Hogan's Alley

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Problem With The National Intelligence Estimate

When the N.I.E. was released the other day it provided a strong sense of relief. Our joint intelligence bureaucracy had concluded that Iran was no longer attempting to build a nuclear weapons capacity. Whew! Now, assuming this N.I.E. was a product of a reorganized and chastened intelligence infrastructure that was better than the one that advised that WMD in Iraq was a slam dunk, there would be no need to consider military action against Tehran until well after the departure of Bush and Cheney.

Could it even be possible that our adventure into Iraq in 2003, and ongoing, prompted the Iranians to pull back a little out of fear of the cowboy in D.C.'s capacity to cross their border with our tanks?

Then we had the spectacle of George Bush going quickly before the cameras to try to explain to us and the world that Iran was still busily enriching uranium and could quickly restart their bomb building once the fissile material reached weapons grade. Well, he tried to say that, but did it in his usual smirking Bushspeak, which can no longer convince anyone.

In today's Times, Tom Friedman has it exactly right. The way the N.I.E. was written, with its emphasis on the cessation of bomb building and its relegation of the continuing enrichment activities to the depths of the report led everyone to get the full picture wrong.

The Gulf Arabs feel like they have this neighbor who has been a drug dealer for 18 years. Recently, this neighbor has been very visibly growing poppies for heroin in his backyard in violation of the law. He’s also been buying bigger and better trucks to deliver drugs. You can see them parked in his driveway.

In the past year, though, because of increased police patrols and all the neighbors threatening to do something, this suspicious character has shut down the laboratory in his basement to convert poppies into heroin. In the wake of that, the police declared that he is no longer a drug dealer.

“But wait,” say the Gulf Arabs, “he’s still growing poppies. He was using them for heroin right up to 2003. Now he says he’s in the flower business. He’s not in the flower business. He’s dealing drugs. And he’s still expanding the truck fleet to deliver them. How can you say he’s no longer a drug dealer?”

Sorry, say the police. We have a very technical, legal definition of drug-dealing, and your neighbor no longer fits it.

That’s basically what has happened between the U.S. and Iran — just substitute enriched uranium for poppies. Now, Bush officials are trying to tell everyone: “No, no, Iran is still dangerous. You have to keep the coalition together to get Tehran to stop enriching uranium.” But in a world where everyone is looking for an excuse to do business with Iran, not to sanction it, we’ve lost leverage. Everyone in the neighborhood can smell it — and it worries them.

The problem this creates is that it potentially deprives the US and its few remaining allies of the only leverage we had that might force concessions from the Iranian government if the next President chooses to engage them in talks. As Friedman puts it:

As I have said before, I’d rather see Iran go nuclear, and contain it, than have the Bush team start another Middle East war over this issue. But I’d much prefer a negotiated end to Iran’s enrichment. Right now there is a silly debate: Should we negotiate with Iran “conditionally” or “unconditionally” on this issue. Wrong question. The right question is should we enter such negotiations with or without leverage.

If we sit down with the Iranians without the leverage of a global coalition ready to impose tighter and tighter economic sanctions — should Iran not halt enrichment — we’ll end up holding a stuffed animal. The peculiar (obtuse?) way the N.I.E. on Iran was framed has deprived all who favor a negotiated settlement of leverage.

“It was the C.I.A. doing its job of collecting intelligence really well and presenting it really badly,” said Mr. Samore.

Now we have to depend on — Oh, my God! — President Bush to persuade the world to read the whole N.I.E. and see it in a balanced perspective. As I’ve also said before: Some things are true even if George Bush believes them, but good luck getting anyone to buy that anymore.

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