Archive for December, 2012

This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus.  It is the lead article of a series that will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

For many Americans, the Middle East is a bewildering and confusing place.   Absent a better understanding of the complicated realities in the Middle East, this situation is likely to continue, since the ultimate outcomes of the Arab Spring are and will remain cloudy for a very long time.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries, when the European colonial powers carved out most of the “countries” that exist in the Middle East today, they divided the entire region to suit their own convenience and for their own profit.  In the process of doing so, they set in concrete the realities that now cause most if not all of the friction, anger and bloodshed that is part of life in today’s Middle East.  There are few countries there that are internally content.

Taking Iraq as an example, and recognizing that it is simply symptomatic of conditions that exist almost everywhere else in the region, we find the following very real sources of domestic conflict in that country of roughly 31 million souls:

Nationalism: Iraq is comprised of 75%-80% Arabs, 15%-20% Kurds, and 5% Turkmen, Assyrian, or “others”.  In this context, it is important to realize that with a total population of about 30 million spread throughout the Middle East, Kurds comprise the largest national group in the world without a country of their own.

Sectarianism: 97% Muslim, Iraq is comprised of 60-65% Shia Muslims and 32-37% Sunni Muslims, with a smattering of “others”.  Again, it is important to understand that although they are the majority and now in charge in Iraq, the Shia before the 2003 US invasion were often brutally ruled by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Iron fist.

Tribalism:  Tribes have long played a critical role in Iraq. The Albu Nasir tribal group, of which Saddam’s “Tikrit” tribe was a member, is one of many tribal groups that played extremely important roles in pre-Arab Spring Iraq and will continue to do so in the future as individual tribal groupings within Albu Nasir contest for power and influence.  In addition to Albu Nasr, there are at least 150 tribes in existence in Iraq, each advocating for the wellbeing of its members.

But those realities aside, who are we to say that our  democracy should override what we think of as the shortcomings of the Koran in which they so devoutly believe?

All of the countries in the Middle East are affected to one degree or another by these three realities of Tribe, Sect and Nation.  These have led both foreign and native governors of the inherently fractious Middle East to maintain order by repressing those conflicts with iron-fisted rule.  During the post World War II period, American policy, dictated largely by our perceived demands of the Cold War, has been to support those repressive regimes, opting for stability in favor of the rights of the governed.

In this respect, one has to wonder why a succession of American administrations has insisted that we are there, “bringing Democracy to the Middle East”.  What could conceivably be more laughable?  Of course the real reason for such pronouncements by Democrats and Republicans alike is that they are trying to reassure an ill-informed American public that the fruits of our American Exceptionalism – Democracy – will somehow make the world right again.

Where it is possible in the very long run, at least many decades from now, that some or all of these countries may somehow evolve into democratic rule, it seems unlikely.  With millions of people who are totally unfamiliar with Democracy and possess few if any of the necessary preconditions for the establishment of Democracy (pluralism, the general right to vote, fair elections, the rule of law, guaranteed human tights for all, separation of powers, freedom of speech, press and religion, good governance and the absence of corruption), it seems highly unlikely that democracy will find fertile ground there.

Instead, we might hope for self-determination; that the people get to select the kind of governance they want.  We will not see democracy flourish.  We will see halting and imperfect steps taken by some good people who seek power for their people and some bad people who seek it for themselves or their causes.  It is likely to be painful and often violent and perhaps brutal, but it will be their own.

Given our recent activities and policies, we have little credibility in the Middle East.  We cannot hope successfully to impose any sort of system on them.

We can only hope to polish up our own rather tarnished “Shining City” to the point where others might want to emulate it.

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Originally published in Sic Semper Tyrannis


The Central Intelligence Agency was born out of American experiences in the Second World War and our anxiety over Soviet intentions and activities in the post war period.


Having had no formal intelligence organization prior to World War Two, the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was put together under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to meet the needs of the war itself.  That meant that the origins of the American intelligence were paramilitary.  The OSS was there, in effect, to fight the war from a paramilitary perspective.  OSS parachuted into occupied Europe and contacted indigenous partisan groups there.  They blew up bridges and dams and other important pieces of European infrastructure.  They were, quite simply, heroes running the unconventional part of our war against the Axis powers.


We came out of that hot war into the Cold War.  Many of the people who had run OSS during the hot war were tapped for leadership roles in the new CIA.  And that was what we got, a management structure whose primary experience was in paramilitary, hot war operations.  And we were facing the entirely new requirement that we produce intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of our enemies in a peaceful environment, a task that was essentially alien to a majority of our managers.


The CIA headed into the Cold War largely unprepared to run the kinds of operations that would be required of it.  The Cold War was an intelligence war of subtleties.  No more hand grenades or parachute drops.  No more paramilitary operations.  No more hot war.  Just the difficult and demanding job of recruiting spies in the Soviet empire and running them in place in hostile environments characterized by pervasive 24/7 surveillance.  We did this with no experienced leadership.  We felt our way, had our share of failures, but ultimately got to the point where we could recruit the kinds of assets we needed and then run them in place in their homelands.


The Cold War ended.  A decade later, we were suddenly post-9/11.  And where did that put us?   Right back in a paramilitary environment without the guidance and experience of all those Second World War OSS veterans who actually knew how to run the needed operations!


So, the twenty-first century edition of the CIA rushed back headlong into paramilitary operations.  Having cut our teeth in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, we now found ourselves back in a kind of role reversal.


According to press reports, that has now morphed into the lead role in the drone business.  CIA, the organization that had to work its tail off to get out of the paramilitary business, is now back in that business in spades.  The real question here is not the alleged validity of the drone program.  It is to question the appropriateness of having it vested in the CIA.


This is not the first time this discussion has emerged.  In the early years of the CIA, two completely separate organizations within the Agency ran intelligence operations.  OSO conducted intelligence collection operations, where OPC was responsible for what remained of the OSS’s psychological and paramilitary operations.  The ultimate decision was that they would be combined with the result that an uneasy relationship existed between them throughout the Cold War.


Those who conducted intelligence collection operations always felt there was a real incompatibility in being lodged in the same organization with those who ran our propaganda and paramilitary operations.


Since its inception, the CIA has been charged with producing intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of its enemies.  To have propaganda operations, and, even more, paramilitary operations, woven into the same organization is not good thinking, however “convenient” it may be.  At best the relationship is uneasy, at worst it is competitive and self-destructive.


An excellent example of this is Pakistan today where, given the realities of Pakistan’s perpetual and dangerous rivalry with a nuclear India, the organization that allegedly flies the hated drones hamstrings itself when it is the same one that is responsible for securing the covert cooperation of important people who are our best hope for learning what’s really going on in that important, nuclear country.


If the US Government must have a paramilitary drone capability, then it should be lodged somewhere in the military establishment or in an organization completely separate from our CIA and its human collection operations.  To put it anywhere in the CIA is risky, foolhardy and ultimately counterproductive, serving neither our covert human collection nor our paramilitary operations.




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