Con Tract

In the essay–which appeared in a 1999 dusty academic tome, Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime, Shulsky and Schmitt attempt to discern what the late political philosopher Leo Strauss would have said about the modes of thinking that dominate conventional U.S. intelligence analysis. Strauss was a mentor to many of the leading neoconservative lights, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who helped create OSP. Shulsky was a student of Strauss at the University of Chicago in the 1960s; Schmitt did his Ph.D. work there in the 1970s after Strauss had died but was still a leading influence. They argue that Strauss would have attacked the prevailing trend in U.S. intelligence analysis known as the “social-scientific method,” an approach advanced by Sherman Kent, a former Yale history professor and member of the WWII-era Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor to the C.I.A.). Kent’s method, say the authors, urged U.S. intelligence analysts to operate more like social scientists, conducting systematic research and analysis to predict the future behavior of adversaries. But, according to the authors, this method assumes that those foes act according to universal principles. In other words, you can guess the enemy’s next move going by what you would do in his position–as if the two of you are engaged in a giant game of chess.

This strategy, say the authors, grew out of the generally liberal mindset that dominated both Washington and academic life in the years after World War II–“[a] ‘universalistic’ outlook,” say the authors, “which believesthat others aspire to an American way of life; the ‘melting pot’ tradition, which suggests that, despite superficial differences people are fundamentally alike and want the same things.”

Shulsky and Schmitt argue that such a belief system foolishly disregards the most important lesson from Strauss’s teachings: that the nature of the regime or government under analysis means everything in trying to predict its intentions. Rogue regimes and dictatorships, they argue, operate under totally different value systems and principles than do democracies like the United States. Tyrannies warp the very souls of those who live under and serve them. In fundamental ways, this makes subjects of tyrannies not like us. “Because of the importance of the regime, it would be foolish to expect to be able to deduce theories of political behavior that would be universal, i.e. that would apply to democracies and tyrannies alike,” Shulsky and Schmitt write.

Central to understanding the behavior of rogue regimes, Shulsky and Schmitt posit, is these regimes’ use of deception. Tyrannies are built on foundations of lies, and those who live under them must, for survival, speak in code, even when speaking the truth. The words and behavior of dictators and their henchmen, therefore, mask hidden meanings; they cannot be understood at face value. Rather than grasp this difference, they argue, conventional intelligence experts have adopted a flawed analytical strategy called mirror-imaging–“i.e., imagining that the country one is studying is fundamentally similar to one’s own and hence can be understood in the same terms.”

Shulsky and Schmitt have a point: Mirror-imaging is indeed a problem at the C.I.A. But nevertheless, much of their critique belabors a straw man. Mirror-imaging, though a real problem, is not a strategy which anyone at the C.I.A. or elsewhere in the intelligence community defends. Rather, it’s an error that analysts are trained to avoid, but too often commit anyway. In 1998, for instance, the C.I.A. was caught flat-footed when India resumed testing nuclear weapons, a move that sparked a renewed arms race with neighboring Pakistan. The C.I.A. conducted an inquiry into its own failure and concluded that agency analysts could easily have foreseen the move. In the previous election, Hindu nationalist politicians had publicly promised to resume nuclear testing; but when they won, C.I.A. analysts simply presumed that they would act like their American counterparts and not follow through on their more-reckless campaign pledges (see “The C.I.A.’s Weakest Link,” by Loch Johnson, July/August 2001). On the eve of the detonations, the Indian government assured Western diplomats that they were not going to resume testing, and the agency chose to believe them. This deception, by democratic India, underscores another weakness in Shulsky and Schmitt’s critique: Tyrannies don’t exactly have a monopoly on deception.

The neocon policy intellectuals who came to power in the Bush administration were convinced that Saddam’s denials that he had reconstituted his nuclear or other WMD programs were an elaborate smokescreen. But unlike many other analysts, the neocons refused to be “fooled” by a general lack of hard evidence to this effect or that he had made alliances with Osama bin Laden. Instead, they imputed to stray bits of intelligence data–a reported meeting with a terrorist here, an aluminum tube there–an almost mystical significance, seeing each as evidence of Saddam’s boundless capacity for deceit.

Were the neocons fooling themselves? Or were they aware of the thinness of the evidence but willing to use it deceitfully to convince the public–and perhaps the president himself–to support the invasion? The neocons’ harshest critics believe the latter. They note, for instance, that Shulsky’s Special Plans office was borne out of the same Pentagon department where Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith once set up the equally mysterious “Office of Strategic Influence,” to send out disinformation to the enemy. That enterprise was quickly dismantled once lawmakers got wind of the fact that such an office could also–perhaps inadvertently –disseminate disinformation to the American public.

Critics also point to passages in Strauss’s own writings which they say countenance deception, even against the public, if committed by the select few who are wise enough to truly understand the national interest. Whether Strauss himself actually advocated this view is debatable; Shulsky and Schmitt don’t make the argument in their essay. But they do credit their mentor with an acceptance of the inevitability of deception that seems, in retrospect, rather suggestive. “Strauss’s view certainly alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception,” the authors write. “Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”

In the end, the neocons’ cynicism about Saddam may prove to have been right, but in ways contrary to what they believed. As Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times reported in August, U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq are investigating the possibility that Saddam, eager to project an image of strength to enemies within and outside the country, sent defectors to the West with bogus stories about the creation and maintenance of weapons stockpiles and programs that he didn’t, in fact, have. “We were prisoners of our own beliefs,” a senior U.S. weapons expert told Drogin. “We said Saddam Hussein was a master of denial and deception. Then when we couldn’t find anything, we said that proved it, instead of questioning our own assumptions.” The imprisonment-by-assumption thesis might also explain another mystery historians will have to sort out: how the neocons managed to convince themselves and many others that controlling post-Saddam Iraq would be a cakewalk because virtually all Iraqis would welcome invading G.I.s as liberators. Talk about mirror-imaging!

In a revealing moment of lightness in the essay, Shulsky and Schmitt affectionately compare their late mentor Strauss to the world-weary, disillusioned, but deeply wise figure from a world, not of deception, but of avowed fiction protagonist of the John Le Carr spy novel series, George Smiley. “In his gentleness, his ability to concentrate on detail, his consequent success in looking below the surface and reading between the lines, and his seeming unworldliness,” they write, “Leo Strauss may even be said to resemble, however faintly, the George Smiley of John Le Carr’s novels.”

But the novels of Le Carr may reveal more about what would take place in the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans than the essay’s authors could have recognized. Drawn to conclusions based on their obsessive conviction that rogue regimes like Saddam’s must harbor “hidden meanings,” that they must be “hiding something,” the authors nevertheless fail to maintain the intellectual discipline necessary to reach the correct conclusion about what precisely it was that Saddam was hiding. Indeed, the Iraq intelligence debacle swirling around Shulsky’s OSP seems to fit some of Le Carre’s enduring revelations about the espionage business: that intelligence is almost always politicized, and that the ideological assumptions and personal obsessions that drive people in the spook world can be as disabling as the secrets and disinformation with which their enemies set about to deceive them.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation