(by Adam Elkus)
Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:
Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.
The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.
Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed. The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.
Circa 2007-2009, however, large-scale occupations in the Muslim world began to go out of style. Critics began to clamor for a light footprint approach heavily based around counterterrorism strike forces and standoff firepower. A presidential candidate promised to hit al-Qaeda hard with flexible counterterrorism forces. Reduce the terrorist threat steadily growing in safe havens, he and his staff argued. The zeitgeist began to turn towards a culture of raiding, characterized by some of the very same assumptions about light and lethal forces that were so widely criticized prior to the counterinsurgency era. Manpower-intensive occupations were out, intensive counterterrorism in the dark was in. Instead of stabilizing failed states, America would use a combination of intelligence, special operations, and statecraft to marginalize and undermine al-Qaeda.
The age of “dirty war” became a lightning rod for criticism. But one of the most trenchant criticisms was that an obsession with tactical counterterrorism intelligence was harming America’s intelligence agencies’ traditional specialties in strategic intelligence and counterintelligence. The line between military and intelligence was being “blurred.” The larger cost? Focusing so much on short-term, tangible, and easily justifiable counterterrorism intel requirements blinded America to the larger picture that it needed to see. As a result, it would be perpetually surprised by events like the Arab Spring.
In light of today’s furor over spying on allies, it is worth examining how this line of argument cast the difference between strategic intelligence and strike intelligence as a military-industrial complex analog of the classic dichotomy between basic and applied scientific research. Basic scientific research is often difficulty to justify in the short term, and frequently does not result in immediate payoff. But none of today’s scientific discoveries would have been possible without it. Hence, as Pillar noted in his essay, in retrospect it is easy to see “failures of intelligence” in areas where ambiguity regarding the purpose of intelligence, targets, and immediate payoff motivated hesitation. Ironically, as Dan Trombly tweeted, most of the intelligence community’s “counterterrorism obsession” critics were silent (with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.
Returning to Pillar’s opening metaphor, it seems that the American defense and foreign policy community is suffering from a collective case of amnesia. A call for counterterrorism, light footprints, and intelligence leads to an intelligence architecture that supports a raiding posture, and is then promptly and widely criticized for focusing so intensely on counterterrorism. A call for counterinsurgency results in substantial investment in counterinsurgency abilities, and then is promptly and widely criticized for its time and expense.
My analysis is undeniably unfair in some ways. First, the aggregated commentary of the DC defense commetariat consensus as presented here smoothes out meaningful differences, nuances, caveats, and variations. It was not as simple as I make it out to be, but the consensus of a community is not easily described in a single paragraph. Second, each idea also produced data that was (fairly or unfairly) evaluated. Counterinsurgency theory looked very appealing to many analysts in 2006 but was pronounced dead by war-weary Americans in 2011. Compared to Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, drones and special ops seemed compelling . But as the wars drew down and more press attention focused on the ramped-up counterterrorism campaigns, analysts began to have substantial misgivings.
That said, the problem is that while the world certainly changes fast, it has not changed fast enough to justify the kind of analytical mood swings that have frequently occurred since the beginning of the COIN era. If one took the last 12 years of national security commentary as gospel, they would believe that some seismic, worldview-invalidating event occurred every 1-3 years and necessitated a wholesale rejection of the policy the previous worldview-invalidating event spawned. Events have complicated and qualified—but not wholly invalidated–the merits and demerits of COIN, special operations and counterterrorism, and strategic intelligence (which includes spying on allies). While all of the arguments I’ve summarized here contradict each other, I can’t say with confidence that any of them are completely wrong.
The problem with America’s defense amnesia is not “be careful what you wish for.” No one can know exactly how their policy preference will work out. It is not even “remember what you wish for.” Rather, the lesson is to keep in mind that however fast events may move, there are larger and systemic factors and tradeoffs that stimulate day-to-day policy problems. These systemic factors change very slowly, and remain fairly consistent across administrations. Why we cannot comfortably dismiss any of the varying defense memes I’ve cataloged is that each dealt with a segment of a larger problem.
Being conscious of the unchanging challenges of American national security, from the difficulties of maintaining local outposts of American hegemony to how America’s national position produces incentives for perpetual war, has important intellectual benefits. We can avoid calls for dramatic course correction over hysterias of the moment and keep the longer term in mind. And we gain an appreciation for what has changed and what remains the same. A wider view tells us that war is not more complex, the calculus of strategic intelligence is not simple, and there are costs to both counterinsurgency and standoff counterterrorism that must be evaluated.
Moreover, we gain a greater respect for the policymakers who must deal with underlying manifestations of deeper and systemic problems instead of behaving (as even I sometimes do) like we have cracked some secret code unavailable to the idiots in Washington. There is some truth behind the disdainful phrase “good enough for government work.” But if the national security and foreign policy problems that government tackles were as obvious or linear as today’s criticism often implies, would our policy demands oscillate as wildly as Pillar alleges? It seems that unless we start tattooing relevant names, events, and information on our bodies (like Pearce’s Memento character does to help him remember), we won’t remember enough to answer that question. Such is the life of an amnesiac.