Questioning the Iraq Intelligence Report
Robert Kagan has a withering critique of recent media reports based on leaks from a National Intelligence Estimation saying that the war in Iraq has created more terrorists. He observes that in both the NYT and WaPo stories, “there were no quotations from the NIE itself, so all we have are journalists’ characterizations of anonymous comments by government officials, whose motives and reliability we can’t judge, about intelligence assessments whose logic and argument, as well as factual basis, we have no way of knowing or gauging.”
That’s a fair point. Could it simply be selective reporting by non-experts based on the interpretation of selective leaks by those with an agenda? Possibly, given that the conclusions printed corresponded precisely with the prevailing wisdom in the Washington press corps.
[W]hat specifically does it mean to say that the Iraq war has worsened the “terrorism threat”? Presumably, the NIE’s authors would admit that this is speculation rather than a statement of fact, since the facts suggest otherwise. Before the Iraq war, the United States suffered a series of terrorist attacks: the bombing and destruction of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the Iraq war started, there have not been any successful terrorist attacks against the United States. That doesn’t mean the threat has diminished because of the Iraq war, but it does place the burden of proof on those who argue that it has increased.
Probably what the NIE’s authors mean is not that the Iraq war has increased the actual threat. According to the Times, the report is agnostic on whether another terrorist attack is more or less likely. Rather, its authors claim that the war has increased the number of potential terrorists. Unfortunately, neither The Post nor the Times provides any figures to support this. Does the NIE? Or are its authors simply assuming that because Muslims have been angered by the war, some percentage of them must be joining the ranks of terrorists?
That’s a reasonable enough assumption, frankly, and one that I’ve always taken for granted. Indeed, it may be impossible to put concrete numbers on the phenomenon. One suspects it would be difficult to conduct reliable survey research on terrorist cells to determine a rank ordering of their reasons for joining.
Such an assessment would also require some estimate of what the terrorist threat would look like today if the war had not happened. For instance, did the authors of the NIE calculate the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the recruitment of terrorists or the effect of the bombings in Madrid and London? It is certainly possible that these events produced an increase in would-be terrorists by showing the possibility of sensational success. So if there is an overall increase, how much of it was the result of Iraq or the Danish cartoons or other perceived Western offenses against Islam, and how much of it is a continuing response to al-Qaeda’s own terrorist successes before, on and after Sept. 11?
Also unknowable, I’d think, for similar reasons. Still, intuitively, Kagan is on much more solid ground here. I have little doubt that the prospect of joining a longstanding effort against the infidel invaders in Iraq would be exciting to many angry young Muslims. At the same time, it’s not as if anger is a new conditions for youth in said communities. Indeed, as has been pointed out by many people many times, there were plenty of attacks by Islamist terrorists against the United States before the March 2003 launch of this war.
Finally, a serious evaluation of the effect of the Iraq war would have to address the Bush administration’s argument that it is better to fight terrorist recruits in Iraq than in the United States. This may or may not be true, although again the administration would seem to have the stronger claim at the moment. But a serious study would have to measure the numbers of terrorists engaged in Iraq, and the numbers who may have been killed in Iraq, against any increase in the numbers of active terrorists outside Iraq as a result of the war. Did the NIE make such a calculation?
What is the Delta? Again, probably unknowable–although one would think the NIE would contain a decent SWAG.
There is, in addition to all this, a question of context. What should we do if we believe certain actions might inspire some people to become potential terrorists? Should we always refrain from taking those actions, or are there cases in which we may want to act anyway? We have pretty good reason to believe, for instance, that the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the continuing presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the war, was a big factor in the evolution of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We are pretty sure that American support of the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviet occupation forces in the late 1970s and early ’80s also contributed to the growth of Islamic terrorism.
Knowing this, would we now say that we made a mistake in each of those cases? Would an NIE argue that we would be safer today if we had not helped drive the Soviets from Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein from Kuwait? The argument in both cases would be at least as sound as the argument about the most recent Iraq war.
In fact, the question of what actions make us safer cannot be answered simply by counting the number of new terrorist recruits those actions may inspire, even if we could make such a count with any confidence. I would worry about an American foreign policy driven only by fear of how our actions might inspire anger, radicalism and violence in others. As in the past, that should be only one calculation in our judgment of what does and does not make us, and the world, safer.
Now, contra Kagan, I would argue that the burden of proof is on proponents of the war in Iraq rather than its critics. After all, Not-War was the status quo. But in any calculus, vague assertions about the debits are worthless without consideration of the credits.
Like Kevin Drum, I’d like to see the release of the report, with whatever redactions are necessary to protect sources and methods. Indeed, there are reports that the president has authorized the release of at least the report’s conclusions. That’s a good thing. Given the domestic turmoil over the war, the more information we have, the better.
Interestingly, Spook66 somehow has his owned leaked copy of the document and he presents his own selective quotes that would seem to counterbalance much of what was in the NYT and WaPo stories.