About our intel agencies’ struggle to find accurate & institutionally useful narratives

Today’s reading is an excerpt from one of the best articles I’ve ever read on this subject:  “The Buddha as an Intelligence Analyst”, David Chuter (Senior Research Associate, Center for Defense Studies, London), presented at the conference on New Frontiers of Intelligence Analysis: Shared Threats, Diverse Perspectives, New Communities” in Rome, 31 March – 2 April 2004.  It should be read in full by anyone interested in understanding modern geopolitics.  This is the second chapter in a series.  The other chapters are:

(1)  How useful are our intelligence agencies? To what degree are they blinded by prejudice and institutional needs?
(3)  A major function of our intelligence agencies is to shape the narrative. They do it well, molding history like clay on a wheel.


… The really intractable and difficult issues of today’s world demand understanding, rather than just information or knowledge. There is nothing new in this, but it is rather more obvious today, with the comfort blanket of Cold War analysis ripped cruelly from us, that the world has always been a more complex place than we had realised. in terms of their previous analytical positions, and also in terms of their suitability to control the new issue.

Some of these obstacles to understanding are general and important enough to warrant more extended treatment. The first example is the Really Big Conspiracy, or analysis as applied paranoia. Because paranoia provides a complete explanation of any situation, it is a popular mode of analysis. In addition, it is also very flattering, since your state, or ethnic or religious group, is obviously important enough to be the target of this monstrous conspiracy. And finally it is obscurely comforting: if it is disturbing to learn that everything is connected, it is far more disturbing to learn that nothing is. So paranoid analysis is widespread, and intelligence organisations – for whom paranoia is a professional hazard – are especially likely to practice it. But there are degrees. Paranoid analysis often arises at times of crisis, especially in societies (the US is a convenient example), which are caught between the demands of modernisation and those of tradition, and where organised religion is a powerful force.

… The problem, of course, is that some conspiracies do actually exist, and in a complex world there are very often linkages between non-state actors, just as there are states. Just as with states, such linkages often do not mean a great deal. Yet an analyst commissioned to produce a survey of non-state groups (no doubt referred to as “terrorists”) and the linkages between them, may well, simply through a list and indications of occasional linkages and occasional cooperation, produce something which supports and reinforces a paranoid analysis.

An analytical error which reinforces these problems is the tendency to examine opposition to one’s policies, whether peaceful or violent, in terms of what opponents are apparently for, rather than what they are obviously against. This is a constant temptation, since it is very hard for us to accept that the policies of our state or our group are wrong, still less that they have provoked, and perhaps merit, violent opposition. Much easier to assume that groups, especially violent ones, are actually trying to impose an agenda on us. Yet these assumptions – a form of paranoid analysis again – are contradicted by history, as well as our everyday experience, both of which suggest that human beings are far more likely to mobilise against a perceived wrong than they are in favour of a cause, no matter how attractive.

… As a rule, opposition to an authority, a regime or an invader tends to be expressed in ideas which are fashionable or with which the opponent is at least familiar. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, a Marxist vocabulary was in vogue, and groups often used this to express dissent.

… A related obstacle to understanding is the idea of the Implacable Enemy. This is the enemy Bent on our Destruction, with whom No Compromise in Possible, and to whom the least weakness or sign of accommodation is a kind of treason. The origins of this kind of thinking lie, pretty clearly, in fear. This is not necessarily fear of a stronger opponent: rather, it can be fear of one’s own weakness and vulnerability, or simply fear of a society or ideology that one does not understand and cannot control (Islam in the obvious example). This habit of thinking is convenient and attractive in several ways. If an enemy is bent on our destruction, then there is obviously no point in attempting to understand, let alone reason with, them. Extermination is the only possible option, and faint-hearts who believe that non-military solutions are possible can be conveniently stigmatised as traitors. An undue attachment to morality, the laws of war or simple human decency itself becomes a kind of treason, since it objectively benefits those whose only objective is our destruction. It is not surprising that such ideas lead to atrocity and even genocide.

… A third analytical danger is the temptation to misunderstand the nature of risk. Analytical organisations have really got to stop talking in terms of Threats – of which there are few if any against the West today – but rather of Risks. The question is not “What are the threats to our interests from that group or that area?,” but rather, “What risks do we run if we continue our policy in that area or change it to the one we are now considering?” Analytical organisations, in other words, have an obligation to look into the future and attempt to set out clearly what dangers may flow from the adoption of a particular policy. This is complicated by the general human inability to gauge risk very well.

As individuals, we tell questioners that we are much more worried about dying in air crashes than in car accidents; that we are more afraid of being killed in a bomb attack than being struck by lightning. A sensationalist media and a sensationalist political culture naturally confuse the issue further.5 In these circumstances, and especially in a democracy, it is probably inescapable that analytical organisations will be obliged to divert resources to studying the latest fashionable threat, as opposed to longer-term and more serious risks. And bureaucratic pressures to secure funding tend to add to these pressures. But any reputable analytical organisation has to resist these pressures as far as it can, if it is actually to do its job.

The biggest single obstacle to a correct analysis of risks, however, is the set of assumptions which surround the legitimacy of the use of violence. All groups – states, non-state actors, ethnic, racial and religious entities – in practice believe that their interests take priority, and that any violence to defend their interests is automatically acceptable, whereas any violence against them is automatically wrong. In theory, of course, this should not be so. There is a corpus of law going back more than a century which attempts to regulate behaviour in armed conflict, and it is asserted that there is something called the “conscience of humanity” which is collectively shocked in an objective fashion by certain events. In practice, this seldom happens: we make excuses for evils committed by groups we support, as we dismiss such excuses by groups we dislike. The distinction between good and evil acts tends to be a political rather than a legal one.

I was giving a lecture on these issues at our Air Force College a few years ago, explaining why certain attractive military options were not acceptable, when a worried officer raised his hand. Surely, went the question, these limitations don’t apply when your country is in danger of annihilation? One imagines that such questions are probably asked in every military college around the world, reflecting what happens when ethnic or other group solidarity encounters the international legal norm that it is better to suffer casualties, or even lose a war, than to fight unfairly.

A constant theme of such thinking is the right to disproportionate revenge. The Nuremburg prosecutor Telford Taylor relates that, when he was in Washington in the Christmas of 1944-5, even New Deal Democrats (relatively liberal, therefore, by American standards) were demanding that all members of the SS (several million at the narrowest definition) be shot out of hand in revenge for the murder of about 60 US soldiers who had been shot after surrendering to the SS. Similarly, the massacres at Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995 apparently resulted from the determination of Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, to punish everyone who might have been involved in the mass killings of Serb villagers in the surrounding area in recent years.

We feel justified in this disproportionate revenge because we do not see the rights of other groups as equally important as the rights we have. We regard our own violence as legitimate, and the violence of others as illegitimate. Now of course it is practically impossible for every group to have more rights than every other group. As a result, it is groups which have political or military dominance, in an area or globally, which are able to impose their own relativist concepts of rights upon others. Sometimes (as in the United States) there are metaphorical battles between groups to establish the pre-eminence of their rights over others. Sometimes, as in the Balkans, there are real battles for such purposes. But for much of the last 500 years, it is the West, primarily white colonial powers (including the US), which has been able to impose its view of the legitimacy of violence upon others.

According to this view, violence against Westerners, or Western interests, or those supported by the West, is always wrong. Conversely, violence by the West is in principle always right. Now of course there is nothing unusual about these precepts: what is unusual is the degree of success the West has had (until recently, anyway) in enforcing them on the rest of the world. So non-westerners are required to accept, in effect, that the West has rights that they do not, and is justified in using violence against them, where they are not justified in using violence against the West. Whilst political elites in non-western countries are often prepared at least to pay lip-service to such ideas (and will generally be honoured with the title of “moderate”), ordinary people are seldom so indulgent, and their spokesmen will therefore be dismissed as “extremists”. One consequence of this, as we shall see, is that analysts very often hopelessly overestimate the degree of actual support for Western policies and precepts in other countries, and so give bad advice.

An example is the so-called Mau-Mau campaign for independence in Kenya. Only trivial numbers of whites actually died at the hands of the insurgents (probably fewer than died in traffic accidents), whereas thousands of blacks of all types were killed. But the issue is not just numbers: the handful of actual Mau-Mau killings were resented, and portrayed as outbreaks of primitive sadistic black cruelty, because of the inherent illegitimacy of blacks using violence against whites. Reprisals (including the public execution of about 1000 blacks) by contrast were part of the natural order of things.

Sometimes the Western pre-emption of legitimate violence was expressed in terms of crude power-politics, but sometimes also in moral terms. Military punishment of lesser races (often including the slaughter of women and children) was defended as a requirement of the mission civilatrice, or the White Man’s Burden. It was frequently compared to the firm chastisement of the loved child (at least in the days when chastisement of loved children was fashionable). But habits of thought persist, and today the West still expects those against whom it uses violence to concede that they deserved to be punished. Conversations with visitors to Belgrade after the 1999 NATO bombing revealed genuine puzzlement (shared by many media commentators) that the Serbs should mind being bombed. Why, it was asked, did they not understand that they were justly punished for the behaviour of their police in Kosovo?

This kind of thinking has led historically to disastrous misunderstandings where Western interests are involved. Throughout the colonial era, for example, it was an article of faith in Western capitals that colonial subjects understood and appreciated the benefits of their status. Because opposition (especially violent) to Western imperialism was seen as illegitimate in the West, the kind of normative thinking then prevalent assumed that it must be similarly marginal in the colonies themselves. Those violently resisting colonial rule, therefore, must be a small and unrepresentative minority within their own society. It was therefore possible to dismiss them as terrorists, thugs, murderers, psychopaths, and, of course, tools of international communism. The West was therefore serially surprised that, on examination, colonial subjects seemed to actually support the men of violence.

  • The British government was certainly taken aback in the early 1970s, when an independent commission visiting the (then) Rhodesia reported that blacks, on the whole, did not favour a continuation of white minority rule, and indeed supported the liberation movements.
  • But unreality persisted to the point that the West’s assumption, before the first free elections in the new Zimbabwe, in 1980, was that Bishop Muzorewa, who had advocated accommodation with the white settlers, would triumph, and that the men of violence, principally Joshua Nkhomo and Robert Mugabe, would be sidelined. In practice, of course, the men of violence won by a landslide.
  • Similarly, in South Africa in the 1980s, the apartheid regime, much of the white opposition and many Western states put their money on Chief Buthelezi as the moderate voice of black opinion, whose toleration for the white regime was believed to be widely shared. Few thought that Mandela, the man of violence and the Usama bin La¯din of the 1980s, could expect to do well in a free election.

Examples could be multiplied, and there are, of course, many similar situations today. The essential point is that other states, and other groups, in practice, seek to universalise the merits of the use of violence in their interests just as the West does, and can sometimes achieve this in small and local ways.

Thus, the West has failed to understand the Balkans (as one reason among many) because it cannot realise that groups there take a similarly absolutist view of what violence is acceptable as we do. Western commentators have been surprised that people from various ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia have been unwilling to hand over alleged major criminals for trial. “He was only protecting his people” is a cry without much apparent resonance in the West, but in fact it is exactly how we would behave. So the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, for all that he has been associated with some major crimes, is seen by his co-ethnics as a kind of Winston Churchill figure, an inspiring national leader at a time of crisis and danger. The killings at Srebrenica (which to be fair Karadzic probably knew nothing about) no more attenuate this view than Churchill’s (much greater) personal role in the bombing of Dresden.

Our problem with such societies is not that they are different from us, but that they are the same.

It is equally possible, of course, for non-state actors to believe that their use of violence is appropriate and serves higher moral aims. So the resistance forces of occupied Europe, the anti-colonialist rebels, the ANC in South Africa, and the muja¯hidı¯n in Afghanistan, all believed that what they were doing was justified and necessary, in spite of being dismissed as terrorists by the states with which they were in conflict. In those cases where violence was directed against the West, or Western interests, there was a corresponding Western inability to perceive that this violence was widely viewed as legitimate in the region, and so the West was permanently surprised when history went off in directions which it had no right to follow.

In the past, this did not matter so much. Non-state actors, in particular, could safely be marginalised and dealt with at arms length, secure in the knowledge that they could do nothing to harm the West. If necessary, they could simply be wiped out. An invasion or attack on a third world country, might, it is true, lead to a few shots being fired at an embassy somewhere, but that was regarded as acceptable. Western leaders enjoyed, in effect, total impunity from the consequences of their actions. The world was a giant video-game in which nothing had any consequences.

Manifestly, this is not now the case. Indeed, there are signs that the sprites are fighting back: non-state actors are learning how to use violence on as large a scale as we do, and for purposes as wide-ranging as those we ourselves choose. In the future, moreover, they may enjoy the kind of impunity we ourselves do now. It is this component of self-confidence and organisation which is different. In the past, Algerian independence fighters could not then devastate Paris; now who knows? Indeed, one of the reasons for the glut of conspiracy theories which have surrounded the events of 11 September 2001 is the disbelief that Arabs were capable of anything as complex and difficult as what was actually achieved.

… So we can see the changes in recent years as a move towards an Open Source model of violence, coordinated by peer-to-peer networks. Governments have responded as Microsoft has to Linux, and can expect to be approximately as successful. Governments will naturally behave in this way: they are, after all, members of the most exclusive closed shop in the world, and are desperate to defend their Weberian monopoly of legitimate organised violence. “Terrorism” is the one thing all governments can agree to combat (as all media companies can cooperate against file sharing), since it strikes at their very sense of legitimacy and threatens to shatter the rules of the exclusive club to which they belong.

Other posts about intelligence on the FM website

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
  2. The new NIE, another small step in the Decline of the State, 10 December 2007
  3. When will global oil production peak? Ask the CIA!, 1 May 2008 — If they don’t know this, they’re useless.
  4. A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics, 5 March 2009 — About Legacy of Ashes
  5. Another urban legend that will not die: the CIA is the world’s major drug dealer, 11 July 2009
  6. Ignatius proposes “A New Deal for The CIA” – perhaps they should sometimes obey our laws, 21 September 2009
  7. How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped – and what we can learn from this, 13 October 2009
  8. The CIA’s forecast about the Iranian Revolution – and the revolution prediction tool, 6 January 2010
  9. The Flynn report, itself a symptom of deep problems in the government establishment, 11 January 2010
  10. Stratfor: “The Khost Attack and the Intelligence War Challenge”, 18 January 2010
  11. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 20 January 2010


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