Making Policy Backwards

Following the resignation of George Tenet as Director of the CIA, questions were asked regarding the state of U.S. intelligence about the Arab world and what could be done to correct the errors of the recent past.

While it is important to recognize that much can be done to improve U.S. understanding of and intelligence gathering about the region, it should be noted that the fundamental problems that have contributed to U.S. policy failures and errors occur on a different level. It is not that the U.S. receives bad or even inadequate intelligence information. It is that bad U.S. policy and the constraints imposed by U.S. politics act as a filter which too often screens out good intelligence.

In fact, there are today a number of gifted specialists working in the many agencies of the U.S. government gathering information about the Arab World to feed back to policymakers in Washington. Dedicated and capable career diplomats, military officers and other public servants serving throughout the Middle East understand not only the politics and culture of the region, they also know what is wrong with the way the U.S. has dealt with Arab realities and concerns. To their frustration and to the detriment of both U.S. interests and the interests of the people of the region itself, the intelligence provided by these individuals does not play a decisive role in determining policy.

As we have seen for many years in the Arab-Israeli conflict and as we are now learning about what occurred in the lead up to the war with Iraq, the U.S. process works backwards. Instead of objective intelligence assessments shaping policy, with politics then being utilized to mobilize public support for needed action, all too often, U.S. policy on key Middle East issues is shaped by politics. Political leaders dismiss intelligence that contradicts their chosen path and seek out intelligence that will conform to their needs.

Such a flawed process is inherently susceptible to several dangers:

1. Because political ideologues need information that will validate their predetermined views, they become dependant on like-minded sources and compliant subordinates who provide reinforcement. As a result, the system becomes insulated from alternative views and works to maintain its insulation. Functionaries learn not to tell the "boss" what he doesn’t want to hear. And what he wants to hear becomes a "slam dunk."

2. Because of our power and our ability to exercise influence affecting the destiny of nations, we, too often, confuse fawning and deference with agreement. In addition, as we have just seen, pro-Western sycophants or those with their own agendas who know how to play us are given undue influence.

3. When reality rears its head, those with a stake in maintaining ongoing policy initiatives become more defensive and more determined to shut out opposing views. Thus, over the years, as tensions have heightened and the gap has grown wider between the U.S. and the Arab world, instead of our policy process opening itself up to new information, it has reacted by ridiculing or ostracizing those who challenge fundamental tenants that maintain the status quo.

4. Since politics drives this process and politics is based on perception, not reality, problems, which are themselves evidence that a policy may not be working, have been allowed to fester and deteriorate without resolution or a change in course. The process is not concerned with real solutions, just the appearance of solutions- or at least situations that can be explained away. In this way, despite continued deep problems, we are able to maintain that Afghanistan is a victory ("little grils are going to school"), Iraq is on the path to democracy (but for a few "thugs" and "outsiders"), and Palestinians will have their state (as soon as they reform).

This state of affairs continues as long as the problem in question does not spin wildly out of control – and thus not be able to be explained away. When and if it does, the first inclination of those who have a vested interest in maintaining the current policy, is to find a way to deflect blame to some external factor – never to the policy itself. For them, the problem in Iraq is not the failure of the policy or the mistaken ideology that projected a "quick win," "sweets and flowers," and then the "spread of democracy" thereby requiring only a limited number of U.S. troops and little post-war contingency planning. The fault instead lies with "dead-enders," "thugs," and "outsiders."

In the case of Israel, the fault is not the policy of the occupation authorities and U.S. support for their misdeeds, it is that the "Palestinians reject peace."

In the upside down world created by such a process, there is no internal self-correcting mechanism. The emperor has no clothes, and no one close enough to tell him, will do so.

We admit no failure. If a failed policy is sustained by political forces powerful enough to impose their will on the system, then its adherents will go through all kinds of contortions and use all kinds of pressure to justify it – even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Why is there widespread anti American anger in the Arab World? Those with a stake in maintaining existing policy refuse to engage in self-criticism. The fault, they insist, must be elsewhere. And so they maintain that Arabs are only angry at us because they are being taught to hate us and their regimes use that hatred to deflect from their own inadequacies.

It is this perspective that has given birth to both this Administration’s "Broader Middle East Initiative" and what is called "public diplomacy." While reform in the Arab World is, in fact, needed and its need should not be understated, the way current U.S. thinking presents that need is not as a desirable end in itself – but as an alternative to any change in U.S. policy – as in, "we do not have to change or press Israel to change, it is the Arabs who have to change," and when they do, they won’t be angry at us anymore.

In this context listen to the conclusion of a recent major foreign policy speech given by President George W. Bush at the U.S. Army War College: "We believe that when all Middle Eastern peoples are finally allowed to live and think and work and worship as free men and women, they will reclaim the greatness of their heritage. And when that day comes, the bitterness and burning hatreds that feed terrorism will fade and die away. America and all the world will be safer when hope has returned to the Middle East."

Unfortunately much the same is true about the way the U.S. has currently framed the discussion about public diplomacy. In fact, while "public diplomacy" is presented as a way of convincing the Arabs of America’s values – its real target is self-justification. "We are not doing anything wrong – Arabs just don’t understand us."

Despite the system’s desire to insulate itself, the failures of the past few years have not gone unnoticed, and may have created sufficient enough stress and discomfort to generate both debate and pressure for change.

It is not only the Arab World, but much of Europe that has become dissatisfied with American Middle East Policy. The failures in Iraq, the unfinished business in Afghanistan, and the tragic consequences of misguided policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict have caused a broad cross-section of Americans, including influential opinion-makers, to ask serious questions and call for a change in direction.

And even though hard-line pro-Israel advocates push for more of the same old failed policies, increasingly, even many pro-Israel American Jews are also raising their voices in opposition.

Already, for example, the Bush Administration has been forced to become more flexible and less ideological its approach to Iraq. They have demonstrated an uncharacteristic penchant for compromise in Iraq and in the U.N. Seasoned hands at the State Department may be in a position to reverse the damage done in the Middle East by the ideological neo-conservatives.

This struggle to correct errors and change course has just begun. A positive outcome is far from guaranteed. But if policy makers continue to be pressed to listen to voices both from the Middle East and honest and dedicated intelligence gatherers working in U.S. agencies, then there is hope that some much needed change may be possible.