Politics & Policy

Ignoring The Obvious

History breeds intelligence.

The conclusions of last week’s report by the U.S. presidential commission assessing the intelligence failures of the Iraq war make clear that the United States dramatically overestimated Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities. American intelligence, said the commission, led by Judge Laurence Silberman and former Sen. Chuck Robb, was “dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” Critics of Bush administration’s foreign policy at home and abroad may hope that this extraordinary verdict will limit future U.S. military operations against other rogue regimes, given the risk of a similar, costly mistake.

In fact, America’s misreading of Iraq’s weapons capabilities is part of a long line of strategic failures by great powers over the past century to assess accurately threats to their security. Throughout this period, however, leaders have been far more likely to understate threats than to overstate them, even as threats openly grew and flourished. Intelligence alone has rarely made a decisive difference in identifying and defining the key threats, because they formed in plain sight–whether Germany in the 1930s, the Soviet Union after 1945, Saddam’s Iraq until 2003, or the mullahs’ Iran today.

At base, threats to international peace and security emanate from aggressive, authoritarian regimes that oppress their people and overtly threaten their neighbors–as did Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam, for all their differences, and as do the leaders of North Korea, Iran, and Syria today. We don’t need perfect intelligence to know that.

It is not simply power but how a malevolent regime seeks to use it that matters. Democratic France is no danger to America despite its nuclear arsenal; Saddam’s Iraq, by its very nature, was a danger with or without WMD.


What we don’t know about a secretive, hostile regime is often cause for greater alarm: Hitler’s secret nuclear weapons program and Iraq’s advanced nuclear program before the first Gulf War were only exposed after their defeat. Similarly, if we knew more today about the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, or Syria’s sponsorship of the terrorist group Hezbollah, we would almost certainly view those countries as more dangerous, not less. The West should not be lulled by the Iraq intelligence failure into a benign view of dangers gathering in full view.

Bad intelligence is more likely to induce false comfort than due diligence. Even as it harshly criticized American intelligence assessments of pre-war Iraq, the Silberman-Robb commission also found that the United States had underestimated al Qaeda’s efforts to procure radiological and biological weapons during the same period. Better intelligence is indeed a vital requirement for American decision-makers in today’s dangerous world, as the commission says–to the extent that it is obtainable. But even good intelligence does not guarantee a more effective response to threat: By the late 1990s, the Clinton Administration possessed detailed knowledge of al Qaeda’s efforts to train a terrorist army and target the American homeland, yet it did not act decisively.


This is all in keeping with the historical trend. The greatest strategic surprises of the previous century have come from an underestimation of enemy capabilities and intentions. Poor intelligence may have compounded the problem, but it was rarely the problem. What has mattered most is a leader’s determination to confront an obvious threat–which is why history will judge President Bush kindly on Iraq.

British statesmen refused to make a firm security commitment to France before World War I, and thereby deter German aggression, because they were not convinced that Germany meant war. But they did not need to know the German army’s secret mobilization schedule to understand that a rising, militaristic Germany aspiring for hegemony in Europe was a grave danger. The problem was not one of intelligence, but of judgment.

Despite Winston Churchill’s lonely warnings, Neville Chamberlain and his cabinet refused to increase the tiny British defense budget in the face of rising Nazi power until 1936, fatally undermining Britain’s ability to deter German aggression, while France found false comfort in its fortified Maginot Line. But British and French leaders did not need to know where or when Hitler would attack to understand that a totalitarian, powerful Germany seeking its place in the sun would have to be contained by force.

The United States was taken aback by the bold Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. But U.S. leaders in 1941 did not need intelligence on Japanese carrier movements in the Pacific to grasp that Japan’s stated goal of dominating Asia would harm American security, and that Japan’s militaristic leaders would logically seek to use force to break the grip of a U.S. oil embargo they had said they could not tolerate.

American leaders anticipated neither North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950 nor China’s decision to go to war to protect the regime in Pyongyang. In retrospect, Harry Truman and Dean Acheson should have taken Kim Il-Sung at his word when he repeatedly threatened to reunite Korea by force in the late 1940s, and they should have paid more attention to China’s warnings that it would not tolerate the presence of an American army on its border as MacArthur’s forces pushed north to the Yalu. .

No one expected Saddam Hussein’s brazen invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But Saddam had telegraphed his intentions by calling Kuwait a province of Iraq and asking the U.S. ambassador how America would respond to an Iraqi move against its neighbor.

Americans were tragically unprepared for the September 11, 2001, attacks. But al Qaeda had been warning for years that it would bring terror to the heart of America, and had actually attacked U.S. targets at home and abroad throughout the 1990s.


In the light of history, the lesson of the Iraq intelligence failure is that comprehensive intelligence, while utterly desirable, is not the first requirement for judging threats. The nature of a potential aggressor’s regime, its ability to threaten its neighbors, and its stated intentions are far more accurate indicators of the danger it poses than are classified assessments of its weapons stocks, its troop movements, or its leaders’ psychology. In retrospect, this has been true of aggressors across the past century, from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Saddam Hussein.

After all, Saddam’s weapons, real or imagined, were deemed a threat before the war–by the Clinton and Bush administrations, by Democrats and Republicans, by the U.N. Security Council, and by many European governments–only because they were believed to be in the hands of a dictator who had used them against his people and a foreign army, had systematically defied international arms inspections, had repeatedly attacked his neighbors, had defined himself as an enemy of the Western democracies, and had stated clearly his intentions to reorder the Middle East by force, beginning with the annihilation of Israel. These were intolerable threats, regardless of whether Saddam could actually use WMDs to back his posturing. The danger sprung from the character of his rule. The greater risk lay in waiting, not acting.

History shows that threats to great democracies flourish in plain sight, and that the known character and declared intentions of a hostile dictatorship are better guides to action than the scant intelligence that is often available. What is most needed is not simply better information–always unlikely, given that threats emanate from closed societies–but the will of leaders to make hard choices when faced with gathering danger of the kind now plainly visible in North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

Even in the absence of full intelligence, the threat these countries pose to their people, regional order, and Western interests is no mystery. And what we do not know about their weapons programs and support for terrorist organizations should make us more worried, not less, given each regime’s authoritarian nature, capabilities, and expressed intentions. After all, North Korea’s promise to turn Japan and America’s bases there into a “sea of fire,” and Iran’s and Syria’s pledges to destroy Israel, are not secret.


The nature and ambitions of North Korea’s Stalinist regime were evident during the first nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula in 1993-4. It was a policy of accommodation then, when North Korea did not possess the ability to deliver the few nuclear weapons it may have had, that led predictably to today’s crisis, when Pyongyang’s capabilities are far more advanced.

Iran sits on a sea of oil, rendering Iranian claims that it needs nuclear power for civilian energy uses spurious; anyway, Iran’s leaders have said clearly for a long time that they believe they have the right to develop nuclear weapons. Whether those weapons will come on line next month or next year matters less than the common knowledge that Iran’s nuclear program is highly advanced and deeply destabilizing, and that, as with North Korea, failure to resolve the problem will only make it worse.

For years, Syria’s minority regime has repressed its people, occupied Lebanon, and sponsored Hezbollah, which former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham calls the most dangerous terrorist organization on earth. We do not need technical knowledge of every Iranian weapons shipment through Syria to the terrorist training camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to know that decoupling Damascus from Tehran and Hezbollah is an urgent requirement for the security of the region and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

The story of the 20th century, from the rise of German power to the rise of Al Qaeda, is of well-intentioned leaders who did not act against evident danger soon enough. That they should have known better is a tribute to their judgment, not incomplete intelligence. The Iraq intelligence failure should not obscure history’s broader lessons.

Daniel C. Twining is a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University, a consultant to the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and a former foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain. These are his personal views.


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