This may seem a bit quaint, perhaps even obsolete, but it used to be standard
procedure to require intelligence before deciding to make war. Unless you have
been asleep these past several months, you know that this sequence was reversed
in 2002 when the White House ordered intelligence "fixed" to justify
a prior decision for war on Iraq.
The question today is whether that war-decision-then-intelligence sequence
remains in effect as President Bush's advisers weigh whom to attack next. This
is hardly a frivolous question. As the president's poll numbers sink and the
embarrassment of Iraq rises, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld, and presidential adviser Karl Rove no doubt are trying to choose the
best way to enable Bush to polish his favorite image as "war president"
in order to stem Republican losses in the mid-term elections this November.
There are only two countries left in the "axis of evil." Which will
it be: Iran or North Korea?
Earlier this year Iran seemed to have top billing. It has long been next in
line as a target for the so-called "neoconservatives" running U.S.
policy toward the Middle East. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was
obliging with his provocative rhetoric against Israel, rhetoric that Bush was
quick to use to assure the world that the U.S. would spring to the defense of
our "ally" Israel. Why the quotes around "ally?" Simple:
The U.S. has no defense treaty with Israel. This almost always comes as a big
surprise to the audiences I address. Now I have come to expect it.
Few are aware that such a treaty was broached to Israel after the 1967 war.
But a treaty would have required clearly defined international borders, and
Israel would have no part of that. It turns out that the Israeli government
was correct in concluding it could have the best of both possible worlds. Who
needs a treaty when the president of the United States keeps referring to a
U.S. commitment to spring to your defense? Iran, beware: President Bush believes,
or would have Americans believe, that the American Gulliver is tightly bound
to Israel and its policies, including its dictum that an Iranian nuclear weapon,
or even Iranian knowledge regarding how to build one, is "unacceptable."
North Korea's "provocation" goes beyond rhetoric, as Pyongyang prepares
to break its moratorium, observed since 1998, on testing its long-range ballistic
missile. North Korea is now estimated to have enough plutonium for a handful
of nuclear warheads, which could be mounted on Taepodong missiles. Some say
a Taepodong might be able to reach Alaska, Hawaii, or even the West Coast.
Well, just let them try. It was precisely against this threat that the Pentagon
has invested $43 billion over the past five years, and 11 ground-based interceptors
are now based in Alaska and California. Bring 'em on.
Oops. They don't work? Who says? The Government Accounting Office, citing "quality
control procedures" that have not been rigorous enough. The GAO has even
considered sending the first nine interceptors back to Boeing for "disassembly
and remanufacture." According to the GAO, the Pentagon has yet to prove
that the full system works.
Former Defense Secretary Perry Has a Suggestion
Why not just launch a high-explosive cruise missile from a submarine to destroy
the Taepodong on its launch pad, ask William Perry and former Assistant Secretary
of Defense Ashton Carter in an op-ed in today's Washington Post. The two deserve
a hearing, having worked hard, with some success, under President Bill Clinton,
to prevent things from reaching the current impasse. Understandably, there is
a petulant "we-told-you-so" ring to their lament that continued "creative
diplomacy" might have avoided the need to choose between "continuing
inaction" and an act of war. Yet their remarkable recommendation shows
that testosterone is not unique to aging Republicans. What about Day 2? Perry
and Carter offer this: "We should sharply warn North Korea against further
Has everyone gone mad? Until now, serious people have not talked about a military
option against North Korea's strategic program because there is none. Do the
North Koreans no longer have chemical-laden artillery rounds with which they
could saturate Seoul? What kind of threat does test firing a Taepodong missile
pose to the U.S.? Really.
In the quaint past, the White House would order the intelligence community
to do a serious estimate on this kind of issue. For the longest time, former
CIA director George Tenet shied away out of fear from crossing swords with Rumsfeld.
For years, Tenet avoided commissioning a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)
on the status of nuclear production facilities in North Korea because it was
a matter of such controversy with the Pentagon.
A Role for Intelligence?
After the debacle on Iraq, the disarray in which the intelligence community
finds itself, and the steadily increasing preeminence of the Pentagon, it is
– sad to say – illusory to expect much in the way of thoughtful,
objective analysis from the CIA and its sister agencies. How much of a threat
does Iran or North Korea pose to the U.S.? Are there any analysts left with
the courage to say virtually zero? Not if the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal continues
to hold sway.
Even more important, under previous presidents it used to be standard practice
that the White House, before launching acts of war, would order the intelligence
community to prepare a formal estimate regarding what was likely to happen on
the morning after. During the Vietnam War, we produced several NIEs bearing
titles like "Expected Communist Reaction to a U.S. Bombing Campaign Against
North Vietnam." They were prepared with the utmost seriousness and served
up without fear or favor.
Blue-suited generals fascinated by air power and senior officials under their
spell were extremely unhappy with us when we insisted, for example, that bombing
the North would not make Hanoi give up. There were bitter controversies, but
we called it the way we saw it and were regularly given the back of the White
House's hand. True, there were occasions when CIA directors, like the more recent
George Tenet, "traded integrity for access" (as former CIA weapons
inspector David Kay describes the syndrome), but those were the exception to
Is it likely that intelligence on Iran and North Korea will be "fixed"
around White House policy à la Iraq? Impossible to tell.
A Role for War Games?
Where then to go for sensible analysis and judgments on the viability of armed
attack options vis-à-vis Iran and North Korea? Would you believe the
Atlantic Monthly? There you will find detailed accounts of war games with very
senior, experienced professionals, orchestrated by National Defense University
professor emeritus and war game-guru, Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner (retired).
The January 2004 issue addressed a possible U.S. attack on Iran, and the July/August
2005 edition recounted a similar exercise regarding North Korea, in which I
was privileged to participate. Participants ran from right-wing ideologues like
"Cakewalk" Ken Adelman, to centrist professionals like David Kay,
to progressive Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews (who worked in the
Clinton administration). The bottom-line consensus? There is no viable military
option vis-à-vis either Iran or North Korea.
At the end of the war game on North Korea, I expressed wonderment at the refusal
of the Bush administration to use the diplomatic measures at its disposal –
like the ones employed by Perry and Carter. Why not talk one-on-one with the
North Koreans? This and similar suggestions by former Ambassador Robert Gallucci
and Jessica Mathews were dismissed as "appeasement" by Air Force Lt.
Gen. Thomas McInerney (retired), who, before the attack on Iraq, had adorned
the Wall Street Journal op-ed page with a panegyric for "Shock and Awe."
My best guess is that the McInerneys and Adelmans, together with Cheney,
Rumsfeld, and Rove, will continue to have the ear of the otherwise inattentive
president. And Rove may turn out to be the preeminent player in this, whether
Iran or North Korea is chosen as the U.S. target. For the synthetic urgency
attached to these threats is a creature of the November election. The president
will want to burnish his image as "war president" again, and the blue-uniformed
McInerneys and Adelmans of this world are likely to second the Cheney-Rumsfeld
cabal and persuade the president of the need for a September or October surprise.
Hold onto your hats.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing
arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He was an analyst
with the CIA for 27 years and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence
Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).