Looking back at the decision to invade Iraq, one recurrent argument comes up from repentant war supporters: The intelligence was just too convincing not to go in.
New York Times editor Bill Keller, for example, argues in a September column that at the time, "I could not have known how bad the intelligence was." Of course, plenty of people did point out the flaws in the White House case, but Keller, in his apology, overlooks a more fundamental point: We don't invade anywhere because of intelligence, be it good or flawed. Intel influences policy but it doesn't determine it.
Consider, for example, our dealings with Iran. During the Bush years, our intelligence analysis indicated that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons. Our government's response was to treat the Iranians as if the opposite were true and demand conclusive proof they weren't building nukes. Conservatives cited all the CIA's errors in Iraq to justify not believing the report, while liberals took the opposite stance. I don't doubt if the report had said the opposite, the responses would have reversed too.
Consider, further back, Roosevelt's decision to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II. The government found no evidence of any Japanese-American espionage work, during or after the war (though we convicted several white Americans of spying for Japan) but we interned them anyway.
Or consider, more recently, the assassination of Anwar Awlaki, the anti-U.S. Muslim cleric and American citizen who the administration claims it targeted because the intelligence showed he's gone from propaganda to plotting attacks. In a Reuters article on the decision, anonymous White House officials described the evidence as patchy and partial rather than iron-clad (the administration has not deigned to divulge the details of its proof). We shot him anyway.
Or consider Pakistan. The Reagan administration knew Pakistan was developin
|We don't invade anywhere because of intelligence, be it good or flawed.|
g nuclear weapons
long before the information became public. The intelligence was good, but we took no action against them because the White House relied on them to help support the Afghan insurgency (back when we wanted them to fight an occupying force).
Intel did not call for the internment, the assassination of Awlaki, our attitude toward Iran or our hands-off treatment of Pakistan. The interment stemmed from a bigoted belief that all Japanese-Americans were potential traitors. In Pakistan, we ignored the intel to advance another agenda. In Awlaki's case—well, damned if I know why we had an American citizen shot without trial, but Obama has yet to present a case to justify it.
In Iraq, we had the Cheney doctrine that even a 1 percent chance of a nuclear attack against us justified an invasion—which means a 99 percent certainty he wouldn't do so would not have been enough. We had the belief the war would be short and easy, with minimal casualties. And the belief among Dick Cheney and other neoconservatives that we should make it a priority to eliminate our former ally Saddam.
Even outside the halls of politics, intel isn't the deciding factor. A stock pro-war argument in my red-state former home town was that it didn't matter what the intelligence said: Bush wouldn't call for war if he didn't have much greater secret intel than he was able to reveal, so we should just trust him.
Even Keller sort of admits intelligence wasn't the deciding factor when he ponders that even if Bush offered only 50 percent certainty that might be enough.
Intel doesn't dictate policy. It's policy, no matter how bad, that determines what we do with intelligence."The CIA made me do it!" will never be a good excuse.