Longtime viewers of the popular NBC television
show Saturday Night Live probably recall "Emily Litella" –
an elderly woman with hearing problems commenting on the news on the "Weekend
Update" segment, played by the late comedian Gilda Radner.
Litella would read an editorial addressing a public issue, only to be interrupted
in the middle of her report by the anchorman, who would point to her error.
"Oh, that's very different," she would humbly respond, adding, "Never
mind" and then turn to another topic.
But while Litella was humble enough to admit her mistake and smart enough to
change the subject, the proponents of a U.S. military confrontation with Iran
will not allow the release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's
nuclear weapons program to interrupt their march to World War III.
They refuse to accept the collective judgment of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies
that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in the autumn of 2003, and
challenge their conclusions by charging that the "anti-Bush" spooks
were trying to launch a "preemptive strike" against the White House
aimed at undermining plans for air attacks on Iranian nuclear sites.
One could imagine how the neoconservative pundits would be celebrating the
quality of the work of the American spy organizations and their professional
integrity if the NIE had concluded with "high confidence" that Iran
was actually very close to building a nuclear bomb.
That kind of NIE would have become a central weapon in the arsenal of military
hard-liners in their political and bureaucratic battles against those whom they
would label "appeasers" of Iran, who were proposing that notwithstanding
the intelligence indicating that Iran could soon have nukes, President Bush
should not rush into another unnecessary and costly war in the Middle East.
Moreover, if after a U.S. military operation against Iran, Americans were to
discover that the leaders in Tehran had indeed terminated their nuclear military
program in 2003, the neocons would place the responsibility for the fiasco on
the shoulders of the U.S. intelligence agencies, insisting that "virtually
every intelligence agency came up with the same assumption, that there would
be stockpiles of WMDs in Iran."
Supporters of what would have proven to be a senseless war with Iran would
then lament "second-guessing" and "defeatism." After all,
they would assert: "We made a decision based on the intelligence that was
available. Instead of whining, how about us doing a 'surge' of U.S. troops in
The lesson of the blunders of American spy agencies in Iraq is not that Americans
need quality intelligence before going to war. The fact is that even under the
optimal conditions, U.S. intelligence, or for that matter, any intelligence
service in the world, will never be "intelligent" enough – in the
sense of having complete and accurate information about all the threats facing
Bureaucratic inertia, political pressures, and just plain professional incompetence
and personal corruption are all part of the cloak-and-dagger business, which
is far from being an exact science. Intelligence should be utilized by political
leaders with skepticism – especially if and when they consider going to war
– and then only as part of a larger menu of information and ideas, coupled with
a sense of history, not to mention common sense.
The decision on U.S. policy toward the Shi'ite rulers in Tehran, not unlike
the approach Washington should have adopted toward the Ba'ath regime in Iraq,
should be based first and foremost on a clear consideration of America's national
interest as part of an open debate involving Congress and the general public.
Such a serious national debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East has not taken
place since the end of the Cold War.
Indeed, in order to decide whether Americans should be deploying troops in
the Middle East to fight a war against Iran, Americans need to ask themselves
and their leaders a simple question: Does Iran pose a major threat to their
core national interests?
Depending on the response to this and such related questions, good U.S. intelligence
could certainly provide the American people and their leaders with valuable
strategic assets if and when they decide to go to war. But intelligence – or
a lack thereof – should not become the default trigger of that war.
Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.