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Watching Niagara

Stupid Leaders, Useless Spies, Angry World


The stark fact that significant portions of our planet are under the supervision of quite exceptionally stupid and ill-informed people is provoking unwonted expressions of anger and alarm. It is hard to think of people more demure in rhetorical comportment than senior envoys of the United Nations or of the British foreign office. Yet here we have Lakhdar Brahimi, a UN undersecretary general and special adviser to Kofi Annan erupting in Baghdad like a soapbox orator.

"There is no doubt”, Brahimi told French Inter radio last week, "that the great poison in the region is this Israeli policy of domination and the suffering imposed on the Palestinians, as well as the perception of all of the population in the region and beyond of the injustice of this policy and the equally unjust support…of the United States for this policy…There are quite a few other people on this planet and the Americans should also make an effort to learn how to live with them.”

Then a couple of days later Brahimi was at it again, this time on ABC, talking to George Stephanopoulos. "I think that there is unanimity in the Arab World, and indeed in much of the rest of the world, that …Israeli policy is brutal, repressive and that they are not interested in peace no matter what you seem to believe in America…What I hear [here in Iraq ] is that…these Americans who are occupying us are the Americans who are giving this blanket support to Israel to do whatever they like. So how can we believe that the Americans want anything good for us?"

Of course there was a tactical motive in both Brahimi’s outbursts. As the Baghdad-based executive of the UN’s role as after-sales service provider for the United States, Brahimi is trying to establish some street cred with Iraqis as he labors to cobble together a puppet government, with roll-out ceremonies scheduled for the end of June. So he can afford to thumb his nose as protests about his indiscretions roll in from New York and Washington, not to mention Tel Aviv.

Brahimi’s ripe denunciations were echoed by a squadron of 52 retired British diplomats–former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials–who fired off an unprecedented Striped-Pant Manifesto to Bush’s poodle in 10 Downing Street at the start of this week. They denounced Bush’s recent endorsement of Sharon’s plans as “one-sided and illegal” and as an “abandonment of principle” occurring in the midst of what is “rightly or wrongly … portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as … an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.” After further withering denunciation of the leadership and conduct of the Coalition in Iraq the diplomats warned Blair that “there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.”

Anyone questioning the charge that we are enduring exceptionally stupid leaders (with no relief in sight, given John Kerry’s recent public statements on the Middle East) need only skip through Bob Woodward’s account in his latest respectful Palace hand-out, Plan of Attack, of the Bush administration’s route march towards the attack on Iraq. There are a few interesting disclosures, such as that my heroine, Laura Bush, was deeply opposed to the war, but the prime impression one carries away from Woodward’s airless pages is of a White House utterly secluded from reality.

If George Bush had marched out of the front gate into Pennsylvania Avenue, hailed any taxi and asked its driver to give him a briefing on the world situation he would have done better than with what was served up to him by his staff on a daily basis.

Now, all evidence suggests that Bush doesn’t want to hear any briefing that might perturb his fixed opinions. He consults only God and Dick Cheney. But even if the President had ever displayed any unwonted curiosity it would have remained unslaked. You have only to read the declassified and ridiculous Presidential Daily Briefing of August 9, 2001, on Osama bin Laden to see that. On page after earnest page Woodward has the president being served up dossiers marked Secret, or Top Secret, or being briefed in underground chambers by intelligence officials. It’s all rubbish, most aptly resumed in the tremulous pages Woodward allocates to the effort, just as the attack on Iraq was starting, to “decapitate” the regime by killing Saddam along with his family.

A CIA officer in the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq has secured, by dint of colossal cash bribes, Iraqi informants inside Saddam’s security apparat. Along with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he dispenses on a weekly basis he gives these informants cell phones. They report that Saddam and his sons are headed for a farm outside Baghdad. They tell him they have paced out the dimensions of a bunker at the farm and relay it to the CIA man who relays it to CIA hq, whence the details are rushed to the White House whence Bush finally relays the order from Cheney to have F-117s bomb the farm. Graphic descriptions of Saddam being hauled from the debris are duly relayed from the informants. As the CIA officer finds when he inspects the farm, there was no bunker.

On October 2, 2003, The Guardian published an interesting piece by another retired senior British diplomat, Sir Peter Heap, asserting that on his observation in several embassies around the world the whole system of secret intelligence gathering was pretty much useless as regards the provision of useful information. Year after year he had watched MI6 officers professionally eager to inflate their resourcefulness ladling out off-the-books money to informants with every incentive to inflate their discoveries. Sometimes the MI6 officers would simply copy out stories from the local paper and remit it to London as top-secret info. Nor were electronic intercepts much better.

“Working twice in London on Foreign Office desks dealing with countries at war,” Sir Peter wrote, “ I saw a flood of intercepts which retrospectively quite often accurately forecast what was about to happen.

But since there were countless other intercepted reports that predicted events wrongly, it was virtually impossible to choose in advance the accurate from the false. Moreover, intercepts were usually fairly random and rarely worked when planned.” Moral: reduce America’s intelligence agencies to a hundredth of their present size and budget, tell the spies to become taxi drivers.

There have been stupid, poorly informed leaders throughout history. But seldom if ever has the world been afforded, as we are now with the unfolding disasters in Iraq and Israel, the knowledge of this savage stupidity and misinformation on a real time basis, with absolutely no relief in sight. As the Englishman said, when the American asked him to admire the velocity of the water pouring over the Niagara Falls, “What is to stop it?”