President Obama’s apparent frustration that he and his senior policymakers were taken by surprise with recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, reminds us of Yogi Berra’s famous line, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Some momentous event occurs on the world scene—whether it’s the Soviets putting nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba, the shah of Iran’s ouster, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, or the fall of the Berlin Wall—and the American president wants to know why his intelligence community did not give him a timely heads up. So too, now, with popular revolts toppling long-standing Arab dictatorships, Obama wants to know why the intelligence community was once again taken by surprise.
In one sense, no one should have been surprised by the fall of Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. History shows that autocracies, unlike liberal democracies, always look more stable than they are. While their security apparatuses may enable them to hang on for long periods of time, eventually domestic intelligence services can’t make up for the lack of widespread support.
What the president and others are complaining about is that the vast and well-resourced American intelligence system apparently did not provide sufficient tactical warning about what was to occur in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere—leaving the administration largely unprepared to deal with a cresting political tsunami in the Middle East that may turn out to be a strategic game changer on the order of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, these criticisms almost always reflect a lack of clarity about what we should expect the CIA and the intelligence community to be able to do and, in turn, what we cannot expect them to do.
Consider, for example, Mubarak’s refusal to step down on Thursday, February 10, and then his sudden decision to do so the very next day. In all likelihood, no source, electronic or human, would have allowed us to reliably predict what he would do. As best we can tell, Mubarak made his decision not to step down late in the day on Thursday and then reversed himself within hours. These were choices the people closest to him probably didn’t even know he would make, since the Egyptian president himself didn’t know where he would come down until the last moment.
In principle, it’s possible to assess when the frustrations and grievances of a population have risen to the point that a popular uprising becomes a real possibility. But it is not possible to determine what spark will ignite it, or when that will occur. Who could have foreseen that a young fruit seller’s self-immolation in a Tunisian town remote from the capital would touch off a process that would eventually bring down an Egyptian president? No more predictable was the solidarity and perseverance of the Tunisian and Egyptian protestors, who perhaps surprised even themselves with their resolve. It is somewhat ridiculous to expect that American analysts will have a better sense of what people from a foreign society are capable of than the foreigners themselves.
So what should we expect of the U.S. intelligence community?
The fact is that while it would be nice to know the future, the point of policymaking is to influence events, insofar as that is possible. This requires knowing the various actors (inside and outside of any foreign government), what their objectives are, how they understand their specific situation, and what influence or power they might actually be able to wield. This is the type of information that helps senior policymakers determine what steps the government can take to move events in a direction favorable to the United States. No coach preparing for his next game wants a report from his scouts that tells him whether he is likely to win or lose; what he wants is a breakdown of the other team’s key players, their strengths, and their weaknesses so he can devise a game plan that gives him the best chance of winning.
On this front, it is much harder to get a sense of how well the intelligence community supported the White House and other senior policymakers during the course of the Tunisian and Egyptian crises.
One statement by CIA director Leon Panetta about Tunisia suggests that the support might not have been as good as one would have hoped. At a congressional hearing February 10, Panetta said, “I think everybody assumed . . . that [Ben Ali] was going to basically crush any kind of demonstration. I don’t think he even knew he was going to get the hell out of town until he decided to jump on a plane and leave.”
And yet, by the time of Ben Ali’s departure, it had become clear that the Tunisian Army was unwilling to “crush” the demonstrators. In fact, the army had its own interests, which were not aligned with Ben Ali’s, nor with those of his wife’s family, whose avariciousness had in fact eaten into the military’s own business interests. Ben Ali’s final decision to leave Tunisia may not have been predictable, but some of the pressures on him and the players involved in the final resolution of the crisis could have been known and assessed.
In the case of Egypt, if news reports of administration decision-making are accurate, then it appears the White House was constantly playing catch-up. To be sure, the fact that the administration was reacting to events rather than driving them reflected the administration’s own initial policy ambivalence about what it actually wanted to see occur. But it also appears that the CIA, in particular, knew less about the internal dynamics of the regime than it might have. Up until a few weeks ago, the -agency’s priority had been to maintain friendly relations with Egyptian security and intelligence agencies in order to enhance information sharing concerning the mutual threats of Islamist terrorism and Iran, a priority that perhaps blinded it to other key issues. As one former senior Agency official explained in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall, “We pulled back more and more, and relied on liaison to let us know what was going on.”
No doubt, in the months ahead, the congressional intelligence committees will be reviewing how the CIA and others performed during the past few weeks. If those reviews are to be helpful, however, the committees will first have to have in mind the right standard. What’s important isn’t whether the intelligence community failed to predict the timing of the events that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, but rather the quality of the support that it gave to policymakers as those crises unfolded.
The American public and our -policymakers have long wanted to believe that if our intelligence were just good enough, we would be immune to political or strategic surprises or shocks. This is an unrealistic goal. In the wake of the 1964 coup against Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, one CIA analyst defended himself against criticism for missing the event by explaining that he had consulted with the world’s leading Kremlinologist, one N. S. Khrushchev, who assured him that he had been surprised as well.
Abe Shulsky is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; they are coauthors of Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence.