Whatever else one might say about the new NIE, one point can be made with “high confidence”: that by leading with the sensational news that Iran had suspended its nuclear-weapons program in 2003, its authors ensured that their entire document would be interpreted as meaning that there was no longer anything to worry about. Of course, being experienced bureaucrats, they took care to protect themselves from this very accusation. For example, after dropping their own bomb on the fear that Iran was hell-bent on getting the bomb, they immediately added “with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” But as they must have expected, scarcely anyone paid attention to this caveat....
Since only an expert could grasp the significance of this cunning little masterpiece of incomprehensible jargon, the damage had been done by the time its dishonesty was exposed.
The first such exposure came from John Bolton, who before becoming our ambassador to the UN had served as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, with a special responsibility for preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Donning this hat once again, Bolton charged that the dishonesty of the footnote lay most egregiously in the sharp distinction it drew between military and civilian programs. For, he said,the enrichment of uranium, which all agree Iran is continuing, is critical to civilian and military uses [emphasis added]. Indeed, it has always been Iran’s “civilian” program that posed the main risk of a nuclear “breakout.”
Thus, as Lincy and Milhollin went on to write, the main point obfuscated by the footnote was that once Iran accumulated a stockpile of the kind of uranium fit for civilian use, it would “in a matter of months” be able “to convert that uranium . . . to weapons grade.”
...[T]he new NIE, which executed another 180-degree turn—this one, away from the judgment of the 2005 NIE concerning the ineffectiveness of international pressure. Flatly contradicting its “high confidence” in 2005 that Iran was forging ahead “despite its international obligations and international pressure,” the new NIE concluded that the nuclear-weapons program had been halted in 2003 “primarily in response to international pressure.” This indicated that “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.”
Never mind that no international pressure to speak of was being exerted on Iran in 2003, and that at that point the mullahs were more likely acting out of fear that the Americans, having just invaded Iraq, might come after them next. Never mind, too, that religious and/or ideological passions, which the new NIE pointedly neglected to mention, have over and over again throughout history proved themselves a more powerful driving force than any “cost-benefit approach.” Blithely sweeping aside such considerations, the new NIE was confident that just as the carrot-and-stick approach had allegedly sufficed in the past, so it would suffice in the future to “prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear-weapons program.”
The worldview implicit here has been described by Richelson (mainly with North Korea in mind) as the idea that “moral suasion and sustained bargaining are the proven mechanisms of nuclear restraint.” Such a worldview “may be ill-equipped,” he observes delicately,to accept the idea that certain regimes are incorrigible and negotiate only as a stalling tactic until they have attained a nuclear capability against the United States and other nations that might act against their nuclear programs.
True, the new NIE did at least acknowledge that it would not be easy to induce Iran to extend the halt, “given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear-weapons development and Iran’s key national-security and foreign-policy objectives.” But it still put its money on acombination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways.It was this pronouncement, and a few others like it, that gave Stephen Hadley “grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically.” But that it was a false hope was demonstrated by the NIE itself. For if Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons in order to achieve its “key national-security and foreign-policy objectives,” and if those objectives explicitly included (for a start) hegemony in the Middle East and the destruction of the state of Israel, what possible “opportunities” could Tehran be offered to achieve them “in other ways”?
Podhoretz realizes, after a debate with a junior colleague:
So little did any of this shake my opponent that I came away from our debate with the grim realization that the President’s continued insistence on the dangers posed by an Iranian bomb would more and more fall on deaf ears—ears that would soon be made even deafer by the new NIE’s assurance that Iran was no longer hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons after all. There might be two different ideas competing here—one, that we could live with an Iranian bomb; the other, that there would be no Iranian bomb to live with—but the widespread acceptance of either would not only preclude the military option but would sooner or later put an end even to the effort to stop the mullahs by nonmilitary means.
It is invaluable to read the entire piece, because Podhoretz lays forth with chilling accuracy the manner in which determined psychological denial and unwillingness to face reality--that regimes like Iran and North Korea don't play by the rules of civilized societies--directly lead to embracing false hopes that blithely put millions of lives at risk.
Psychological denial about the consequences of nuclear weapons in the hands of fanatical regimes which could ultimately lead to wholesale slaughter and destruction on a grand scale, is bad enough; but when that denial is also used to 'make nice' with those same incorrigible and psychpathic regimes, while pretending they are simply 'misunderstood', it surpasses even the usual level of psychopathology and willful blindness.
I don't know why I am surprised at the degree of denial that resulted after the release of both the 2003 and the 2005 NIE. I see this sort of thing on an individual basis all the time. But when you witness a delusion of such magnitude afflicting a vast number of people in a nation like the U.S., you hope against hope that grown-up people would exhibit more sense.
Sadly, though, such primitive psychological defenses are highly contagious; and susceptible ideologies are highly vulnerable to delusional thinking for their maintenance. Like mass hysteria, this sort of group phenomenon is a reflection of severe group anxiety and an attempt to cope with a sense of ideological inadequacy to effectively deal with a reality that is too frightening to contemplate.
In a post titled Insight vs Self-Delusion, I wrote:
Many paths can be taken to reach self-delusion, i.e., a denial of reality. Each individual will embrace the psychological denial--through projection, paranoia, displacement or any one of a number of strategies-- for their own personal reasons; even when the delusion or distortion of reality is a shared one (e.g., the striking phenomenon called "Bush Derangement Syndrome"; or any of the bizarre conspiracy theories about 9/11).
But there is only one path that leads to insight and self-awareness and it is directly through the individual's distortions and lies; and straight to the heart of his or her most cherished beliefs about himself and the world. If he can look at those beliefs and face himself and his own motivations squarely and honestly; and then reconcile them to the painful reality and truth he observes in the outside world; he is surely on that one path that leads to personal growth and self-discovery.
OTOH, if he never is willing to look in the mirror or question his beliefs; if he believes himself to be both intellectually and morally superior and that it is unnecessary to question his own motivations; then he is on one of the many paths that will take him to the wonderful world of denial.
Insight is an amazing thing. The power or act of seeing into a situation and apprehending the inner nature or motivation of one's self--especially the why--can be extremely liberating; or, it can be extremely painful--sometimes both. But, only when a person becomes aware of the his own hidden agenda and his inner motivations can he begin to gain control over them and correct any dysfunctional behavior that they generate....
Typically, the insight gained from self-analysis is able to free a person from a life of bitterness, unhappiness and unearned guilt (see here, for example)....
By making the unconscious conscious, we gain control over our lives and are able to make choices and attack problems based on a clear view of reality. Yes, we may make the wrong choice, or screw up in dealing with the problem even so; we may even discover some unpleasant truths about ourself. But when our psychological defenses are distorting or obscuring reality to begin with, we are far more likely to ignore a problem or pretend that it doesn't exist and then suffer even more serious consequences.
The only sensible thing to do after contemplating the two diametrically opposed NIE reports is to (1) realize the limitations of this sort of intelligence to begin with; and (2) conclude that our intelligence community needs a vast overhaul and 'de-politicalization' before it can be trusted in any of its assessments.
This should have been done after its failure to alert us to the possibility of 9/11; and if necessary, drastic steps should have been taken to fix the problem; because something clearly remains broken 6 years later. The 2005 report is practically useless as a measure of reality; and instead,seems only to be a barometer that measures the direction and intensity of current internal political winds.
In point of fact, it would be downright dangerous to rely on the wild swings of politicized 'intelligence' (deja vu all over again) that is closer to a manic-depressive cycle than it is to an intelligent "analysis" of the situation.
The NY Times the other day decried attempts to "tie the [future] President's hands". Of course, they didn't mean it like I am suggesting; but nevertheless, they are entirely correct. Any analysis that limits our options to deal with a potentially lethal, dynamic and unstable (not to mention ambiguous) situation should be identified for what it is: a failure.
Thw whole purpose of accumulating intelligence of this sort is to expand the options available to us, not limit them; and not to tie the hands of the very people whose job it is to protect this country from future 9/11's.
By emphasizing "false hopes" that Iran is motivated by common sense-- and not religious fanatacism; and by overly encouraging a pollyannaish, feel-good psychological denial, the recent celebration of the 2005 NIE in the media and by the left--precisely because it ties the hands of the President and the military-- has done great harm and placed all of us at risk from what are arguably the most incorrigible and deadly regimes in history.
Take a bracing dose of Norman Podhoretz, and call me in the morning.
UPDATE: To see a recent series of interviews with Podhoretz on this topic, go here; and, if you have not read his book, click on the link below.