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Why does Washington always ignore the best advice?

In 2009, the Central Intelligence Agency warned senior US policy-makers that their controversial drone strike programme might backfire. Washington ignored the CIA; the following year, the frequency of drone strikes increased rapidly.

In Pakistan, a record 751 people were killed, including 84 civilians. Neither the hundreds dying in the bomb craters, or those who ordered the triggers to be pulled, have ever been put before a judge or jury.

Wikileaks released this intriguing news shortly before Christmas. Twenty pages of text penned by the CIA itself, analyses similar programmes conducted in various environments and by various governments, including its own.

The “Secret” report didn’t conclude that High Value Target (HVT) assassination programmes were an entirely bad idea; it cited three examples where it had “worked”. Two were in 2008: the killing of Raul Reyes and Ivan Rios, FARC leaders assassinated by the Colombian and American armed forces, and the killing of Abu Laith Al-Libi and his deputy in Waziristan, leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The latter was considered a success only because it slightly delayed the group joining Al-Qaida, which it did later in any case.

Israel’s assassination of Hamas founders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Al-Rantisi in 2004 was also reported as a success. Even then, the CIA warned that while Hamas morale was damaged temporarily, it remained a popular, resilient and militarily effective organisation.

In assessing assassinations conducted against the Taliban, Hezbollah, the PLO, Peru’s Shining Path, the IRA, the Tamil LTTE and Algeria’s FLN, the CIA analysts judged programmes to be ineffective or even counter-productive. Drawing on experiences in Thailand, the agency warned that HVT assassinations “can capture the attention of policymakers and military planners to the extent that a government loses its strategic perspective on the conflict or neglects other key aspects of counterinsurgency.” Furthermore, the CIA called out specifically that the Taliban and Al-Qaida were not suitable targets for HVT assassinations.

“The Taliban’s military structure blends a top-down command system with an egalitarian Afghan tribal structure that rules by consensus, making the group more able to withstand HVT operations,” said one section. In another it was noted that Al-Qaida’s decentralised structure meant that it was able to “weather leadership losses such as the death of Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi.” He was killed by US forces in Iraq in June 2006.

The report concluded that when HVT assassinations are misused, they risked “increasing the level of insurgent support… strengthening an armed group’s bonds with the population, radicalising an insurgent group’s remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favour the insurgents.”

This simple warning is all the more poignant as these phenomenon have all been observed exactly in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, the heartlands of extrajudicial assassination, Washington-style. Although the CIA said specifically that Al-Qaida and the Taliban are not suitable targets, the programme against the groups continues.

Why was good advice ignored? Wikileaks has a theory that it was because the CIA’s torture programme had just been exposed by a whistle-blower (John Kiriakou, who is still in prison for speaking out), and Barack Obama was under political pressure to shut Guantanamo Bay. Blowing suspects up in other people’s countries, along with whichever friends or family members happen to be close by at the time, was the “best” option that the White House had cornered itself with.

America’s foreign policy is bungled so comprehensively, especially in the Middle East, that the slimmest of positives must be taken as solace. The miniscule victory in this story is that at least someone was saying, “Don’t do this.” Nevertheless, while those of sound-mind said fork to the right, the White House forked to the left.

Back in 1948 there was a similar fork in the road. President Truman decided controversially to recognise the State of Israel, even when the State Department, the Defence Department and Secretary of State George Marshall advised him not to. Their arguments were simple: relations between America and the Muslim world would be harmed indefinitely; the region would be destabilised permanently; and American access to Middle Eastern oil would be restricted. Truman rode roughshod over the advice, the predictions contained within which have all come to pass in one way or another.

So what led to Truman forking right, when his advisers said go left? The popular theory is political pressure; like Obama in 2009 mindful of his electoral pledge to close Guantanamo, Truman wanted the Jewish-American vote in the upcoming election. This theory is debatable; one of the strongest voices opposing recognition of Israel was Clark Clifford, Truman’s electoral and domestic politics adviser. At the time, a significant number of Jewish-Americans opposed Zionism. Instead, Truman’s decision was more ideological and idealist, rather than pragmatic. It would prove to be an ill-fated imprudence.

Fast-forward to 2003 and the decision to invade Iraq. Eight months before the invasion, the Washington Post learned that members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were opposing the war. General Joseph P. Hoar warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that any endeavour would be risky and unnecessary. Morton Halperin at the Council on Foreign Relations cautioned that the invasion would increase the terrorist threat, a premonition we learned later had been echoed by British intelligence.

As the invasion drew closer, TIME magazine reported that “as many as one in three senior officers question the wisdom of pre-emptive war with Iraq.” Brent Scowcroft, who served as National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush, wrote “Don’t attack Saddam” as an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that it would distract America from dealing with Al-Qaida. The following month General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said something similar. Then Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, who once ran US military operations in the Middle East, advised, “I am not convinced we need to do this now.” Ambassador Joseph Wilson, formerly assigned to Baghdad, resigned over the issue. Fellow diplomats John Brady Kiesling, John H. Brown and Mary Ann Wright followed shortly after him.

The lunatics who had taken over in the White House did all they could to ignore this good advice. Donald Rumsfeld even set up an alternative intelligence apparatus because he didn’t like what the conventional security services were telling him about Saddam Hussein. Given Bush and Company’s neo-conservative backgrounds, the ideological underpinning of their erroneous decision-making cannot be understated.

America has come tantalisingly close on a number of occasions to not messing up in the Middle East. It is heartening to know that at least some technically able thinkers in Washington have offered the right advice, but “technocrat” is not a word modern democracies appreciate; politicians use it deliberately in a pejorative sense to smear those with greater competency, and voters typically prioritise accountability over efficacy.

Yet what accountability really comes out of America’s foreign policy? Are voters wishing for something which simply isn’t there? Sure, the American people might get a chance to vote foolish presidents out, but there is no system of redress for the people of Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, Yemen or Afghanistan, who are the people actually affected by US foreign policy. For a country that is spending as much on defence as the next eight countries combined, and hesitates not for a second to deploy its huge arsenal, the checks and balances on who bombs where are far too limited. Those technocrats might not be as accountable in democratic terms, but Washington should hardwire their advice and warnings into decision-making. This may be a small but necessary rebuke to the conventional notion of a liberal democracy, but it would be a constraint on aggression that the rest of the world would appreciate greatly.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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