The Politics of Intelligence and American Wars with Iraq
by Ofira Seliktar
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 214 pp. $74.95
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
The failure to find weapons of mass destruction after the U.S. invasion of Iraq unleashed both a debate about the use and abuse of intelligence and broad cynicism about White House motives – two factors which polarized Washington and paralyzed George W. Bush's second term. While much writing about intelligence and the Iraq war is long on sweeping allegations and conspiracy theories, and short on either evidence or substance, Seliktar, a political science professor at Gratz College and Temple University, breaks the mold with a serious academic study.
The Politics of Intelligence is rich in detail. To understand the context of Bush administration decisions, Seliktar examines how, over the years, specialists have explained the Arab world. First, many embraced modernization theory, but when Arab states failed to modernize as did many states in East Asia, for example, many academics turned toward dependency theory, which blamed much of the region's failures on how rich countries drained the regional states of their resources and on the unfairness of the international system. In the 1970s, Edward Said's theories of Orientalism gained prominence. Their proponents soon came to dominate both Middle East studies and Arab area specialists inside the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence communities.
Seliktar sets out to show how each theory affected U.S. policymaking toward Iraq and radical Islam. She guides readers through the twists and turns of U.S. policy toward Iraq from the days of the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran, through the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and the dual containment of the Clinton years, to the Bush administration's decision to remove Saddam. Importantly, she moves beyond the inside account about which diplomat or National Security Council staffer advocated what policy during which debate and overlays such debates on evolving intelligence policy—certainly a contribution to the existing literature.
For example, she weaves policy debates over discussion of how President Jimmy Carter's CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner weakened the agency's operational capacity, and she also discusses how the primacy of lawyers in the CIA after the Iran-Contra affair led to new restrictions on covert action. Progressive radicals seized on the end of the Cold War to dismantle or defang the CIA. At a time when radical Islamism was coalescing into a terrorist threat, Jessica Mathews, now head of the Carnegie Endowment, advocated that the CIA focus on countering the environmental delegation and promoting a more equitable distribution of resources. President Bill Clinton had little interest in his first director James Woolsey's warnings about Islamist extremism even after the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Woolsey's successor John Deutch did little to improve the agency and, Seliktar argues, much to paralyze its espionage capability. Throughout all this time, the Directorate of Intelligence grew bloated and lazy. Stove-piping, or presenting raw intelligence without proper context, within the directorate prevented area experts from identifying the true breadth of trans-regional phenomena such as radical Islamism or Al-Qaeda terrorism.
The 9/11 attacks showed the failure of both Middle East academic specialists and the intelligence community. Both had embraced theories that de-emphasized the Islamist threat. Months before the World Trade Center attacks, for example, Paul Pillar, chief CIA Near East affairs analyst, dismissed the threat of radical Islam. Seliktar argues that the "liberal internationalism" of the Clinton years had "failed the reality test," especially when confronted by the "unholy trinity" of terrorism, weapons proliferation, and Iraqi defiance. This created an opening for neoconservative thought that, since the 1970s, had engaged in a scholarly battle against the predominance of both Saidian thought and Stephen M. Walt's sterile realism. The temporary neoconservative ascendancy helped shape both President Bush's concern over Islamism and proliferation as well as his decision to seek a democratic alternative in Iraq after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
Seliktar is careful and dispassionate in her treatment of the Iraq war and its aftermath. She describes the policy and intelligence debates with greater detail and accuracy than more popular writers such as New Yorker correspondent George Packer, who tended to suborn research to too much reliance on blogs and so produced a narrative both tendentious and riddled with factual error. Seliktar is not kind to the Bush administration or neoconservative policymakers within it: She simply puts their failures in the context of others' failures and ends with a discussion of the difficulties of democratization, the realization of which may be the latter Bush administration's chief legacy.
Politics of Intelligence is a masterful account that, because of its steep price, likely will never reach the audience it deserves.
Related Topics: Iraq, US policy | Michael Rubin | Summer 2010 MEQ
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