Monday, May 03, 2004

David Ignatius has an entertaining little column in the Washington Post singing the praises of the US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Splattered with quotes attributed only to "a State Department official"--who, to everyone's utter shock, turns out to be quite fond of the Bureau--the column credits "INR", as the Bureau is called (apparently, good intelligence doesn't require good spelling) with an outstanding historical record of predictive acumen.

Ignatius' list of INR successes, however, is more amusing than arresting. One achievement--pre-war skepticism about the presence of WMDs in Iraq--could be described as at least somewhat impressive, given that it went strongly against the conventional wisdom of the time. The rest,however, are all statements of the obvious ("it warned in the late 1970s that if the Carter administration allowed the deposed shah of Iran to enter the United States for medical treatment, there would be trouble in Tehran"), takedowns of politicized predictions from other branches of government ("INR provided more accurate bomb damage assessments during the Vietnam War than did the Pentagon"), or both ("it warned before the March 2003 invasion about the political and ethnic turmoil that was likely in postwar Iraq").

Glaringly absent from this triumphant description of fifty-odd years of intelligence analysis is a single prediction of a major event that wasn't also being widely predicted by others. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo, the fall of the Shah in 1979, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, September 11th, 2001--all were world-changing surprises that "one of Washington's hidden jewels" with "an elite reputation" and "a culture that...demands expertise" might have earned its keep by predicting. But Ignatius can't seem to come up with any such triumph of intelligence and research. Instead, his INR hit parade has to be padded with fish-in-a-barrel prognostications like, "[i]n the Balkans, the bureau correctly cautioned that a bombing campaign would not force Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to leave Kosovo quickly." Even if it had never been wrong (and that's an impossibly big "if"), the INR would hardly have justified its 1999 budget with a no-brainer prediction like that. I only hope the inside information Ignatius extracted from his "State Department official" justified the humiliation of writing such a humiliatingly obsequious "source-greaser".