Dumb intelligence, dumber strategy

The disgrace of US intelligence in the WMD saga should spell the demise of Bush's pre-emptive strategy.

Stephen Gardner

Topics Politics

One unanticipated consequence of the Iraq conflict and the subsequent war of words is that intelligence has been made to look stupid – or at least, it has been shown that intelligence can be used in stupid ways. Another consequence, however, has gone largely unremarked: the Iraq war has blown a big hole in the Bush administration’s infamous and poorly thought-out doctrine of pre-emption.

This doctrine was contained in the US National Security Strategy, published in September 2002. In the section entitled ‘Prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies and our friends with weapons of mass destruction’, it says: ‘we must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction…. To forestall or prevent hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively.’ (1)

For such a strategy to be successful, good intelligence information is fundamental. How can you pre-empt a threat unless you have accurate and timely intelligence from reliable sources coming your way? Without intelligence, how can you make assurances to your friends and allies that the threat exists?

In fact, the US National Security Strategy explicitly recognises the vital role of intelligence. Of the three steps suggested to support ‘pre-emptive options’, two are concerned with intelligence: better intelligence agencies; and more cooperation with allies to formulate common intelligence assessments.

The Iraq war was the first big test of the theory – and the result has been a farce. Saddam has been forcibly rusticated (good thing) but at the cost of thousands of lives, chaos in Iraq, splits in the global political architecture and daily on-going deaths of Iraqis and Americans in the developing Northern Ireland style conflict in Iraq (all bad things). Meanwhile, on both sides of the Atlantic, politicians and the media are exchanging recriminations in an environment where the credibility of both has been seriously undermined.

All this has been the result of intelligence failure. We were told that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but so far nothing has been found. In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether the intelligence was simply wrong and the politicians misinformed, or if politicians misled the public either inadvertently or deliberately. What does matter is that somehow, somewhere along the line, the system for gathering, analysing and using intelligence information failed – and this has also meant the strategic failure of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption.

The main problem with the doctrine is that it demands absolutes. Bush is notorious for reflecting a simple black-and-white worldview in his speeches and public pronouncements. The world contains ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, us and them. The bad guys might be states or they might be non-state actors, but they all have one thing in common: they threaten ‘our’ interests and mean ‘us’ harm. They must therefore be dealt with mercilessly before they have the chance to strike.

Yet if there is one thing we have learned from the Iraq conflict, it is that intelligence is rarely black and white. Instead it expresses shades of grey, percentages and probability over which careful judgements must be made. Very often, intelligence will prove nothing, and smoking guns are a rather rare phenomena. But to convince a sceptical media and voters that a pre-emptive strike is justified, the case must be proved – and it must be done in advance, before any evidence can actually be gathered.

The desire for an absolute was perhaps behind UK prime minister Tony Blair’s unprecedented decision, in September 2002, to publish the first of two intelligence dossiers on Iraqi WMDs. His public pronouncements have followed a similar track. He has said that he is ‘100 percent behind the evidence’ of the intelligence services (2), and that he has ‘no doubt whatever’ that WMD evidence will be found (3).

Blair’s certainty contrasts sharply with the more measured approach taken by the late scientist David Kelly in his evidence before the Foreign Affairs Committee, when he said: ‘it is possible there were weapons. Whether they were weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes is a separate issue.’ He went on to refer to a 30 percent probability of Iraq possessing WMDs (4).

The doctrine of pre-emption therefore demands the impossible. It needs demonstrable absolutes in a situation where generally there is none. Ironically, the doctrine is all but useless when the demonstrable absolutes are there. It is fairly certain, for example, that North Korea is developing a nuclear capability, and North Korea is certainly a potential threat. Yet will North Korea be targeted by a pre-emptive strike? Hopefully not – the potential for catastrophe is all too obvious.

In spite of these glaring failures, there is no obvious sign that the doctrine will be reviewed or disposed of. If anything, it is becoming more entrenched. America has identified further ‘enemies’ – primarily Iran and Syria – and is making threatening noises on an ongoing basis. This might even be a step too far for the US’s closest ally, Britain, for whom Iran and Syria are very different creatures to Iraq.

So far, however, the UK has nailed its colours to the American mast. In a speech in January to British ambassadors gathered in London, Tony Blair echoed some of President George Bush’s black and white statements: ‘we should remain the closest ally of the US…not because they are powerful but because we share their values…the US are [sic] a force for good.’ (5)

Stephen Gardner is director of, a Brussels-centred journalist network.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) See ‘Prevent Our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our Allies, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction’

(2) Speech to G8 Summit at Evian, 2 June 2003

(3) See interview with Tony Blair on 31 May 2003

(4) See linkable text

(5) Speech, 7 January 2003

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Topics Politics


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