Familiar Foreign Policies and Familiar Wars: Vietnam, Iraq … Before And After

By Gabriel Kolko

Special to Defense and the National Interest

June 4, 2006

Crises, imminent dangers, and threats to the nation’s security and vital interests have been intrinsic to American foreign policy since at least 1947. They have mobilized a reticent public and, even more important, a Congress that must perpetually approve huge sums to implement its military dimensions. In this context, reality has scant place and the images of perils are of the essence. Political leaders, indeed, themselves often come to believe illusions as facts fall to the wayside. Deliberate exaggerations, if not outright falsehoods, have been routine since President Harry S. Truman in March 1947 enunciated his classic Truman Doctrine. The only way he could convince a budget-minded Congress and indifferent public to accept his quite limited but costly program was to paint the crisis in Greece and Turkey in the most foreboding global terms. Congress and the American public are “not sufficiently aware,” as Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson put it, of the need to spend the money essential for what was seen as a protracted crisis encompassing all Europe and even much of the world. George Kennan, the key theoretician of containing Soviet power and whose doctrine had immense influence, objected to the Truman Doctrine’s strident tone and even Secretary of State George C. Marshall thought the president was overstating the case. Exaggeration and the threat of nefarious dangers became intrinsic to how Washington portrayed the world after 1947 and it continues until this day despite the disappearance of the Soviet bloc.1/ They make Congress produce funds that might otherwise not be available.

From 1947 onward, in the words of Willard C. Matthias, who was for many years in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Soviet estimates and retired in 1973 as a senior official, “there developed a four-decade-long debate between the civilian and military intelligence agencies over Soviet intentions.”2/ Massive arms spending was dependent on portraying the USSR’s goals in the most ominous ways possible, which meant emphasizing Soviet capabilities rather than intentions, and ignoring their inherently cautious, fatalist but passive Marxist view of change and the historical process. Liberalizing tendencies in the USSR were dismissed, the gravity of the Soviet-Chinese schism was grossly underestimated, and as Matthias states it, “after 1968, our rational and balanced approach to making judgments about the Soviets came under increasing attack.”3/ Needless to say, diplomatic exchanges with the Russians were frowned upon even at crucial moments of the Korean War, and negotiations were considered a last resort only.

The war in Vietnam, but also most other aspects of American foreign and military policy since 1946, must be assessed in this context. President Richard Nixon had a deep antipathy to the CIA, one that Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird shared, and he fired Richard Helms in 1973 as director of the CIA because he refused to allow the Agency to serve as a cover for the Watergate break-in. President Jimmy Carter’s chief aides regarded its estimates as a “nuisance,” not so much inaccurate as “irrelevant.”4/ Ronald Reagan appointed William Casey head of the CIA in 1981, and Casey—as one of his successors reports it—“argued, he fought, he yelled, he grumped…” with his analysts and only more roughly continued what was in fact a decades-old policy.5/ He pursued his own foreign policy agenda aggressively and maintained “Our estimating program has become a powerful instrument in forcing the pace in the policy area.”6/ No one, the CIA included, in 1989 had any foreboding whatsoever of the total collapse in the Soviet bloc, with its immense consequences.

Such a critical assessment of the role that objective intelligence played in the decision-making process is no longer the opinion of dissident historians but virtually the consensus of the memoirs that former intelligence officials have written. Notwithstanding many very able people in the CIA, and their access to a tremendous amount of information, since 1946 there has never been an objective, disinterested intelligence system that shaped policy. Preconceived ideas or interests determined how the world was portrayed, and the outcome was disastrous if only because action frequently bore scant relation to reality. Even more unforgivable from the government’s perspective, these illusions and misconceptions often produced grave failures.

The distortion of information for political objectives became worse with time but it preceded the Vietnam War by well over a decade and simply continues in our own day. The CIA, which often produced excellent analytic assessments, was taken seriously only insofar as its burgeoning action wing could implement foreign policies covertly. The Vietnam War evolved in this context and such erroneous and often-duplicitous estimates provided the setting of every crisis since then—Iraq included. It is crucial that we regard the intelligence and information process as inherently polluted, subject to political whims. The problem has never been knowledge but policy.

The American government had capable people working on Vietnam and they knew a very great deal about that nation. George W. Allen joined the Pentagon's intelligence service in 1949 and immediately became involved with the French effort to retain their Indochina colonies; his memoir is required reading on the entire Vietnam experience. In 1963, scandalized by the American military's myopia and mores, he moved to the CIA and soon became its leading Vietnam analyst. He met innumerable decision-makers in this capacity. When he retired from the CIA in 1979 he worked for them on contract for the next 15 years and it cleared his book. In it he confirms how frequently crucial decisions were based on illusions and falsehoods.

Allen recounts how Eisenhower and Dulles strongly opposed France following what the Americans were then doing in Korea—signing a cease-fire agreement and making a settlement with their enemies after being stalemated on the field on battle. They wanted the French to fight harder and longer, which France refused to do. The U.S. opposed the Geneva Accords and "basing their views on a set of assumptions that we believed were entirely unrealistic," it assumed the foredoomed French mission in Indochina.7/ The Eisenhower Administration prevented the Geneva Accords' conditions on reunification elections from being implemented and violated its military provisions. The history of the rest of the decade is well known, but every step of the way CIA analysts accurately predicted what would go wrong.

The so-called Tonkin Gulf crisis of August 1964 "astonished" Allen because he was aware that covert Saigon and American missions were taking place in the gulf and that the North Vietnamese would investigate them. At first he thought that a branch of the American military did not know what another section was up to, "but I did not realize how eagerly the administration was seeking a pretext for a major escalation" in the hope of shoring up the Saigon regime. The same was true of the Pleiku incidents of early 1965, which became an excuse for "a retaliation waiting for something to happen; the Pleiku attacks were a convenient trigger for intended escalation." It was a justification for permanently bombing North Vietnam.8/

Robert L. Sansom and Jeffrey Race both studied the land and peasant question in Vietnam for the American government and published insightful books well before the war ended. Both asserted that land reform was a key precondition of a successful anti-Communist political mobilization in the South, and both were ignored. Race describes how Washington's "policy was founded on and protected by deception and outrageous lies," and how a general told him that to identify America's errors in Vietnam was off bounds and the Pentagon "cannot permit such subjects to be discussed." That there were structural reasons for peasant support of the Communists "simply couldn't get through" to the men at the top.9/ There were also articulate skeptics within the Pentagon who thought the war was futile, and its Systems Analysis Office published a very informative report every six weeks or so; the Joint Chiefs of Staff several times sought to close down or restrict it. Many critics of the war worked at the Rand Corporation, and Rand employees leaked The Pentagon Papers. There was, in short, plenty of accurate information available—for those who wanted to read and use it. It simply made no difference because the vast gap between reality and policy was irreconcilable.

In 1998 the CIA released Harold P. Ford’s account of 1962-68, which complements and corroborates Allen's memoir.10/ Ford makes it perfectly clear that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's later complaint that there were no "Vietnam experts" to whom he could turn is simply false. He refused to heed their advice whenever they warned against the series of disasters which Allen and others describe. Among the many failures were the American inability to understand Communist military doctrine or estimate their numbers accurately—the "order-of-battle" which became a contention between the CIA and Pentagon. In addition, the Johnson Administration unconditionally supported the venal and corrupt Nguyen Van Thieu becoming a virtual dictator and ending the chronic political instability that followed the American-endorsed assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. The level of corruption that permeated Thieu's entire system, from the state to the army, was well known and tolerated in Washington; Allen provides additional details. And all Washington administrations trained and equipped the Saigon army to fight conventional war according to official American doctrine. It was, of course, mainly a guerrilla war.

The myths of progress in the war were conscious falsehoods intended to manipulate public opinion and justify the futile endeavor. When Allen and other CIA analysts objected they were told to conform. In numerous instances American officials consciously issued erroneous data, such as the hamlet evaluation statistics. At no time was truth given a higher priority than political convenience or the lies both the politicians and generals propounded. The military intelligence and CIA were constantly struggling with each other for analytic domination, and the CIA lost most of these bureaucratic turf wars. And while some politicians, military, and CIA action people—those whose hawkish policies were already predetermined—deluded themselves and undoubtedly really believed these fairy tales, most knew that their careers depended on being optimists.

The most serious consequence of these deceptions was the so-called order-of-battle controversy before the Tet Offensive in February 1968. The lower the numbers the more progress the American military could claim, and so they refused to count the various local forcesroughly 300,000 men disappeared because admitting their existence, General Creighton Abrams argued in August 1967, would produce a "gloomy” conclusion.11/

The CIA objected to a point but eventually had to accept the distortions; both Allen and Ford are very detailed on this particular controversy. Ultimately, General William Westmoreland unsuccessfully sued CBS for allowing a leading CIA specialist on the order-of-battle to expound his views. But the Communists during the Tet Offensive had far larger military forces than most American officials believed and their stunning attacks changed American politicians' and, even more ominous, public perceptions of reality. The Tet defeat, Allen insists, was much greater because of the "overblown psychological campaign in the fall of 1967," which was also essential for Lyndon Johnson's reelection ambitions.12/ The falsified data, in the end, was believed by those seeking initially to manipulate public opinion, and the Tet defeat was the beginning of the end for the protracted American effort to win the Vietnam War.

Lies became the rule. The public had to be led along and, as Allen recounts, "On many occasions the truth was grotesquely and deliberately distorted in order to make a point."13/ But Vietnam was only one of many examples of how foreign policies were formulated: "our policies tend to be excessively dominated by aggressive individuals or organizations, or by the interplay of bureaucratic politics, rather than by rational deliberation of national interests."14/ After 30-odd years in this role, Allen became disillusioned.

Both Ford and Allen come to the same conclusion, to cite Allen, "that our leaders tended toward self-delusion."15/ What is most significant in both of the Allen and Ford accounts is that men with first-hand knowledge wrote them; McGeorge Bundy emerges as a villain and cynical manipulator, and Robert McNamara as confused but committed to the war, a pathetic character. Critical historians concluded this long before. But what is unique is Allen’s intimate account of meetings and confrontations, revealing the mindset of men hell-bent on the path of destruction and defeat.

The CIA has produced many unhappy people who had access to much more information than policy critics and who came to identical conclusions as them. Technology over the past 15 years has vastly increased the volume of information available to the intelligence community, making research and analysis more rather than less difficult—and more liable to be irrelevant or wrong. Anyone who reads the CIA 's unclassified version of Studies in Intelligence knows that there are a significant number of analysts who are quite candid, describing "much of the information" the CIA gets, "to be blunt, is garbage."16/ Other memoirs, dealing with the CIA's action section or the Pentagon's special operations forces, describe endless ineptitude and confusion. Screwing up covert efforts is so common that it is practically the rule rather than the exception. But it was not only covert operations THAT failed. Confusion was inherent in the competing services’ refusal since 1947 to subordinate their rival fiefdoms by standardizing technical communication systems and sharing basic intelligence, a deficiency that increased with time and today plagues the American military more than ever.17/

Publicly, the CIA defended its reputation for gathering intelligence expertly and impersonally until the mid-1970s House and Senate investigations. Before then, its critics confirmed its failures mainly by deduction, but the Congressional investigations portrayed an organization that was not merely malevolent but also simply incompetent on many critical matters. It did not anticipate the Korean War, the Czech crisis of 1968, the October 1973 Mid-east War, the 1974 Portuguese upheaval, India's explosion of a nuclear device in 1972, the fall of the Shah in 1979—and much else that subsequently took the U.S. by surprise. That policy predilection determines what its analysts' report, or that the CIA’s directors have been ambitious careerists who often tailor their reporting, has been conventional wisdom for decades and what has occurred in the case of Iraq was only the rule. Biases and political interests and ambitions, and especially their reelection, have made policymakers reluctant to accept intelligence they do not wish to hear—and most senior intelligence officials acknowledge these constraints. Those who make decisions want intelligence to support their goals, and if does not then they use it selectively or ignore it entirely because they not only have confidence in their own judgments but they have their own agendas. Very few senior intelligence officials believe that their objectivity will prevent bad or dangerous policies from being pursued. As one of them phrased it, “But the idea that intelligence can ignore the political atmosphere in which it is being delivered is, again, a Panglossian affliction.”18/

The Case of Iraq

There are great cultural, political, and physical differences between Vietnam and Iraq that cannot be minimized, and the geopolitical situation is entirely different. After all, the U.S. encouraged and materially supported Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran throughout the 1980s because it feared a militantly Shiite Iran would dominate the Persian Gulf region. It still does, and if the Shia majority takes over the Iraqi government or if the federalism written into the new Iraqi constitution leads to a real or de facto partition of the country, one or the other of which is very probable, Iran is more likely than ever to attain its regional geopolitical ambitions. But putting this fundamental paradox in the American position aside, which makes the transfer of power to the Iraqi Shias and real democracy highly unlikely, the U.S. has ignored the lessons of the traumatic Vietnam experience and is today repeating many of the errors that produced defeat there.

The intelligence process worked badly in both Vietnam and Iraq. Policy always precedes this process and definitively shapes the outcome, but precisely because both wars ended in failures we know much more about what intelligence said—in part because whistle-blowers have much more incentive to reveal the truth. Scott Ritter, who had previously been in an officer in U.S. Marine intelligence, in September 1991 went to work for the United Nations’ weapons inspection team charged with the task of confirming whether Iraq retained weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or means of delivering them, and American, British, and Israeli intelligence fed him their best information. Early in his mission, which involved frequent inspections of sites the UN chose, he concluded that Iraq had complied with UN disarmament criteria, which the defection of Hussein Kamal, Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, in August 1995 only confirmed. Still, every American administration from 1991 onward maintained the myth of Iraqi possession of WMD because their real goal, Ritter concluded, was regime change.19/ As for ties between Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime and teaching the former how to use WMD, which Bush gave as a reason for the war, from the end of September 2001 onward the president knew that the secular Iraq regime was hostile to Bin Laden’s Islamic fanaticism. Well before the war began, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency identified the source of this allegation as a fabricator. The CIA, much to the irritation of the Bush Administration, especially Vice-president Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, provided a great deal of evidence to prove that war was avoidable.20/ The real reasons for the U.S. embarking on war in Iraq lie elsewhere, and assigning a precise weight to them is a dubious task. Crucial, however, was a mentality, which Rumsfeld expressed to the President-elect, that the new administration should be “forward-leaning” in its foreign policy and end the Clinton administration’s purported defensiveness.21/ Bush, of course, was of the same mind. Intelligence was never important in defining action, and the Bush Administration not only ignored it but also—as the Valerie Plame case revealed—often consciously distorted what the intelligence community was reporting.

The resemblance with Vietnam is identical but only because all-important American foreign policies have been treated in a similar manner. What was crucial was that this administration was resolved before it took office to be aggressive, although it was unclear in what region of the world it would most operate, just as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had done in the 1960s. In both Vietnam and Iraq, unexpected defeats and surprises awaited the U.S. just as they awaited every nation that embarked on wars over the past two centuries.

What followed thereafter was perfectly predictable: detailed reports from many people such as Ritter or from the CIA itself, experts on Iraqi arms and politics, were essentially discarded on behalf of exceedingly dubious but convenient information, the most bizarre and unreliable of whom was “Curveball,” an Iraqi whom German intelligence considered wholly untrustworthy and whose veracity only Ahmad Chalabi’s network had vouched for. The CIA issued fabricator warnings on some of these people and never believed them. A year before the invasion, most of the intelligence community agreed that reports that Hussein was attempting to import uranium were false, but Bush ignored them and often cited such fictions to justify invading Iraq. The CIA’s director, George Tenet, for purely career reasons told the president that the fables he wanted to believe were true, but the large majority of the CIA knew that Iraq had long ceased trying to develop nuclear weapons and most opposed embarking on war there.22/ Other official experts emphatically cautioned decision makers about the chaotic future of a post-Saddam Iraq and the threat of civil war and were similarly ignored. For public purposes the CIA was purportedly the main source of the utter falsehoods the Bush Administration used to justify going to war in Iraq when in fact the Agency warned it had strong doubts about them.23/ It had no scruples whatsoever in doing so, but it was only following many deep-rooted precedents: Congress and the public are told whatever will win their acquiescence, but such efforts work for a time only.

In both places successive American administrations slighted the advice of its most knowledgeable intelligence experts. But America's leaders have repeatedly believed what they wanted, not what their intelligence told them. Cynicism and contempt for the public always exist among those who covet and gain power. The extent to which self-delusion and political convenience become intertwined can be endlessly debated, and elements of both can be found in countless cases. While it is an issue that cannot be resolved definitively, and every case and individual is different, such devious procedures greatly subverted the rationality—and prudence—that intelligence is supposed to provide.

But there can be no doubt that the Pentagon in the 1960s had an uncritical faith in its overwhelming firepower, its high technology, mobility, and mastery of the skies. This was a natural and timeless trait inherent in American mores, one that weapons producers have always reinforced. Social and political challenges, Washington believed, would fall to the side once the enemy was easily destroyed. It still has faith in weapons, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believes the military has the technology to "shock and awe" all adversaries. But like Vietnam, technology was exceedingly fallible in Iraq and logistics also became even more of a nightmare because no close ports exist in Iraq. Indeed, precisely because it had become infinitely more complicated, technology in Iraq failed even more quickly, while crucial and obvious things, like the immense water deficit, proved surprisingly time-consuming and very expensive.24

Both the Vietnam and Iraq wars were exceedingly costly, in part because of the reliance on the latest technology and massive firepower as well as incompetent and corrupt proxies. The Vietnam War was far more expensive than anticipated; it lasted much longer than predicted, and Johnson had to abandon much of his domestic program to pay for it. It was a major cause of the weakening of the dollar and the U.S. ultimately going off the gold standard.

25/ The Iraq War has been very similar, also coming at the conjunction of massive budget deficits and a weakening dollar, greatly aggravating an unfavorable contextual economic position. War in Iraq cost at least $439 billion by mid-2006, in three and one-half years exceeding well over half of what the Vietnam war cost over nine years, and estimates of its eventual long-term cost are a trillion dollars and even more, making it the most expensive war in American history.

Wars in both Vietnam and Iraq were highly decentralized and the number of troops required only increased despite the fact that firepower was also greater. When they reached a half-million American men in Vietnam the public turned against President Johnson and defeated his party. In the case of Iraq the public has become hostile to the adventure, if not anti-war, much more quickly; in late 2005 nearly two-thirds of the public disapproved of the President’s handling of the situation in Iraq and 58 percent believed he has not given good reasons for keeping troops there. Fifty-seven percent believed he deliberately misled the people in order to make a case for war in Iraq. By February 2006, 63 percent of the American public thought the Iraq war was not worth the loss of American lives or the cost, and 48 percent favored immediate withdrawal. His job approval rating kept on falling, hitting a low of 33 percent by the end of April 2006.26/

What happens in a nation’s political, social, and economic spheres are far more decisive than military equations. That was true in China in the late 1940s, in Vietnam in 1975, and it is also the case in Iraq today. Wars are ultimately won politically or not at all. This is true in every place and at all times. Leaders in Washington thought this interpretation of events in Vietnam was bizarre, and they ignored their experts whenever they frequently reminded them of the limits of military power. The importance of Vietnamese politics was slighted, escalations followed, and the "credibility" of American military power—the willingness to use it and win no matter how long it took or how much it cost—became their primary concern.

In both Vietnam and Iraq the public was mobilized on the basis of cynical falsehoods which ultimately backfired, causing a "credibility gap." People eventually ceased to believe anything Washington told them. Countless lies were told during the Vietnam War but eventually many of the men who counted most were themselves unable separate truth from fiction. Most American leaders really believed that if the Communists won in Vietnam the "dominoes" would fall and the Chinese would dominate all Southeast Asia. The Iraq War was initially justified because Hussein was purported to have weapons of mass destruction and ties to the Al-Qaeda; no evidence whatsoever for either allegation existed beforehand or has been found.

There are about 160,000 American and foreign troops in Iraq (over 260,000 if support troops in the region are included) at the time of this writing—far more than Bush predicted would remain by this time­—but, as in Vietnam, their morale is already low and sinking. Bush's ratings in the polls have fallen dramatically­—especially as he has run up huge budget deficits and ignored domestic issues, such as health insurance, which greatly determine how people vote. He needs many more soldiers in Iraq desperately. Depending on the resistance or geopolitical context in the region, substantial number of American forces may remain in Iraq for many years. In Vietnam, President Nixon tried to "Vietnamize" the land war and transfer the burdens of soldiering to Nguyen Van Thieu's huge army. But its ranks were demoralized and Catholic-officered, and his army was organized entirely to maintain Thieu in power rather than win the victory that American forces could not attain.

The idea that the war can be “Iraqized” and the army will be loyal to America's nominal goals or be militarily effective is quixotic. As in Vietnam, where the Buddhists opposed the Catholic minority who comprised the leaders America endorsed, Iraq is a divided nation ethically and religiously, and Washington has the unenviable choice between the risks of disorder which its own lack of troops make likely and civil war if it arms Iraqis. Elections have only exacerbated these differences greatly, not resolved them. The Shias make up three-fifths of the Iraqi population, their leaders have their own political agendas, and their taking over the army or politics will also strengthen Iran’s influence and power in the region. Despite plenty of expert opinion to warn it, the Bush Administration has scant perception of the complexity of the political problems it confronts in Iraq. All major Iraqi religious and ethnic groups have armed militias but American officials increasingly regard the Shia as the greatest single threat to their authority. Afghanistan looms as a reminder of how military success depends ultimately on politics, and how things go wrong.

"Iraqization" of the military conflict will not accomplish what has eluded the Americans, and in both Vietnam and Iraq the U.S. underestimated the length of time it would have to remain and cultivated fatal illusions about the strength of its friends. While appraisals of the effectiveness or size of the Iraqi army vary, the U.S. must prevent the Shia majority who fill its ranks, many of whom are pro-Iranian, from becoming even more powerful. Therefore it is now incorporating Sunni officers who worked for Hussein before the war, a total reversal of its policy when it began the conflict. The Bush Administration’s reliance on local troops to fulfill American goals is an act of desperation, no more likely to be successful in Iraq than they were in Vietnam. Vietnam was a religiously divided nation but Iraq is even more disunited internally, and the possibility of civil war is greater. In Vietnam the Communists rode nationalism to power because of the French and Americans, but in Iraq there is likely to be chaos. In both places, the United States will lose the war because all wars are decided by a larger social, political, and economic context which American military power has never been able to control.

Rumsfeld's admission in his confidential memo in October 2003 that "we lack the metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror" was an indication that key members of the Bush Administration are far less confident of what they are doing than they were when they embarked on war.27/ But as in Vietnam, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ceased to believe that victory was inevitable, it is too late to change course and now the credibility of America's military power is at stake.

Eventually, domestic politics takes precedence over everything else. It did in Vietnam War and it is very likely it will also be the case with the war Iraq. By 1968 the polls were turning against the Democrats and the Tet Offensive in February caught President Lyndon Johnson by surprise because he and his generals refused to believe the CIA's estimates that there were really 600,000 rather than 300,000 people in the Communist forces. Nixon won because he promised a war-weary public he would bring peace with honor. Bush declared in October 2003 that "we're not leaving" Iraq soon, but his party and political advisers will probably have the last word as American casualties mount and his poll ratings continue to decline. Vietnam proved that the American public has limited patience. That is more the case than ever.

There is no evidence, either from the many first-hand memoirs or the practice and conduct of post-1945 American foreign policy, that grand policy options or goals were ever influenced or defined by information—nominally, analytic intelligence—that as truthfully as possible approximated reality in all its dimensions. Were this the case, there would be far fewer defeats and failures for Washington to confront, one mess after another, and it would be a great deal more modest regarding its global interventions and ambitions. Respect for the parameters of reality involves decisive constraints and the U.S. simply does not choose its foreign policies this way. So what is the use and function of what is termed "intelligence" in the analytic meaning of that word?

The large technical and ideological cadres that purvey intelligence, rather than becoming a source of rationality and clarity, deluge the already insupportable complexity of foreign policy formulation with data, and accurate information becomes worthless as soon as it fails to reinforce what America's political and military leaders wish to hear. Intelligence functionaries accept the constraints of the system quite willingly because it pays their salaries. These personnel transform themselves into peddlers of just one more economic activity and they never transcend the policy limits that the non-technocratic ruling elites impose. This is just as true in all areas of domestic affairs as in foreign policies.

The state's intelligence mechanisms are constrained by a larger structural and ideological environment and by the inherent irrationality of a foreign policy which foredooms any effort to base action on informed insight to a chimera. Even when the insight is exact, and knowledge is far greater than ignorance, political and social boundaries usually place decisive limits on the application of "rationality" to actions. The political and ideological imperatives and interests define the nature of "relevant" truths. Intelligence's pretension to being objective is a hoax because those parts of it that do not reconfirm the power structure's interests and predetermined policies are ignored and discarded. There are innumerable reasons we must conclude this, not the least because there is a growing number of published insider memoirs and even the official American intelligence community’s assessments. But more important is the entire experience with Iraq and the U.S.'s failed confrontation with the Islamic world for over half a century. To expect the U.S. to behave other than as it has is to cultivate serious illusions and delude oneself.

The system, in a word, is irrational. We saw it in Vietnam and we are seeing it today in Iraq.

Gabriel Kolko is an historian and author of Another Century of War? (New Press, New York, 2004) and The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World (Lynn Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2006).


1 Gabriel Kolko and Joyce Kolko. The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954. (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), pp. 339-42.

2 Willard C. Matthias, America's Strategic Blunders: Intelligence Analysis and National Security Policy, 1936-1991. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), p. 3. See also ibid., pp 45-46 for a 1946 estimate of Soviet intentions.

3 Ibid., p. 3.

4 Ibid., p. 313. See also Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 30-31.

5 Gates, p. 207.

6 Ibid., p. 286.

7 George W. Allen, None So Blind: a Personal Account of Intelligence Failure in Vietnam (Chicago: Ivan R Dee, Inc., 2001), p. 78.

8 Ibid., pp. 183, 185.

9 Jeffrey Race, "The Unlearned Lessons of Vietnam," Yale Review, LXVI (1976), pp. 163-66, 173.

10 Harold P. Ford, CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes 1962-1968. (Washington, DC: C I A Center for the Study of IntelliHgence, 1998). HTTP://WWW.ODCI.GOV/csi/books/vietnam/index.html

11 Allen, p. 248.

12 Ibid., p. 266.

13 Ibid., p. 235

14 Ibid., p. 242.

15 Ibid., p. 267.

16 Steven R. Ward, “Evolution Beats Revolution in Analysis,” Studies in Intelligence [C I A Center for the Study of Intelligence], vol. 46, no. 3, 2002. HTTP://WWW.ODCI.GOV/csi/studies/vol46no3/article04.html

See also C I A, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Roundtable Report, Intelligence and Policy: The Evolving Relationship, 10 November 2003 (Washington, D. C., June 2004), pp. 7-8.

17 See, for example, John T. Carney and Benjamin F. Schemmer, No Room for Error: The Covert Operations of America's Special Tactics Units from Iran to Afghanistan. (New York: Ballentine Books, 2002), and Robert Baer, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. (New York: Crown Publisher, 2002); Elaine Grossman, “Combat Commanders Make Broad Access to Intelligence a Top Priority,” Inside the Pentagon, Feb. 9, 2006.

18 CIA, Intelligence and Policy, p. 14 and passim.

19 Scott Ritter, Iraq Confidential: The Untold Story of the Intelligence Conspiracy to Undermine the UN and Overthrow Saddam Hussein. (New York: Nation Books, 2005), pp. 9ff., 75, 112-13, 289-91.

20 Paul R. Pillar, “Intelligence, Policy, and the War in Iraq,” Foreign Affairs, 85(March/April 2006), passim. Pillar was the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, 2000-2005, and he criticizes every premise of the Administration’s Iraq policy and shows how the CIA disproved every one of them—to no effect. See also New York Times, Nov. 6, 2005; AFP dispatch, Nov. 24, 2005; Michel R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006, pp. 126-127. It should be noted that crucial U.S. policies in other regions and problems are just as confused and politically primed, subject to bureaucracies and domestic interests. Robert L. Suettinger was crucial in the NSC, CIA, and State Department during the 1990s on China policy, and in his memoir, Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000. Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003, he shows how key decisionmakers are often well-informed but that grand theories to explain American policy are just plain wrong. It was driven by domestic politics, illusions and confusion, bureaucratic politics, and the like.

21 Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 19.

22 Bob Drogin and John Goetz, “The Curveball Saga,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20, 2005; http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-curveball20nov20,0,1753730.story?coll=la-home-headlines

James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration (New York: Free Press, 2006), pp. 72-76, 102-03; Washington Post, April 9, 2006.

23 Three National Security Archives releases, Oct. 21, 2005; one NSA release April 7, 2006. See also Anonymous [Mike Scheuer], Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2004); James Bamford, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies. (New York: Doubleday, 2004); Pillar, op. cit., passim.

24 David Talbot, “How Technology Failed in Iraq,” Technology Review (MIT), Nov. 2004, p. 2 and passim. http://www.techreview.com/Hardware/wtr_13893,294,p1.html

25 Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience. (New York: The New Press, 1994), pp. 49-50. See ibid., passim, for the Vietnam War in general.

26 Angus Reid polls, Nov. 14, 2005; Feb. 24, 2006; March 2, 2006; Fox News, April 20, 2006. Polls that frame questions differently get different figures but all show that an increasing majority feels that the Iraq war was an error. See Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, ca. March 15, 2006. But the PIPA poll claims only 26 percent want all troops withdrawn within 6 months.

27 USA Today, Oct. 23, 2003.

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