Wednesday, January 25, 2006

America's Secret War (book review)

One of the problems with maintaining a political blog is that it’s far too easy to rely on other blogs for information and inspiration.  After immersing myself in a variety of other blogs both left and right for much of the last two years, I’ve come to the hardly unique conclusion that for the most part political blogs are basically talking points.  Talking points range in quality.  The best ones can even be very informative, but they tend to be too narrowly conceived and encourage a simplistic view of most any issue.  Ninety five percent of the time, someone is absolutely right or completely wrong in the opinion of any notable political blog.  Even when you purposely readblogs from both sides on a single issue, there’s no broader vision.  In particular, you quickly lose sight of how complex most issues really are.  This came home to me most recently after listening to George Friedman’s America’s Secret War on tape. , a book which forced me to look at my favorite source of diatribes, the Iraq War, both in broader and fresher terms than any blog had.  

Friedman, a longtime political science professor, runs a private intelligence firm called Stratfor  that sells its assessments of geopolitical trends to companies interested in doing business internationally.  America’s Secret War is Friedman’s attempt to make like a latter day Clausewitz and analyze our war in Iraq and against Al Qaeda from a non-partisan perspective.  Friedman criticizes both parties.  He insists that the Clinton administration under responded to the emergence of Al Qaeda because it made its domestic agenda the priority.  The first Bush administration, he says too often saw the world in cold war terms.  He also clearly criticizes the current Bush Administration for underestimating the Iraqi insurgency, lying about the real nature and purpose of the  war, failing to capture Bin Laden at Tora Bora, backing Chalabi, the Iranian agent,  and for devoting insufficient resources to the task.  He even ends the original edition of the book, published before the 2004 election, with a warning about the fact that America’s elite is sending other people’s children to fight the war.  

Friedman does an excellent job of presenting the context for the war against terror.  He makes two particularly compelling arguments.  First, he reminds us that Al Qaeda  had already defeated one superpower, the USSR, in Afghanistan and played a role in the demise of the Soviet Union.  He argues that this experience was the crucible for the development of a very tough, well trained, and tactically sophisticated leadership corps.  He argues that the US went from erstwhile ally in Afghanistan to sworn enemy during the first Gulf War when American troops are placed in Saudi Arabia itself, anathema to a group that saw itself as defenders of the Moslem world.  He then does an excellent job of detailing the intricate level of planning and execution that went into the 9/11 attacks.  

Friedman also does an excellent job of showing how Moslems in the 80’s and 90’s were led to believe that US Military power was both in decline and even soft across four administrations.  Along with this he also unsparingly critiques the failures of American intelligence in the Middle East over that period from the much discussed decline in the use of human intelligence assets to the lack of coordination and clear common mission between agencies.  

I believe Friedman is weakest in laying out the US response and in trying to argue that US policy over the last four years has been equally nuanced and rational.  One serious problem throughout the book is that Friedman doesn’t use any clear documentary sources.  While he is clearly an authority on the geopolitical and military history of American Middle Eastern policy, there are no footnotes and few references to other accounts of the time.  Friedman expects us to assume that Stratfor simply out CIAs the CIA and we are thus expected to simply act like we are being briefed.

  1. He argues that because of various institutional intelligence shortcomings, the sheer volume of facts about 9/11 might have been available before the actual attack, but American intelligence had no way to put it all together because the system emphasized information gathering over analysis.  This, of course, has been a source of serious criticism of the Bush administration.  A number of people have pointed to any number of smoking guns, particularly the August 6, 2001 daily presidential briefing, FBI reports that possible terrorists were enrolling in flight schools, etc.  Friedman doesn’t deal with any of these oft-cited examples specifically.  Instead, he asserts that no one could have “known” because no one was putting it all together and “analyzing” the information.  

I have not looked at all the evidence, but I have looked at the text of the August 6 briefing.  First, it ‘s clear to me that someone at CIA was trying to put something together in that briefing.  Second, Friedman is being awfully dismissive of much of the actual information that was out there.  It wasn’t just parts of a jigsaw puzzle.  I know that looking back can be misleading, but I would argue that many of the clues were clear enough to act on.  

  1. A big part of Friedman’s analysis is that the US strategy in Iraq really is about Al Qaeda.  The “Secret War” is that the US’s real reason for the invasion was not about Saddam, but a nuanced and rational strategy to neutralize both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which though nominal US allies were really major sources of support for Al Qaeda.  In essence, the US’s presence in Iraq has forced Saudi and Pakistani intelligence to clearly take on Al Qaeda.  Friedman goes on to argue that the strategy has been ultimately successful.

There is a surprising amount that fits Friedman’s theory, particularly when it comes to looking at some of the odder rhetoric of the Bush administration like the President’s declaration that “Osama simply wasn’t that important.”  (which he recently contradicted) and the frequent repeated insistence that the invasion of Iraq was about addressing the problem of international terrorism.

Friedman’s secret strategy view of US policy has a certain post hoc propter hoc appeal in that it makes American policy in the region appear well conceived.  It does, however, fly in the face of both Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward’s insider descriptions of the runup to war.  Either W and his cabinet weren’t privy to this secret strategy and real American foreign policy has been carried out by some shadow government (I suppose that’s a distinct possibility) or the administration seriously went through the motions even privately of convincing itself that its stated reasons for the invasion of  Iraq were both legitimate and primary reasons for going to war with Iraq in favor of directly hunting down Osama.

Friedman’s description of the international chess game is both fascinating and tempting.  He argues that the US lacked the manpower and intelligence assets to dismantle Al Qaeda directly particularly with an ambivalent Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.  He points out that the US could not afford to go to war with either ally and that the next best thing was to exert the pressure of “making hem choose” a side against Al Qaeda by triangulating to Iraq.  By invading, the US has the advantage of stationing troops on Saudi Arabia’s border and forcing both countries to cooperate in the war against Al Qaeda.  In particular, both countries have the human intelligence assets and contacts that the US lacks to get the job done.  

  1. Friedman argues in his 11th chapter, written after the publication of the first edition, that despite a number of tactical mistakes, the US is likely to win its struggle with Al Qaeda.  While conventional wisdom is that the Bush administration is politically shrewd but utterly uninformed in terms of broader tactics and international strategy, Friedman makes the reverse argument.  He insists that the Bush administration has been dangerously incompetent.  In fact, he identifies at least two points where the US was poised to finish the task of pacifying Iraq only to fonder in major intelligence failures about the likelihood of the insurgency and Shiite resistance.  At the same time, he ascribes a sophisticated and sound overall strategy to the administration’s Middle Eastern adventure.  

Friedman gets there by positing two goals that are outside most public discussion of the war on terror.  First, he claims that Al Qaeda’s real goal has been to foment Islamic revolution in Islamic countries.  In fairness, he was writing before the most current developments in Iran and Palestine.  He argues that over the last three years, the Taliban has lost control of Afghanistan and is now further rather than closer from setting the streets of Mecca and Karachi afire with unrest and pressure for Fundamentalist governments that are openly hostile to the west.  This may well be correct, but I neglects the more common view of why the US needs to stop Al Qaeda.  First, to most Americans, it is important to catch Bin Laden himself.  Second the stronger immediate American interest is to reduce the likelihood of Al Qaeda terrorism.  Friedman does claim that since the Spanish train bombing, terrorist efforts to disrupt Iraq have been progressively less effective, but he wrote before the London bombings and the 2005 resurgence of terrorist jihadist attacks in Iraq itself.  I’m not sure I’m convinced that Al Qaeda’s capacity to carry out terrorist activity has been significantly curtailed.  I’m not even sure Friedman is convinced of that.  I’d be interested in what he does have to say about the most recent Bin Laden tape.

Second, Friedman makes the very provocative claim that the US isn’t necessarily expecting to win quickly in Iraq and withdraw.  He doesn’t quite say it, but implies quite ominously that the US’s real goal is to maintain its military presence in the Middle East to keep Saudi Arabia, among other nations, on the right side of the street.  I do understand this as a tactical goal, but it raises the principal weakness in Friedman’s approach.

The limitation of Clausewitz is that despite his famous statement that War is Diplomacy by other means, there was always a difference between what was good in military or strategic terms for Napoleon’s armies and what was good for the French Republic.  The limitation of Friedman is that he seems to completely understimate the political dimension in his analysis.  It does, for instance, matter that the US has committed itself to a major foreign policy initiative without revealing its goals or priorities to the American people.  I think it does matter that citizen soldiers are told one reason for risking their lives for their country when the real motives are drastically different.  

Second, by his seeming approval of the “strategy”, he completely downplays the complete subversion of the American constitutional system to carry out that strategy.  Friedman is not totally tone deaf to this, he, for instance, recognizes the disaster Abu Ghraib created both strategically in terms of pacifying Iraq and politically.  He even makes a very strong point about the double bind the scandal presented.  If it was enlisted soldiers run amok, what did it say about the basic nature of American soldiers.  If it was really a function of policy, then the US would be admitting to a morally bankrupt systematic approach to interrogations.   Freidman hints that he believes it was the latter.

He, however, gets so caught up in the geo-political chess game, that he misses the political and moral consequences of the scandal.  The US is trying to defeat its enemy by taking on some of the worst character traits of what it claims to oppose.  Perhaps this is a valid way to take on and ultimately defeat Al Qaeda, but the cost of the victory may be to lose the republic itself.

In one interesting aside, Friedman compares the insurgencies thrust at Fallujah to the Tet Offensive.  He points out that Tet was a tactical disaster but a political master stroke for the Viet Cong.  Even though, they lost the battle and incurred heavy almost disastrous casualties, Tet changed the American public’s perception of the war and the potential cost of victory in Vietnam.  He goes on to argue that Fallujah did not achieve the political success of Tet and was still disastrous in military terms for the insurgency.  Later in the book, Friedman points out that the Moslem world may be underestimating both American soldiers and American will.  He perhaps accurately claims that the Moslem world sees America as too averse to heavy casualties to be militarily effective.  He makes the historical argument that American soldiers through the Battle of the Bulge have always had their real courage and resilience drastically underestimated by their opponents.  

I do not question the courage of American soldiers.  I do, however, question Friedman’s belief that the Iraqi version of TET is a done deal.  The last year of renewed and invigorated activity doesn’t bear that out.  I also believe that America is more than willing to pay the price in casualties for a just cause, but that national strength has been subverted in this particular war.  Our leaders lies about our real reasons for being in Iraq have become more transparent and more obvious to the American public.  As a result, the public’s will to sacrifice American lives for a “false” cause is weaker than it might have been had the public been trusted with the real objective.  Second, the elite who have brought us into the war has sent the clearest message it can about its own real commitment to the goals of this war.  They aren’t sending their own children.  

One possible consequence may be that the administration’s “shortcuts” in this effort, if Friedman’s view of the US’s wider strategy is accurate, may have ultimately weakened its capacity to carry out its objectives abroad and badly damaged the quality of our democracy at home.  Ultimately, what might be a positive security  climate for American business may not be what is good for America, the country.


At 1/26/2006 06:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post
Are you a news junkie ?

At 1/26/2006 10:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why send your own children when you can get children of the poor to do it for you? Why pay workers a robust wage (the moral thing to do) when you can get cheap labor from the yet more desperate?

If Friedman's group was so smart, why didn't they warn us about a 9/11?

Thanks, cl, for a thought-provoking review.

At 1/26/2006 10:18:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks mr. nonymous.

At 1/27/2006 03:38:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
interesting point there about Stratfor and 9/11.
In any case, I do think there's a lot of information in Friedman's book that's worth a look. I didn't mention in the review, he does identify a pattern of the US first underestimating opponents then wildly overestimating them e.g. not taking Al Qaeda seriously as a domestic threat then post 9/11 obsessing over the possibility that Al Qaeda had/has nuclear capacity despite the dearth of evidence of such.

At 1/29/2006 03:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grover Norquist says that they'll capture the Big Ones before the 2006 election: "We'll bring in al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Ladin."
[in A.L.Bardach article on Mehlman on Huff Post]

The October Surprise no doubt.

Presumably Stratfor knows about this.

At 1/30/2006 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Stratfor has a web page, but it's a pay site. It's like 200/year.


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