Government needs more experts on Arab culture

September 23, 2001|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON - There are three certainties about what happened in New York and Washington.

First, there was a massive, continuing breach of national security. Second, there was a failure of intelligence. Third, given the failings of security and intelligence, there will be another attempt.

That future threat gives added importance to the intelligence failure. The terrorist plot was elaborate and intricate, involving scores of people communicating with each other, years of planning and training and the expenditure of large sums of money. Modern intelligence operations are designed to deal with each of these and they do, especially the National Security Agency which tracks communications around the world with its satellites and global listening posts.

The collection of evidence is not the problem, according to Edward Walker, former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs. The NSA intercepts and other information flowing into Washington are remarkably good. The problem is where the rubber meets the road: Interpretation and analysis at the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon - the level where politics enters the equation.

The difficulty, according to Mr. Walker and other former officials, is interpretation - "pulling all the bits and pieces together."

In one sense, it's an historical problem. The classic Arab specialist - known by the vaguely pejorative name "Arabist" - was the son (no women in the State Department in those days) of missionaries and educators from the Arab world, the Middle East version of the old China hands who were expunged during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s.

The Arabists had a feel for Arab culture and language, but there was always a problem of "clientitis" - the suspicion that they were excessively supportive of the Arab world and, therefore, unsympathetic to the Israeli cause.

The downfall of the Arabists came when the Clinton administration took over in 1993. They were replaced at the State Department by political appointees, many of whom (including the special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross, and Assistant Secretary Martin Indyk) had been associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.

This vacuum of expertise and understanding about the Arab world had been compounded by the Iranian-backed bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, wiping out the heart of the American intelligence operation in the Middle East with one horrendous truck bomb blast.

The loss of veteran Middle Eastern hands - whether by assassination or early retirement - meant that there was little exchange of information between the United States and Arab governments. This general lack of trust increased because of the recent closer relationship between the United States and Israel. For the Arabs, there was the question of why they should trade their secrets with Washington when there was a good chance those secrets would wind up in the hands of the Israelis.

There is a tendency among bureaucrats - like any employees in a hierarchy - to try to please their superiors. In the case of intelligence interpretation, it comes down to tinkering with the results to adjust to the political winds of the times.

As State Department officials describe it, this process of tailoring intelligence to cater to the top echelons grows exponentially when information makes its way to the White House - especially in the case of the Clinton administration, which played an activist role in the Middle East.

Bill Clinton left office still wondering why Camp David II in July 2000 failed. The few State Department officials who knew something about the Middle East were so low-level that they never were able to successfully explain to Mr. Clinton why the religious sites in Jerusalem were non-negotiable to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and why the right of return of the Palestinian refugees will be a deal-breaker in any future negotiation.

The United States is now trying to persuade friendly Arab governments (who are less friendly than they were before the current Intifada because of what they see on their television sets) to join the war on terrorism.

These governments know a lot about terrorism, particularly since they have been victims of it. Although they have a well-grounded fear of terrorism they also have a justifiable fear of what will happen to them if their intelligence information is misused or distorted once it goes through the Washington meat grinder. It is a question of trust.

There is nothing in the recent past to convince them that the U.S. government understands their political problems or has learned the lesson that an unsophisticated and unbalanced American view of the Middle East can impact on Cairo and Amman and, ultimately, on New York and Washington.

Jim Anderson is a Washington-based journalist who has covered U.S. foreign policy for 30 years.

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