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Departed US Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet tried to ascertain whether available intelligence justified a war, I observed last week. The late president Ronald Reagan’s CIA chief, Bill Casey, knew that if you want intelligence, first you start a war.
If you ask the wrong question, you will get the wrong answer. Reagan’s people had the courage to ask the right question to begin with, namely whether the Soviet system could keep pace with America’s drive for strategic superiority. The diplomatic and academic establishment asked the wrong question, that is, how detente might be perpetuated with a seemingly eternal Russian empire. Was communism merely a somewhat obstreperous partner, or an enemy to be defeated?
Every US intelligence assessment of Soviet military strength and morale available in 1981 was dead wrong. Washington learned better by putting Moscow under stress. How adaptable was Russian weapons technology? Start a high-tech arms race with the Strategic Defense Initiative and find out. How good were Russian avionics? Help the Israeli air force engage Syria’s MiGs in the Bekaa Valley in 1982, and the destruction with impunity of Russian-built fighters and surface-to-air missile sites would provide a data point. How solid was Russian fighting morale? Instigate irregular warfare against the Russian army in Afghanistan and learn.
The United States lacks the aptitude and inclination to penetrate the mind of adversary cultures (Why America is losing the intelligence war, November 11, 2003). In the so-called war on terror, it lacks the floating population of irredentist emigres who provided a window into Russian-occupied Eastern Europe back during the Cold War. But the best sort of intelligence stems not from scholarship but from decisiveness of command and clarity of mission. “War is not an intellectual activity but a brutally physical one,” observes Sir John Keegan in Intelligence and War, published last year. President George W. Bush might do well to read it carefully before choosing the next CIA director.
It was not the intellectuals but the bullyboys of the Reagan administration who shook loose the relevant intelligence. In 1981 the CIA enjoyed a surfeit of Russian speakers, in contrast to today’s paucity of Arabic translators. But William Casey routinely ignored the legions of Russian-studies PhDs, reaching out instead to irregulars who could give him the insights he required.
Intelligence in warfare presents a different sort of intellectual challenge than academics are trained to address. President Reagan, no intellectual in the conventional sense, nonetheless formed a clear assessment of what the enemy was, what it wanted, and how it might be defeated. Without the courage to define and then engage the enemy, intelligence services will wander randomly in the dark.
If in 1981 the enemy was the “evil empire” of Soviet communism, who is the enemy of the West today? A number of Washington’s critics, for example Dr. Daniel Pipes, observe that it is senseless to speak of a “war on terrorism,” for terrorism is a tactic, a mere method to achieve a strategic goal. But what is the goal and who wishes to achieve it? Without defining the enemy, how can one define the mission?
Pipes and others propose instead to declare war upon “radical Islam,” a formulation that leads to just as much confusion. No one, least of all the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, can say with any clarity what distinguishes radical Islam from “moderate Islam.”
Western polemicists felt at home on the moral high ground against communism, along with president Reagan. But they are tongue-tied before radical Islam, fearing to offend a religion with more than a billion adherents. Inadvertently they give credibility to the radicals. It is difficult to assess what proportion of today’s Muslims are “radicals”, because neither the world’s Muslims nor the West has a clear definition of what is radical and what is not. Vitriolic sermonizing is so commonplace under the eyes of “moderate” regimes, for example Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, that the label of “radical Islam” has worn thin.
In reality, the West sooner or later will have to draw a bright line between “radicals” and “moderates.” Under the circumstances there can be nothing in between. Islam’s encounter with the West leaves room for nothing but radical jihadists on the one hand, or radical reformers. Islam is expansionist by construction and political by its original design. It is a fact of history that jihad, by which I mean specifically the propagation of the faith by violence, is a mainstream tradition. Even communal prayer in Islam has at its center the alignment of the individual believer to jihad (Does Islam have a prayer?, May 18).
Identifying the enemy in 1981 was far easier than in 2004, and President Bush deserves a modicum of sympathy in the inevitable comparison to Ronald Reagan. By 1981 no communists still lived within the confines of the Soviet Empire, only careerists. The emperor had no clothes, such that when Reagan spoke of an evil empire and a warped idea destined for the ash can of history, the truth of his remarks resonated among the Soviet elite. By contrast the Islamic world is full of Muslims. It was much easier for Russians to separate national aspirations and Marxism than it is for Arabs to separate ethnic loyalty and Islam. That is less so for South Asians.
The problem actually is quite simple. To advocate jihad today is the hallmark of the radical Islamist, and it is there that the West must draw a line in the sand. But to repudiate jihad in turn implies radical revision of the religion’s mainstream, and that is the hallmark of the radical reformer.
Like other religions, Islam has reached a point in world history – or rather world history has caught up with Islam – such that it must undergo a fundamental change. By way of comparison, the Catholic Church accepts separation of church and state as well as religious tolerance, but it did so only after the likes of Count Camillo Benso Cavour in Italy stripped the papacy of temporal rule over anything but the square mile of the Vatican City.
Western leaders must not attack Islam; to take sides against any religion runs counter to the traditions of religious tolerance upon which the United States was founded. But they must denounce the use of force to propagate religion, and make it clear that they will match force with force. The enemy is not “terrorism”, but any form of violence, including conventional warfare, in the service of religious expansionism.
What does that mean in practice? First of all it changes the subject and shifts the battleground. The issue is not whether Middle Eastern governments will adopt democratic reforms – that is not within the power of the West to dictate – but whether Muslims will employ violence in the service of territorial irredentism in the Kashmir or Palestine. There simply is no more room for the jihadist dogma that Muslims may not abandon a square meter of the Dar al-Islam. Violence to reclaim lost territory is a characteristic of radical Islam and the hallmark of an enemy of the West. The first step should be to remove Yasser Arafat to exile in some inaccessible locale.
Further steps should be action – not protests – to protect Nigerians, Indonesians, or Sudanese against violent attempts to further the Islamic cause. Black Sudanese are the victims of genocide encouraged by the radical Islamic regime in Khartoum. Washington should send them not only food, but also weapons and Special Forces advisers. Stern warnings, backed if necessary by a reduction in foreign aid, should be delivered to US clients in the Middle East that jihadist rhetoric on the part of government newspapers and government-sponsored clerics simply will not be tolerated.
Enemy is radical Islam
In short, the West must give the Islamic world a clear choice as to who is with it, and who is against it – words that President Bush has used but with muddled meaning. That would change the character of the intelligence war utterly. It may be harder to define who is friend and foe today than it was in 1981, but by the same token, it will be far easier to tell friend from foe once the West carves its criteria in stone.
The bane of US intelligence in the Middle East from Somalia to Iraq has been its inability to know whom it can trust. Victory has many fathers, while defeat is an orphan, although sometimes attended by paternity suits. The unseemly public exchange of charges between the CIA and the Pentagon over Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi is the most flagrant example. The CIA has placed stories in the press claming that Chalabi is an Iranian provocateur, heatedly denied by Chalabi’s friends in the Pentagon civilian establishment. This removes all doubt that America’s intelligence effort is an orphan. The only question is, whose?
It would be convenient if US universities trained prospective spies in Middle Eastern and South Asian language skills and culture. But the United States can obtain all the spies it wants with all required skills: it simply has to persuade Muslims to join its cause. Once the US determined to win the Cold War, enough Russians and Eastern Europeans switched sides to give the US the winning hand. Existential despair is the result of the West’s tragic encounter with the Islamic world, but it can cut two ways; it has produced suicide bombers, but it also can produce radical reformers who repudiate their own culture in favor of the West.
If Washington were to make repudiation of jihad a condition for friendship with the United States, the demand would have unpredictable and destabilizing consequences for the Islamic world. Just as the race of Sovietologists viewed Reagan’s determination to destabilize the Soviet Empire with horror, the whole profession of Mideast studies would rear up in horror against such a stance. But wars are won by ignoring the fat and complacent commanders of garrison troops, and forcing the burden of uncertainty on to the other side (Ronald Reagan’s creative destruction, June 8). Decisive intelligence stems from destabilization of the opposing side, through defections and similar events.
Bush might as well shut down the CIA and re-create something like the wartime Office of Strategic Services, for which Casey parachuted agents into occupied Europe. Most of the CIA amounts to a make-work project for second-rate academics, drawn from an academic environment generally hostile to US strategic interests. Even if US universities still produced strategic thinkers rather than multicultural mush-heads, and even if the CIA could recruit them, little would change. In spite of the academics, Bill Casey won his intelligence war because the US convinced enough players on the other side that it would win. To win to its side the best men and women of the Islamic world, the United States must make clear what it wants from them.