirect the focus of America’s leadership according to the policy goals of the Intelligence Community. Every American politician is sensitive to the risks elucidated by the intelligence agencies, regardless of their political views; no politician wants a failure like 9/11 on his watch.
Even America First nationalists realize the need to confront certain threats before they materialize or become unmanageable. American civilian leadership is very deferential to and dependent on the military and the Intelligence Community because of their access to information, technical expertise, and patriotic bona fides. The Intelligence Community—including foreign intelligence sources like Israel and Saudi Arabia—have exploited American power using these predictable dynamics.
Most dramatically, George W. Bush went to war in Iraq after his advisors lined up against Iraq and pointed to its continued and dangerous possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). The evidence was a “slam dunk,” in the words of then-CIA director George Tenet. More recently, in its efforts to encourage American military strikes, Israel nearly every year for the last decade said Iran is “six months away” from a nuclear weapon. Heightened tension with Iran nearly led to a war over a downed drone in early 2019. Moreover, predictions of geopolitical disaster and genocide have been used to pressure Trump into keeping American troops in Syria indefinitely, in spite of his repeatedly expressed desire to withdraw.
While it claims to be evidence-based and cautious, the Intelligence Community’s reliability and results are mediocre. In some cases, it gets things entirely wrong, as with Iraq’s WMDs. In others, it’s simply in the dark, as it was with the rapid collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 or the fall of Iran’s shah in 1979, which somehow escaped the attention of our intelligence analysts until the events were front-page news. No doubt, this is partly a function of intelligence work being inherently difficult, as it involves predictions about the future in countries where we have limited understanding. But the predominant problems, especially in recent years, have arisen from ideological and institutional biases.
The Intelligence Community has policy preferences, and its intelligence reporting often is fashioned to support those preferences. After all, the Intelligence Community is just part of a larger foreign policy conglomerate. Career foreign policy advisors, professors, spies, and think tankers tend to profess a common worldview, and describing them as a “community” is accurate. The term sounds less threatening than “spy agencies,” and much of government truly functions as a type of community. The anonymously written Z Blog observed:
Washington is the natural evolution of the managerial class that evolved in the 20th century. People move to the area through one of the many on-ramps of the managerial state. Over time, they slowly become part of the ruling community that controls the imperial government.
Part of that community’s worldview is external. Following the Cold War, with little debate, a consensus emerged among both the left and neoconservative right that the U.S. should work to ensure its status as the “sole superpower” and that this power should be used in the service of “liberal hegemony.” In other words, the Deep State has worked to maintain the U.S. as the world’s most powerful country, has actively prevented the rise of competing powers, and has used its power to mold other countries’ internal affairs to resemble the culture and institutions of the U.S. This governing philosophy is sometimes called the New World Order, the rules-based international order, the post-war system, or some other euphemism—but it really means American dominance. For obvious reasons, this approach is very expensive, leads to a lot of conflict, does little to distinguish core from ancillary interests, and is not looked at very kindly by other nations, who have an understandably jealous regard for their own sovereignty.
What this means in practice can be seen in the Intelligence Community’s behavior when it thinks no one is looking. Having conducted spying operations on our allies and fomented color revolutions abroad, its sense of the sacredness of elections, even at home, is rather limited. In 2014, the CIA admitted that it illegally spied on U.S. Senate staff when the CIA’s torture activities were under congressional investigation. More recently, the CIA participated in an entrapment operation directed at minor figures in the Trump campaign for the purpose of enabling FBI wiretaps of the president and his inner circle.
The Intelligence Community’s interference with and manipulation of elected leaders domestically is not limited to heavy-handed interference with the Trump campaign. It preceded Trump and has been evident in various information operations against presidents already in office. Elected leaders depend on intelligence reports to make decisions, whether from the military, the FBI, or the CIA. If they defy the intelligence services, then a narrative of a president dangerously ignoring his top advisors frequently emerges, with outlets like CNN and The Washington Post dutifully passing on these propaganda leaks as news.
George W. Bush faced a maelstrom over the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA employee—the sacredness of CIA agents’ secret identities being a core value in the Imperial City. Obama also received criticism and leaks from the Pentagon when he was reluctant to expand forces in Afghanistan in 2009. Of course, leaks and direct defiance by the Intelligence Community have been the foundation of many of the attacks on President Trump, including those by fanatical former CIA Director John Brennan.
For the foreign policy mob, democracy is not a process of majority rule, but a smokescreen for pursuing a series of substantive ends: free trade, open borders, globalism, gay rights, and other objectives of the global ruling class. Thus, for them, the democratically elected president’s mandate is not to pursue popular policies like avoiding Mideast wars or putting up tariffs against China, but rather to support the policies that distinguish the ruling class from the rubes in Peoria.
The Intelligence Community also demands, and usually receives, acquiescence toward its more whimsical impulses: supporting Muslims in Serbia, while attacking Muslims in Yemen; or secreting crocodile tears for Ukraine’s anti-Russian coup, while ignoring atrocities by our allies in Yemen and Ossetia. Objectives that are popular and democratic, but not in tune with the preferences of liberal elites—Brexit in the UK, for example, or a border wall here at home—are simply labeled a “threat to democracy” in Orwellian fashion. Such things cannot be permitted, at home or abroad.
With so much off the table, our elected leaders become virtual figureheads, barely in charge of the government’s unelected bureaucracy, which is theoretically supposed to be an instrument that they control. President Obama was very popular with the managerial class, including the Intelligence Community, because he did not have the energy or inclination to upset the status quo. His transformation of government simply made it bigger, more prestigious, and better paid, all at a time when the rest of the country was limping through an economic crisis. Consider the fawning profile of President Obama from The New Yorker in 2012:
Each night, an Obama aide hands the President a binder of documents to review. After his wife goes to bed, at around ten, Obama works in his study, the Treaty Room, on the second floor of the White House residence. President Bush preferred oral briefings; Obama likes his advice in writing. He marks up the decision memos and briefing materials with notes and questions in his neat cursive handwriting.…A single Presidential comment might change a legislative strategy, kill the proposal of a well-meaning adviser, or initiate a bureaucratic process to answer a Presidential question.
If the document is a decision memo, its author usually includes options for Obama to check at the end.
The last sentence is revealing. Obama was the perfectly compliant figurehead, neatly accepting the limited options presented to him and marking off boxes without Trump’s insouciant skepticism. His suave, superficially intellectual style was the perfect camouflage for the Deep State and its prerogatives.
The Intelligence Community’s own ideology was apparent in their support for the Arab Spring. While the old-line WASP figures from the first generation of CIA leadership had concluded that secular dictators and kings were the best governments Americans could hope for in the Middle East, the new guard—more feminine, diverse, and Jewish, just like the Ivy League schools from which it was recruited—was full of optimism about the social revolution in the Arab world. Samantha Power announced a doctrine of “humanitarian war,” and Hillary Clinton reported her desire to be “caught trying.”
Humility and restraint were in short supply among the smart set. While Obama had expressed an encouraging skepticism of U.S. interventionism in his electoral campaign, here the Wilsonian impulse triumphed. He wanted to be on the “right side of history.” In short order, the wisdom of the old guard became apparent. Egypt elected an Islamist, Libya devolved into chaos where jihadists murdered an American ambassador, and a crisis in Syria showed that the Intelligence Community was incapable of learning from very recent history.
Even after the Libyan disaster—and America’s earlier failures in Iraq and Afghanistan—Obama approved intervention in the complex Syrian civil war, declaring in the name of the international community that the Assad regime needed to go. His CIA soon began sending aid and arms to the so-called moderate rebels. Republican globalists like Lindsey Graham and John McCain applauded Obama’s courage.
Contrary to the plan, Assad didn’t go. Instead, he and his government have fought a war since 2011 against dozens of opposition groups, including jihadists like al Nusra. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Europe. A similar number died in the war itself. Christians faced genocide. ISIS rose and fell within the maelstrom. But the war and the regime have persisted right up to the present, having obtained new support along the way because of the Sunni jihadists’ fanaticism and barbarity.
Like the never-ending war in Afghanistan, the American interest in Syria only exists if you accept the paradigm of liberal hegemony ensured by American dominance. When the “international community”—the propaganda term the United States uses for itself when it really means business—demands Assad has to go, he is supposed to go, and go soon. This formula worked before in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and also in Panama, Liberia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Serbia. Assad’s persistence exposes the natural limits of American power. The Syrian regime’s refusal to disappear has created a big problem for that so-called international community.
Russia intervened in Syria, in part, because of a longstanding alliance, but also because Russia’s foreign policy has a predictable and limited aim: to ensure that America’s involvement does not inevitably lead to regime change. Russia is not pro-terrorist or fanatically anti-American. It gave permission for American overflights of former Soviet Republics after 9/11, and its military has cooperated with ours for “de-confliction” purposes in Syria to support our common fight against ISIS. But Russia’s aims are one reason the Syrian civil war had such high stakes, and also why our nation’s moral compasses went haywire in Syria, just as it had 20 years earlier in Kosovo. In both cases, America undermined its own claimed values by teaming with terrorists and jihadis to prove the inevitability and righteousness of the “international community’s” demands.
Trump did not accept this paradigm. Thus, he quickly made opposition to ISIS the primary mission objective in Syria. After all, unlike Assad, ISIS was directing attacks at home and in Europe and was perpetrating horrors beyond comprehension. American forces and their proxies succeeded in short order, aided by the tacit cooperation of Russian and Syrian forces, and unleashed from the restraints and contradictory objectives of the Obama administration. Under Obama’s purview, according to a 2016 report from the Los Angeles Times, CIA-armed rebels were fighting at one point with other rebels armed by the DoD.
Trump declared victory. He ordered forces to leave. They dragged their feet, and General James Mattis resigned in protest when Trump told him that he meant business. Soon, the panoply of varying objectives sought by different factions within the Intelligence Community were reasserted, all requiring an indefinite deployment of U.S. forces, each accompanied by increasingly dire warnings about the costs of noncompliance. “Like the war on drugs or the war on poverty, the war for the Greater Middle East has become a permanent fixture in American life and is accepted as such,” wrote Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and history professor at Boston University.
Trump ran for president in direct opposition to the legacy foreign policy common to both Democrats and Republicans. His overall policy was fundamentally nationalist, and thus his foreign policy was limited to specific and tangible issues directly related to national security and national flourishing. He expressed common-sense skepticism about many things, including our trading policies with China and our habitual animosity to Russia, but some of his strongest criticism was reserved for our involvement in Syria and the Middle East more generally.
Unlike many Republicans, Trump was always skeptical of the Iraq War. When he is unfiltered, he still expresses this view, as in a recent tweet:
The United States has spent EIGHT TRILLION DOLLARS fighting and policing in the Middle East. Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side. GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE.....
This stand was popular during the campaign and it is popular now. No amount of Washington Post sob stories about the stalwart Kurds have changed most Americans’ assessment of the matter. This is an issue that cuts across party lines, with both the Republican America Firsters and the Democratic Party’s peace caucus seeing no benefit from America’s efforts in the Middle East over the last four decades.
As with trade and immigration, Trump’s instincts were both politically and strategically correct. Unfortunately, he has not been fully consistent in this regard. In part, he himself is to blame for hiring individuals with polar opposite views, such as neoconservative John Bolton and establishment-approved Gen. Mattis. On the other hand, in Trump’s defense, appointees that shared his expressed worldview—such as Michael Flynn or Stephen Bannon—have been hobbled or run off. Now that the impeachment proceedings have concluded, Trump is only slowly getting a handle on the permanent bureaucracy, which has conducted a fierce counterattack against him since before he was sworn into office.
Trump’s presidency has been defined by conflict with the Intelligence Community. Indeed, their overreach during the 2016 election was something new and unusual in public life. They don’t want him in office and do not want to submit to accountability. They’re the vanguard of an aggrieved managerial class. While one thinks of the military and intelligence apparatus as being more conservative and hardheaded than, say, the Department of Justice or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the collective culture of Washington, D.C., has a significant influence and significant degree of consensus. The whole town is full of ambitious conformists who have been preparing to sit before congressional committees since they were nine years old. They lack the dash, humanity, and personality of the Yale classicists who formed the CIA’s 1940s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services.
When Obama arrived, he promoted Intelligence Community figures like John Brennan and Jim Comey and military leaders like General David Petraeus and Admiral William McRaven. They shared the ideological outlook of the new administration, whether on gay rights, women in combat, or the wisdom of dubious campaigns in Syria. Having tasted political power, the left’s outlook has now become more aggressively statist than any time since FDR. The dominant rhetorical trope is to contrast the “patriotism” and “service” ethics of people who are paid six-figure incomes to enjoy fine dining in Paris and Buenos Aires with the atavism and anger of Trump and his “deplorable” base.
While movies portray the CIA as sophisticated and omnicompetent, in real life it turns out the Intelligence Community is made up of people like we saw in the impeachment hearings, such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former National Security Council official Fiona Hill: middlebrow, arrogant, liberal, unimaginative, and extremely concerned with preserving their managerial processes and imperatives. As defenders of a managerial system in which they are the elite, the various processes, reviews, and interagency discussions preserve the bureaucrats’ institutional and personal power. This method was demonstrated unwittingly by the “multiple choice” policymaking of Obama revealed in The New Yorker profile.
To the extent that the American people’s broad-based and bipartisan rejection of permanent war is to be given voice, the Intelligence Community needs to be brought to heel. Conservatives must recognize that the institutions they instinctually hold in high regard, the FBI, the CIA, and the military, are not merely part of the problem. They, or at least their leadership, are the primary problem. Trump’s nationalist and populist supporters hoped Trump would be able to take them on, but the tenacity and versatility of the “Resistance” has proven to be an enormous challenge. As Senator Chuck Schumer promised, “You take on the intelligence community—they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”
The impeachment proceedings are simply the latest iteration of this resistance. After the Mueller probe went bust, the Ukraine scandal emerged from a whistleblower that worked for the CIA. The hearings were high managerial-class theater, featuring military officers, ambassadors, law professors, and other D.C. glitterati, who collectively have made it plain that they do not believe they are subordinate to the president, the American people—or anyone. They were supposed to wow us with their intellect and high-mindedness, but they really looked like hacks who lack the decency to be embarrassed by their preening self-regard and naked partisanship.
America’s foreign policy in the Middle East has been an enormous failure, a failure for which the Intelligence Community has not been significantly called to account. Straightfoward solutions like banning Muslim immigration have been ignored, while messianic ones like turning Syria into a functioning democracy are substituted in their place. Like Soviets sticking to their Five-Year Plans in the face of famines and penury, the nation’s spies have proceeded as if the disasters in Iraq, Syria, Libya, as well as the never-ending campaign in Afghanistan, were successes. The only thing surprising about a recent Washington Post exposé on the various lies told about our progress in Afghanistan is that anyone was surprised. It’s been apparent since 2002 that we were making no progress in Afghanistan, and that the place was simply a black hole in which American dollars and American lives were lost.
American foreign policy in the Middle East is inseparable from the Intelligence Community, which is just one arm of the permanent bureaucracy. Whether at home or abroad, they have proven to have a narrow and hubristic concept of American power, and their results have ranged from the mediocre to the terrible. Far from providing useful insight and sound predictions about the likely course of events, they either have ignored or downplayed real threats, like ISIS, or encouraged and managed foolhardy escapades like the arming of the so-called moderate rebels in Syria. Always missing from their report is a hardheaded account of Islam and the ways it is both prickly about foreign intervention and inimical to Western values like democracy or liberalism.
Not understanding the human terrain abroad, the Intelligence Community has also failed to understand the limits of the tools available from the homeland. While the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps might think schools and clean water and elections will transform these regions, the U.S. military remains the primary tool. And it’s a blunt instrument that has often alienated more people than it manages to dispatch in its lumbering efforts of nation-building. Actionable intelligence is supposed to be intelligent. But here common sense and a rudimentary grasp of recent history—the kind candidate Trump and his voters had—are more than adequate to expose the “smart fools” behind recent events.
Before he ran for President, in 2013, Trump tweeted, “DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA—IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!” There is more intelligence in that sentence than the mountain of reports and predictions emanating from the Intelligence Community.