The Distortions of U.S. Intelligence and U.S. International Strategy

Changes are necessary in U.S. foreign policy during the President’s second term. But getting those changes in the face of what appears to be a fairly impregnable White House seems unlikely.

The President’s Intelligence Advisory Board composed of present and past senior foreign policy figures, have cautioned that U.S. Intelligence has become distorted, beyond recognition. The overwhelming focus since 2001 on al-Qaeda and other terrorists – known in the business as non-state actors – has weakened America’s focus on far more significant issues for the U.S. such as China and Iran.

In the process, the CIA has become a paramilitary organization, operating drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and across Africa. As more and more resources have been channeled to its paramilitary operations, the CIA’s focus on intelligence collection and analysis has been weakened – not just for China and Iran but also across the board.

Simultaneously, the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has provided the opportunity to understand just what the U.S. has been trying to accomplish in the world over the last decade. Mostly, it seems, it has been up to trying to kill terrorists. In that regard the U.S. has been brilliantly successful.

But what we know from the American experience (and the Israeli experience with the Palestinians and the Turkish experience with its Kurdish citizens) is that there are always new terrorists waiting to succeed to any vacancies that might arise in the terrorist hierarchy.

The U.S. may have largely disabled al-Qaeda through assassinations but many new comparable groups have arisen – in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere. Moreover, the leanings of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria provide little comfort for the future of that country.

So what’s the proper U.S. response?

  1. Get the CIA Back to its original business of intelligence rather than para-military operations. That’s the job of the military not an intelligence agency. Ending the CIA’s operational role will be a formidable challenge. Powerful institutional interests and budgets bake in the operational role. CIA’s new director, John Brennan, former counter-terrorism czar at the White House, will not make it easier.
  2. Understand that killing your enemies can get you only so far. All of Israel’s former Shin Bet chiefs appear in an Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, and make clear that killing your enemy has its limits. Negotiations with them ultimately prove more successful.
  3. Develop a strategy for U.S. international relations. Make a determination of what is the country is trying to accomplish globally and the best ways those goals might be accomplished. For the past decade the U.S. has been doing tactics – how to kill more guerillas, how to shore up the Iraqi and Afghan governments, how to prevent jihadists from taking over Libya, how to cope with North Korea’s threats, and the like. But a strategy would entail the determination of a position of advantage for the U.S. vis a vis actual or potential adversaries. That would include the sources of such advantage and the capabilities to realize them.
  4. Simultaneously, the U.S. has wisely begun to reduce the ‘public goods’ it provides to the rest of the world. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has taken the lead in virtually all international crises. The result has been the globalization of American power – at immense costs to the U.S. while diminishing the costs to our allies. That situation is beginning to reverse. For examples, see Libya and Syria. The U.S. held back in Libya and continues to hold back the exercise of its power in Syria. The U.K. and France have begun to assume more responsibility for those crises.
  5. The principal adversary of the U.S. for the foreseeable future is China. The U.S. focus on the Middle East has diminished the U.S. commitment of resources to understanding and dealing with China. The most important issue in preparing a U.S. strategy for China is to understand China, its leaders, and their goals. Vast resources need be directed at understanding. It is impossible to respond appropriately to what they are doing if one doesn’t understand what they are trying to accomplish. That means massive numbers of analysts with language skills, conversant with Chinese culture and history, who work on “getting” China’s actions.
  6. The same, of course, goes for Iran. A military assault on Iran is not in the interests of the U.S. (and certainly not of Iran). The implication is that containment may be necessary, containment that worked for decades against the Soviet Union. That course cannot be known, however, without serious attempts by the U.S. to negotiate with Iran. In this case, ‘serious’ means understanding what Iran wants and finding ways to make it attractive for Iran to accept what the U.S. wants. There is little evidence that the U.S. has negotiated seriously with Iran to the present, having failed to offer Iran any meaningful carrots along with the omnipresent sticks.

These then are the foreign policy challenges ahead for Obama’s second term. With Kerry and Hagel in new powerful positions there is a possibility that new thinking can be brought to bear on the White House. But much more likely is a perpetuation of the tactical foreign policy of the past four years. There appears to be too little “new blood” to overcome the inertia of an inbred set of Presidential advisers and White House staffers.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, The University of Chicago. He can be reached at

6 Responses to "The Distortions of U.S. Intelligence and U.S. International Strategy"

  1. llisa2u2   March 25, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    Isn't the assumption of "para-military operations" indicative of an increasing trend of establishing an organization to support a police state? Isn't the CIA assuming functions similar to the gestapo of the Nazi's of WW2? I just did a quick review on Wikipedia, and quote:"The basic Gestapo law passed by the government in 1936 gave the Gestapo carte blanche to operate without judicial oversight ". Sure seems to me that the CIA is already doing the same under what legislation?