Thursday, October 23, 2014

The ISIS surprise and its meaning

ISIS' rapid advance through Syria and Iraq and its indifferent brutality have been frightening. Starting as an Iraqi terrorist group with links to Al Qaeda, it has grown amidst the chaos of the Syrian uprising by capturing weapons and Humvees, robbing banks, and taking over oil fields. Obama’s opponents see its progress as one sign that his policy for containing threats to the United States and its interests is failing. Obama himself has projected a degree of uncertainty when he said that, “The intelligence agencies had underestimated the peril posed by the Islamic State," and that the U.S., “Did not yet have a strategy” to confront ISIS. 

[Added text in response to readers' good questions: The purpose of this post is to explore the nature of this uncertainty as Obama experienced it. I am not actually examining the real politics of ISIS and its impact on international affairs. I am speculating about how Obama might have seen this real politics. I am arguing that Obama has been hobbled by a stance of ambivalence toward the U.S engagement with the Middle East. He believes, I speculate, that the Iraq invasion and its aftermath represented a kind of defeat for the US, but that the stakes for the US in the Middle East do not allow for disengagement. I suggest that this ambivalence underlies why he might have been surprised by ISIS,  and why he was defensive in responding to the claims that he was surprised.This process is one example of the impact of ambivalence on executive action]

One question journalists and others have sensibly asked is why was the president and his administration surprised, and why doesn’t Obama have a strategy? After all, as one broadcast journalist reports, in describing ISIS’ origins and expansion, “That process actually began as early as mid-to-late 2009. It was at that point that the Islamic State was in some ways forced to devolve into a typical terrorist organization. At that point it relocated much of its central leadership to Mosul (Iraq), which was a relative safe zone, and it was at that point that it essentially began its period of recovery.” 

It seems unlikely that with this extended history, the ISIS insurgency was a complete surprise. Indeed, when Obama faulted the intelligence agencies for failing to grasp the threat it represented, several intelligence heads replied in public that in fact they had warned the Obama administration. Indeed, one intelligence official testified to Congress this past February saying, “ISIS will probably attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” Similarly, CIA director John Brennan, “Defended his agency’s performance on intelligence in Iraq, saying that the CIA had been watching for ‘many months’ how ISIS was 'growing in capability in Fallujah areas and how they were expanding their reach.'”

Nonetheless, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), Admral Michael Rogers, acknowledged that the intelligence community had underestimated the Islamic State’s transformation, “From an insurgency to an organization that was now also focused on holding ground territory. ‘It’s an area we talked about,’ he said, ‘but in hindsight, I wish we had been a little — I’ll only speak for me and for NSA — I wish we’d been a little stronger about.’” In other words, everyone was watching ISIS, but intelligence analysts, at least at the NSA, failed to anticipate the change in its intentions, from being an insurgency wreaking havoc with suicide bombers, to becoming a group that wanted to hold territory. This failure, if Rogers’ statement is accurate, evokes two classical challenges to intelligence. First, it is very hard to gauge an enemy’s intentions, particularly if you do not have spies on the ground.  Second, an untested assumption-- ISIS is an insurgency rather than an army occupying territory -- shapes what information you pay attention to and what you ignore. It can become your blind spot.

Indeed, the Obama administration misread the Iraqi army’s capability as well. Commenting on ISIS, a panel of intelligence agency officials, including the CIA’s Brennan, concluded that, “One of the biggest blind spots was the lack of good insight not only into the Islamic State, but into the readiness and state of the Iraqi security forces that the United States had been training and equipping for years.” Brennan went on to note that, “One of the most difficult things is trying to determine the will to fight. It speaks almost to intent.” In other words, good intelligence helps you assess an enemy’s or ally’s state of mind, and not just its position or material resources. As the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu argued, one does not defeat the enemy per se, but the enemy’s strategy, which is an outcome of his intentions and his self-assessed capabilities. But this is as much a matter of psychology as it is of data gathering. 

This failure highlights yet another source of intelligence failure, and that is the failure to deconstruct the assumptions behind’s one’s own strategy. It appears that for some time the Obama administration, viewing ISIS as an insurgency, worried most about its threat in the West—terrorists killing individuals- rather than to the West—hostile armies taking territory. Hundreds of young men with European passports were going to Syria and joining up with ISIS. Would some return to their countries of origin, determined to wreak havoc in Europe the U.S. and other western countries, by bombing facilities and killing individuals? Examining the Syrian insurgency one reporter noted, that administration officials were asking,  Is this a local fight? Are they going there to really just battle the Syrian forces and topple [Syrian President Bashar] Assad? Or is there even a small percentage of these folks who are going to return home and turn their sights on western victims and their fellow citizens?” As Obama noted, “In terms of immediate threats to the United States, IISL (ISIS), those folks could kill Americans.” Indeed, on September 18, “Counter-terrorism raids in Sydney, Australia were sparked by security intelligence that ISIS was planning a violent random attack as a demonstration of its reach.” In this sense, it was necessary to focus on threats to citizens in the West but it was not sufficient. ISIS is operating on two fronts, fighting as an army and acting as terrorists, with success on one front triggering success on the other.

One question is whether or not these intelligence failures; the failure to gauge an enemy’s intention, an ally’s capabilities and to test one’s own assumptions, were in some sense motivated. By “motivated,” I mean that there are emotional and thus un-verbalized reasons for neglecting intelligence that is available. Motivated failures can lead to what Zvi Lanir calls, “fundamental surprises.” For example, the Israelis’ were surprised by the success of Egyptian and Syrian attacks in the first days of the Yom Kippur war (1973), not for want of intelligence,-- the prime minister’s cabinet debated a preemptive air strike six hours before the war began-- but because their victory in the earlier "six-day war" (1967) created a self concept of themselves as a regional power that could enforce the status quo. Moreover, military doctrine presumed that the Arabs would attack only to destroy Israel, a near impossibility, rather to gain tactical advantage, as Egypt eventually did, despite its defeat militarily. As Lanir goes on to note, “In this context, information about the enemy, accurate as it was, had very little relevance in creating a more complex understanding of the national “self,” nor did it support an understanding of the “other” in relation to them.”
The question is what concepts of the national “self” and of the “other” have underlined Obama’s response to the ISIS threat. One hypothesis is that Obama represents the idea of the United States as a militarily defeated nation. In light of the enormous expense of the Iraq invasion and its chaotic aftermath, the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the failure to secure a legitimate government in Baghdad, this self-concept of the U.S. as a defeated nation may in fact appear reasonable. But with this self-concept there is a temptation to see the enemy, the “other” in Lanir’s terms, as a group of outlaws or brigands who can be contained or eliminated through police actions rather than military activity. This may be one reason why Obama came to rely on the use of drones to kill individual terrorists as the best exemplar of U.S. power. 

This self-concept may also be why Obama had hoped early in his administration, to pivot his attention from the Middle East to Asia. The presenting issue Obama faces in Asia is how to coopt China as a partner while acknowledging its increasing standing and global reach. While he can project power in Asia by “increasing U.S. naval and air force assets in the Pacific,” he will exercise power if he can create economic arrangements that tie China, its Asian neighbors and the U.S. together. The challenge is using economic diplomacy not military forces.

But John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, described one additional rationale for the pivot to Asia. “Obama wanted to signal that the Bush-era obsessions with the Middle East, democratization, and terrorism were over.” The term, “obsessions” suggests, if Kerry is an accurate reporter, that Obama believed that the focus on the middle-east had been inappropriate and misdirected, that Bush had inappropriately personalized the issue. But in light of our hypothesis it also suggests that the Pivot to Asia was a psychological defense against confronting the intractability, messiness and failures associated with the middle-east. This may be one reason why Obama and the intelligence agencies misread the Iraqi army’s capabilities. If the Iraqi army was competent, the U.S. troop withdrawal would not jeopardize the region’s stability, and Obama could undertake the pivot without risking the reputation and standing of the U.S. 
My reader might still object that the idea of the U.S. as a defeated nation is after all realistic. But I want to suggest that Obama has internalized this idea psychologically under feelings of duress, rather than as the foundation for a strategy. He is resisting the idea just as he is has embraced it.  This point of view can account for three examples of Obama’s defensiveness in articulating his thinking about ISIS,

First, as we have seen, he initially blamed the intelligence agencies rather than himself for failing to anticipate ISIS’ rise. Second, when a New Yorker reporter interviewed Obama, he characterized ISIS and other terrorist groups as “junior varsity”* basketball players when compared to “pros” such as Al Qaeda. The reporter described Obama’s remark as “uncharacteristically flip.” A person’s flip response, particularly when it is uncharacteristic, signals their defensiveness, their unwillingness to consider a difficult and psychologically threatening question seriously. Third and finally, this may also be why he willingly conceded, that despite ISIS’ long-term buildup, he had no strategy for confronting it. This self-defeating comment is sensible only if his failure to secure a strategy meant that the obstacles ISIS presented were almost too great to be overcome. If so he should not be held accountable for lacking one. These defensive comments suggests that he lacks conviction in his own decisions. If my argument is reasonable, he lacks conviction because he believes but cannot yet suppose that the United States is a defeated power. This situation creates emotional duress and impairs judgment.

This duress may have deeper roots. Obama faces the dilemma of choosing between two different frames of reference for countering the threats in the Middle East. On the one side he can look at the region as the setting for the struggle against fundamentalism, or on the other, as the struggle for democracy. Despite our wishes, the two struggles are decidedly not equivalent and their difference has bedeviled Obama since the beginning. For example, Egypt as an autocracy is a good defense against fundamentalism, but a poor example of a democracy. Hamas was elected democratically, but maintains a fundamentalist cast. Iraq is a limited democracy burdened by fundamentalist currents. Bashar al Assad, the president of Syria represented secular Arabism but dictatorial tendencies. Indeed, as late as 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state said that, "The elements that led to intervention in Libya -- international condemnation, an Arab League call for action, a United Nations Security Council resolution -- are “not going to happen” with Syria in part because members of the U.S. Congress from both parties say they believe Assad is 'a reformer.'"

There is of course a strand of American idealism in the field of international relations that considers the choice between combating fundamentalism and supporting democracy to be a false one.  This was the basis for Bush’s confidence in invading Iraq in the first place. He would advance democracy in Iraq and in the process defeat fundamentalism in the region. He would export “democracy” much as the Soviet Union once exported revolution. This idealism allowed him to be decisive even if ultimately mistaken. This was also Christopher Stevens’ worldview, the American ambassador to Libya, who was killed in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. Shortly before leaving for Libya he shot a video for the Libyan people, describing his pride in pluralism and democracy and his belief that Libya, like the United States could achieve these ideals, and if necessary, through conflict. Of course, the collapse of Libya as a nation state and its devolution into an arena for tribal warfare is yet another witness against the case for this idealism.

It is reported that during the Cuban missile crisis, Richard Neustadt, the famous Harvard political scientist wanted to warn John F. Kennedy against precipitous action. The then Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, is purported to have said, “I know your advice, Professor. You think the president needs to be warned. But you’re wrong. The president needs to be given confidence.” Idealism to be sure is one source of confidence, but realism can be another. Acting realistically often means considering two choices that rub up against each other and choosing one as the focal point and the other as the backdrop. It is a matter of setting priorities. One takes action in relationship to the focal choice, for example fighting fundamentalism, while creating contingency plans and enacting defensive tactics, should the background choice, for example, supporting democracy, prove more decisive in the longer run.
When a leader fails to make such a choice, their actions take on the quality of ambivalence and detachment. Indeed, it is the ambivalence that stimulates the detachment as a psychological defense. The detachment reduces the felt burden of failing to choose.  It is now a common trope that Obama projects a kind of detachment as a leader. In a recent interview, Leon Panetta the former CIA director under Obama and author of a new book, Worthy Fights, said of Obama, "Too often in my view the President relies on the logic of the law professor rather than the passion of a leader." The reference to the professor evokes the idea of the “armchair” theorist who thinks coherently but can’t translate thoughts into actions.
I think that Obama’s professorial stance has much strength. As Philip Tetlock shows in his masterful study, Expert political judgment: How good is it, how can we know, detached observes who take an ironical stance toward the world are often better prognosticators. They are not impassioned by a worldview that oversimplifies their conception of a complex political situation. This may very well have been Bush’s fatal flaw. Moreover, the detached observer can avoid impulsiveness, a tempting stance when reality seems too complicated to decode. But at the same time this detachment in the hands of an executive who must take actions, can stimulate withdrawal, defensiveness, and ultimately mistakes. I want to suggest that Obama is caught in a situation of ambivalence, accepting but resisting the idea of the U.S. as a defeated nation, while stuck in the choice between promoting democracy or defeating fundamentalism

*For my colleagues outside of the U.S. the “junior varsity” is a group of inexperienced basketball players, often on a high school team, who take a back seat to the varsity players when the team plays opponents from other schools.


  1. Another consideration to explain Obama's 'detachment' is the nearly inhuman load of crises he has endured from the start: economic meltdown, Republican viciousness and blockade, threat to Obama care, a second presidential campaign, war in Afghanistan, Putin and Ukraine, choosing targets for drone killings, the middle east (Iran, Palestine, Israel), now Ebola. I hope he can get some sleep at night. He has to protect his mental state, and his family.

  2. Larry - do you think that Obama has moved into a depressive fatalistic position - the world is too messy, complex and mixed up; he intellectualizes but finds action, especially purposeful fighting, difficult to undertake? Norbert's observation above, that he is an 'unlucky' president, may itself be a consequence of his depressive position where relatively to be expected challenges and crises are presented as insurmountable disasters.

  3. Thanks Yiannis. My hypothesis about Obama supports your idea that he carries the sense of defeat in him. In the post I speculate that source of this sense of defeat is based partly on his interpretation of the limits of US power. It is easy to imagine how the intractable Middle East could induce in anyone a sense of defeat. But there may be other more personal dynamics at play, attached to his tendency to withdraw. I am not sure how to tease these out. Perhaps you have some more thoughts about this