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The Elephant in the Room

At a recent Capitol Hill briefing on terrorism, the assembled experts spoke of everything except the obvious: They don't hate us for our freedom; they hate us for our policies.
 
 
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A recent conference on “Al Qaeda 2.0: Transnational Terrorism After 9/11,” sponsored by the New America Foundation and the New York University Center on Law & Security, was a gift to those wanting an update on informed opinion on the subject.  The event also proved to be as highly instructive for what was not addressed as for the issues that were.  The elephants known to be present remained largely unnoticed.

The cavernous Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building was full to the gunnels.  Panel after panel of distinguished presenters from near and far, from right to left—including authors Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer, Jessica Stern and Col. Pat Lang— exuded and freely shared their expertise.  But there was myopia as well.

The mosquitoes of terrorism were dissected and examined as carefully as biology students once did drosophila, but typing the generic DNA of terrorism proved more elusive.  Worse, no attention was given to the swamp in which terrorists breed.  Were it not for a few impertinent questions from the audience, the swamps might have avoided attention altogether.

The first panel featured two experts from RAND both of whom touched—very gingerly—on the need to drain the swamp.  The first closed his remarks with a 30-second observation that less attention might be given to kill/capture metrics than to addressing the causes of terrorism and breaking the cycle of terrorist recruitment. 

The second speaker from RAND, referring to that organization’s numerous studies on influencing public opinion, closed his remarks with this:  “When the message coheres with the context in which the message is transmitted, it works.”  Sending out the right message during the Cold War was easier, he said, because the context (the United States being the only alternative to the USSR) was very clear.  On terrorism, he added, we need to ponder “the mismatch between context and message.”

What About the Elephants?

Then came a rude question from the audience:  Is it not striking that even in an academic-type setting like this, elephants must remain invisible?  Is it not ironic, that the U.S. Defense Science Board, in an unclassified study on  “Strategic Communication,”  completed on September 23 but kept under wraps until after the Nov. 2 election, let the pachyderms out of the bag?  Directly contradicting the president, a panel of the Defense Science Board gave voice to what virtually all in that ornate Senate Caucus Room knew, but were afraid to say.  It named the elephants.

“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States. 

"Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy...

"...Nor can the most carefully crafted messages, themes, and words persuade when the messenger lacks credibility.”

U.S. Support for Israel “Immutable”

Another questioner pressed the mismatch-context-message expert from RAND:  “What can we do to change the context?”  In answer he acknowledged that the United States has a bad reputation, but he insisted that this is “unavoidable” because our support for Israel, for example, is “immutable.”  The United States is also connected to what many Muslims consider “apostate” regimes, but it is difficult to escape what binds us, because we need their “tactical support.”  (Read: oil; military bases; intelligence.)

There was some wincing and squirming in the audience, but in the end it was left to Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist, former CIA case officer, and author of the book "Understanding Terror Networks" (published earlier this year) to state the obvious on Israel and Iraq.  Putting it even more bluntly that the Defense Science Board panel, he asserted:

“We are seen as a hypocritical bully in the Middle East and we have to stop!”

Now why should that be so hard to say, I asked myself.  And I was reminded of a frequent, unnerving experience I had while on the lecture circuit in recent months.  Almost invariably, someone in the audience would approach me after the talk and congratulate me on my “courage”  in naming Israel as a factor in discussing the war in Iraq and the struggle against terrorism.  But since when did it take uncommon courage to state simply, without fear or favor, the conclusions of one’s analysis?  Since when did it become an exceptional thing to tell it like it is?

Taking the Heat on Israel

I thought of the debate I had on Iraq with arch-neoconservative and former CIA Director James Woolsey, on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show on August 20, when I broke the taboo on mentioning Israel and was immediately branded “anti-Semitic” by Woolsey.  Reflecting later on his accusation, it seemed almost OK, since it was so blatantly ad hominem , and so transparent coming from the self-described “anchor of the Presbyterian wing of JINSA (the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs).”  A flood of e-mail reached me from all over the country—again, congratulating me on my “courage.”

I still don’t fully understand.  And that was my candid answer to the question I dreaded, the one that so often came up during the Q and A sessions following my talks:  Why is it that the state of Israel has such pervasive influence over our body politic?  No one denied that it does; most seemed genuinely puzzled as to why.  My embarrassment at my inability to answer the question is somewhat attenuated by the solace I take in the thought that I am in good company.

Gen. Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to President George H. W. Bush, and now chair of his son's President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, has been known to speak out on key issues when his patience is exhausted.  For example, remember how, before the attack on Iraq, he described the evidence of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda as “scant” when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was calling it “bulletproof?”  Well, it sounds like he has again run out of patience.  Scowcroft recently told the Financial Times that George W. Bush is “mesmerized” by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  “Sharon just has him wrapped around his little finger,” Scowcroft is quoted as saying.  Scowcroft and I must have less to lose than those working for RAND.

Surgery at the Times

The Times gives off unfortunate signs of being similarly mesmerized and/or intimidated.  This shows through quite often; I’ll adduce but two recent examples: protecting bad policies and editing bin Laden.

To his credit, Thom Shanker of the Times broke the story on the findings of the Defense Science Board panel on November 24.  However, the report was delivered to the Secretary of Defense on September 23—before the election. Faulting America's pro-Israel policies would have hurt both presidential candidates—but would have helped American national security.

Further, Shanker quoted the paragraph beginning with “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” (see above), but he or his editors deliberately cut out the following sentence about what Muslims do object to; i.e., U.S. “one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights,” and support for tyrannical regimes.  The Times did include the sentence that immediately followed the omitted one.  In other words, the offending middle sentence was surgically removed from the middle of the paragraph.

Similarly creative editing showed through the Times’ reporting on Osama bin Laden’s videotaped speech in late October.  Almost six paragraphs of the story made it onto page one, but the Times saw to it that the key point bin Laden made at the beginning of his speech was relegated to paragraphs 23 to 25 at the very bottom of page nine.  Buried there was bin Laden’s assertion that the idea for 9/11 first germinated after “we witnessed the oppression and tyranny of the American-Israeli coalition against our people in Palestine and Lebanon.”

With that kind of support from the “newspaper of record,” and with familiar national security faces, sans Colin Powell, in place for the president’s second term, it is a safe bet we are in for the same misguided policies—only more so.  The president's circle of advisers now has an even shorter diameter, and it is unlikely that Gen. Scowcroft’s protégé, Condoleezza Rice, will seek his counsel as secretary of state any more than she did as national security adviser.

No Surprise

On the afternoon of Feb. 5, 2003, after Secretary of State Colin Powell made his embarrassingly memorable speech at the UN, my colleagues and I of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) drafted and sent a Memorandum for the president, which concluded with this observation:

“After watching Secretary Powell today, we are convinced that you would be well served if you widened the discussion beyond... the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”

With the circle now narrowed, those widely known as “the crazies” as mid-level officials, when George H. W. Bush was in the White House, are now even more firmly ensconced—and in charge of things like wars.  Hold onto your hats!

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years—from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.