Seventy years ago, Winston Churchill repeatedly took to the floor of the House of Commons to warn his nation against the growing menace posed by the steady accretion of military might by Nazi Germany. He contested the determination of his party (which at the time ruled Britain) to appease the Nazis, in the face of enormous public resistance to his message and over the blithe assurances of his nation’s intelligence services that Hitler’s build-up either was not real or posed no threat.
Upwards of 40 million people subsequently lost their lives in the horrific, global conflagration that ensued. Many of them died and untold millions of others lost their homes, their livelihoods, and even their countries because Churchill’s warnings were not heeded at a time when the danger could have been dispatched with relative ease.
Today, we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime animated by apocalyptic visions every bit as dark as Mein Kampf, is steadily working to acquire the means to carry them out. In the name of bringing back the Mahdi — the messianic 12th Imam whose arrival will usher in the Golden Age of Islamic rule following the end of days — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs he fronts for are determined to acquire and use nuclear weapons.
Confronted with this frightening prospect, the Bush administration has decided to “engage” Iran, hoping that the distant prospect of serious multilateral sanctions will induce Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Leading politicians are determined to avert their gaze, or worse, to insist that military action against Iran to prevent an Iranian-launched Armageddon is out of the question. Public-opinion samples indicate that, while many Americans are deeply worried about Iran, they recoil from the idea of undertaking any additional combat responsibilities and the associated losses.
Tragically, these all too familiar examples of democracies’ cognitive dissonance and fecklessness in the face of real and growing threats are — as in Churchill’s time — being encouraged and exacerbated by a failure of the intelligence community.
The just-released unclassified Key Judgments of a still-secret National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) confirm that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons as recently as 2002 or 2003. This homogenized product of the various intelligence agencies performed under the supervision of the deputy director of national intelligence, Thomas Fingar, avers though that the Iranians may have abandoned this program. The reasons given for such a contention are, to say the least, highly subjective and debatable.
The truth is that neither the U.S. intelligence community, nor the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor anybody else outside a very small circle in Iran has certain knowledge about the current state of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, or how far it is from producing one or more usable devices. But, like their counterparts in pre-World War II Britain, today’s spies are serving up soporific conclusions certain (if not calculated) to encourage inaction by the West — and to buy our enemies time to prepare their onslaught.
This outcome is no surprise. In fact, a number of decisions taken in recent years have made it virtually inevitable.
For example, the misguided belief that 9/11 demonstrated the necessity of another layer of bureaucracy to coordinate the work of the United States’s already over-bureaucratized intelligence organizations, President Bush agreed to establish a director of national intelligence. He then appointed a foreign-service officer, John Negroponte, to serve as the first DNI.
Negroponte defied congressional expectations by building an empire — a bloated office with over 1,000 employees, many of them torn from their line responsibilities elsewhere in the community and the often-important work they were doing there. Worse yet, he put a coterie of fellow foreign-service officers, like Tom Fingar, in key leadership positions. A number of these displayed a visceral hostility to President Bush and his most robust policies, including Fingar and the national-intelligence officer for weapons of mass destruction (lead author of the new Iran NIE), Vann Van Diepen, and yet remain in place even since Negroponte’s move back home to the State Department as its deputy secretary.
The result of these institutional and personnel choices — as evident in this NIE — has been an unmitigated disaster. The insights into the real problems that led up to 9/11 have gone uncorrected. The intelligence community remains ponderous, unimaginative, and yet given to wishful thinking. Where hard knowledge is unavailable, judgments are served up that are either unfounded or simply ludicrous. The idea that Iran has given up its quest for nuclear weapons is only one of the most glaring.
The question is: Will America find its Churchill? Will it find among the ranks of its present or future leaders one or more individuals who will say the unsayable, challenge the prevailing complacency and rouse the nation to action? If so, will do it be done in time?
There may yet be a window in which to take steps to address the danger posed by the Iranian regime, short of military action. Wholesale public and private divestment of stocks of publicly traded companies doing business with the regime would be one. Ending the absurd practice of broadcasting into Iran pro-regime propaganda via U.S. taxpayer-funded instruments like the Voice of America and Radio Farda would be another.
Still others would include requiring every car sold in America to be a Flexible Fuel Vehicle, enabling them to run on ethanol, methanol, or gasoline (or a combination thereof), beginning at last the process of weaning this country from its oil addiction that so benefits our enemies in OPEC. We should also be engaging in serious covert operations to assist the people of Iran who detest their regime at least as much as we do.
If all else fails, we had better be prepared to use military force. It would be an act of the utmost irresponsibility not to be making such preparations now, because as things stand now, all else may well fail. Whether that will happen, however, may depend on whether we find our Churchill, and soon.
– Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy.