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U.S. Strategy: Perception vs. Deception

Monday, July 21, 2003 - 14:39 Print Text Size

We keep waiting for the moment when Iraq does not constitute the major global event of the week. We clearly are not there yet. In Iraq, the reality is fairly stable. The major offensive by the guerrillas forecast by both U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and what seemed to be a spokesman for al Qaeda last weekend did not materialize. The guerrillas tried to shoot down a C-130 coming into Baghdad International Airport, and that was a significant escalation, but they missed — and it was only a single act. Casualties continue to mount, but with the dead averaging at just more than 10 per week, it has not come close to reaching a decisive level.

The deterioration of support in Washington and London is not yet decisive. Support for U.S. President George W. Bush sank from a percentage in the high 70s in the wake of the war, to just more than 50 percent in the past 10 days. But as we read the successive polls, the slump that hit when the WMD issue came to the fore — along with the realization that the United States was dealing with a guerrilla movement — has not accelerated. It slumped and held. Meanwhile, London headlines have focused on the apparent suicide of weapons expert David Kelly, the probable source for a BBC story about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's manipulation of intelligence data. It is unclear whether these reports have had an impact on public opinion.

However, the current issue is not public opinion. Lurking behind this issue is the not fully articulated perception that the Iraq war not only began in deception but that planning for the Iraq war was incompetent — a perception driven by the realization that the United States is engaged in a long-term occupation and guerrilla war in Iraq, and the belief that the United States in particular was neither expecting nor prepared for this.

A cartoon republished in the New York Times News of the Week section by Mike Smith of the Las Vegas Sun sums up this perception. A general, holding a paper titled "Guerrilla War In Iraq," says to a table full of generals, "We need to switch to Plan B." Another general responds, "There was a Plan A?" The media loves the trivial and can't grasp the significant. If the United States fabricated evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as critics are claiming, the question is not whether it did so. The question is: Why did it do so? In other words, why was invading Iraq important enough to lie about — if indeed it was a lie, which is far from clear. The emerging perception is that there was no Plan A and there is no Plan B — that the decision to invade was arbitrary and that the lying was therefore gratuitous.

In other words, the Bush administration has a four-part public relations problem:

1. The perception that it lied about weapons of mass destruction
2. The perception that it had no strategic reason for invading Iraq
3. The perception that it was unprepared for the guerrilla war
4. The perception that it is at a loss for what to do next

As we argued last week, lying in foreign policy does not bother the American public. From Woodrow Wilson's "too proud to fight" slogan in the 1916 presidential campaign, to Franklin D. Roosevelt's war planning with the British while publicly denying such plans, to John F. Kennedy claiming that the United States had nothing to do with the Bay of Pigs, what bothers the American public is the idea that the lying is not designed to hide the strategy, but to hide the fact that there is no strategy.

The media are clever. The public is smart. The media have the ability to generate intellectual mayhem within Washington. What should be troubling for Bush is that, as we review the local papers this past weekend, the deepest concern creeping into letters to the editor is that there is no underlying strategy, no point to it — and no exit. Bush clearly retains a massive support base that is not, as we have said, continuing to erode. The media's fixation on "what did he know and when did he know it" will not erode it by itself, but the administration's continued unwillingness to reveal a strategy behind the war on al Qaeda likely will.

The core problem the United States has had in enunciating a strategy rests on this: Since Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda has not carried out a strategic operation. It has carried out a series of tactical operations — Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Casablanca and so on — but it has not struck again at the United States in an operation of the magnitude of Sept. 11. The operations outside the United States are not, by themselves, sufficient to justify the global war the United States is waging. Preventing another Sept. 11 is worth the effort. However, as time passes, the perception — if not the reality — grows that Sept. 11 was al Qaeda's best and only shot at the United States. If that is true, then the level of effort we have seen on a global basis — including the invasion of Iraq and certainly the continued occupation of Iraq in the face of insurrection — simply isn't worth it. Or put differently, the United States is fighting an illusion and exhausting resources in the process.

The mere assertion of the threat will work if Bush and his advisers have a pristine record of honesty with the public. At the point where the public has reason to doubt the word of the president on anything concerning the war, it will affect his ability to be authoritative on anything concerning the war. Moreover, the president's basis for information on al Qaeda's intentions and capabilities rests with confidence in the quality of intelligence he is getting. The current crisis over who failed to identify the forgery is trivial. However, it melds into two other serious intelligence crises. First, did the intelligence community fail in its analysis of Iraqi WMD? Second, and more serious in our view, did the intelligence community fail to understand former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's war plan and, therefore, fail to understand that the fall of Baghdad was not the end of the war but the beginning of the guerrilla phase?

Reasonable arguments can be made to justify each of these failures. However, at the end of the day, if the CIA did not know about the forgery, did not understand the WMD situation in Iraq and did not anticipate the guerrilla war, then why should the public believe it regarding the on-going threat of al Qaeda? Pushing the argument further, if the intelligence community did in fact know about each of these things and the president chose to ignore them, then why should the public believe Bush when he talks about al Qaeda?

Bush cannot afford a crisis in the intelligence community or in the public perception of his use of intelligence. More than any of the other world wars in which the United States has participated, this is an intelligence war. Al Qaeda does not have a geographical locus. It does not have a clean organizational chart. It is as much an idea as an organization. Everything that followed Sept. 11 has depended on the public's confidence in its intelligence community. If that confidence is destroyed, then everything else said about al Qaeda — including that it is an ongoing threat that justifies a global war — becomes subject to debate.

If the CIA cannot be trusted, then the president can't be trusted. If the president can't be trusted, then the urgency of the war cannot be trusted. If the urgency of the war can't be trusted, then the massive exertion being demanded of the U.S. military and public cannot be justified. Thus, having CIA Director George Tenet fall on his sword and accept responsibility for the 16 words in the President's speech might make a lot of sense inside the beltway, but it is an act of breathtaking recklessness in the rest of the country. Even if he were responsible — which we regard as pretty dubious — the White House does not seem to understand that destroying the credibility of the CIA is the same thing as destroying the war effort. The entire war effort is based on the public's trust of the CIA's portrayal of the ongoing threat from al Qaeda. If the CIA isn't to be trusted, why should anyone believe that al Qaeda is a threat?

This self-destructive behavior by the Bush administration is not at all confined to undermining the credibility of the CIA. Rumsfeld's incomprehensible behavior regarding the guerrilla war in Iraq was another axis of self-destruction. Back in May, any reasonable observer of the situation in Iraq — including STRATFOR — saw that there was an organized guerrilla war under way. However, Rumsfeld, as late as June 30, not only continued to deny the obvious, but actually hurled contempt at anyone who said it was a guerrilla war. Rumsfeld's obstinate refusal to acknowledge what was obvious to everyone was the sort of behavior designed to undermine confidence in U.S. strategy by both the public and the troops in the field. Rumsfeld kept arguing that this was not Vietnam, which was certainly true, except in the sense that Rumsfeld was behaving like Robert McNamara. As in Vietnam — and this is the only comparison there is between it and Iraq — the behavior of the leadership made even supporters of the war and the troops in the field feel that there was no strategy.

Napoleon once said, "In battle, the morale is to the material as 2 is to 1." Maintaining the morale of one's forces depends on maintaining confidence in the military and political commanders. When forces are killing U.S. troops — forces that the defense secretary dismisses — the only conclusion the troops can draw is that either they are not very good soldiers, since they can't stop them, or that the defense secretary has taken leave of his senses. Either way, it undermines morale, increasing the need for the material. It is militarily inefficient to tell self-evident lies to troops.

Similarly, the United States is fighting a war against a barely visible force that cannot be seen by the naked eye, but only by the esoteric tools of the intelligence community. Making the head of that community appear to be a liar or a fool might make good sense in Washington, but it undermines trust in the one institution in which trust is essential if the war is to be prosecuted. It is not casualties that undermine public morale. It is the reasonable belief that if the CIA is incompetent, then neither the justification for the war nor the strategy driving the war can be trusted.

Bush has created a crisis. It is far from a fatal crisis, but it is a crisis that requires a radical readjustment in approach. The public explanation of the war and the reality of the war must come into alignment. STRATFOR has extensively chronicled the underlying strategy of the war, and we will not repeat it here. That strategy has never been enunciated publicly. The connection between the war against al Qaeda, the Iraq campaign and future actions throughout the world never has been laid out in a conceptual framework. This is a complex war. It does not reduce itself to the simple dictum of Desert Storm enunciated by Secretary of State Colin Powell: First we will cut off the enemy, then we will surround the enemy, then we will kill the enemy. That was a good line and truly reflected the solution.

This war does not reduce to one-liners. However, there is a threat and there is a strategy. WMD make wonderful one-liners and they are not altogether irrelevant. But that is not what the war against Iraq was about, it is not the reason for fighting a guerrilla war and it is certainly only part of the broader war. The most dangerous thing Bush can do from his standpoint is to continue to play a bad hand rather than endure the pain of having to throw it in and reshuffle the deck. However, it will be easier to explain the real force driving U.S. strategy than to allow his presidency to degenerate into an argument of who forged a letter and whether he knew it.

The basic strategy behind a war always has been publicly discussed. In World War II, after Dec. 7 and the German declaration of war, the basic outlines of the war plan were widely discussed in the media — in spite of censorship. Everyone knew the Germany First strategy, the goal of landing in France at some point, the purpose of the bombing campaign, the nature of island hopping. No one expected to know the landing site in France or the next island to be invaded in the Pacific, but everyone understood the core strategy.

This is a much more complex war. That increases — not decreases — the need for strategic clarity among the public and the troops. The United States is not randomly in Iraq, and it is not there because Hussein was a butcher or because he might have had WMD. Those are good reasons, but not the real reason. The United States is in Iraq to force Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran to change their behavior toward al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. The United States already has overwhelmed the Saudis and is engaged in threatening Syria and Iran. This is visible to everyone who is watching. That is why the United States is in Iraq. It might or might not be good strategy, but it is a strategy that is much better than no strategy at all.

Admitting this undoubtedly will create a frenzy in the media concerning the change in explanation. But there will be nothing to chew on, and the explanation will be too complex for the media to understand anyway. They will move on to the next juicy murder, leaving foreign policy to the government and the public. We suspect that before this is over, both Tenet and Rumsfeld will have to go, but that matters more to them than to the republic, which will endure their departure with its usual equanimity. Alternatively, Bush will continue to allow the battle to be fought over the question of "what did he know and when did he know it," which is a battle he cannot win. Bush has a strategic decision to make. He must align strategy with public perception or have his presidency ripped apart.

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