The temptation to think

John McLaughlin spent his professional career in the Central Intelligence Agency over a period of 32 years, rising to the position of deputy director from 2000 to 2004. He served as acting director of the agency from George Tenet’s resignation until Porter Goss’s confirmation as Tenet’s successor. McLaughlin himself resigned shortly thereafter in opposition to Goss’s efforts to stop the agency’s persistent efforts to undermine administration foreign policy. In today’s Washington Post, McLauglin speaks in his own name: “We have to talk to bad guys.” McLaughlin draws five lesson from the current fighting in the Middle East:

Lesson No. 1 is that change occurs incrementally and almost imperceptibly in the Middle East, but when it reaches critical mass, the potential for surprise and disaster is enormous. The current situation did not emerge overnight. The death of Yasser Arafat presented a huge opportunity for the international community to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and reform the Palestinian Authority. But that effort largely stalled despite strenuous efforts by the special envoy representing the Quartet — the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. This helped set the stage for the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. Hamas’s control of the West Bank and Gaza and its estrangement from the international community gave Hezbollah, in Lebanon, unprecedented opportunities and reach into those areas. The continuing weakness of the Lebanese government allowed Hezbollah a free hand in its home base.

McLaughlin attributes the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority to inssufficient external efforts to prop up Mahmoud Abbas, yet not a single fact is cited to support the proposition. McLaughlin further asserts that the rise of Hamas to political power in the Palestinian Authority gave Hezbollah “unprecedented reach” into those areas. Again, no evidence is cited. The meaning of the statement is unclear at best. Is there any terrorist group that has had difficulty operating under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority at any time? Moreover, Hezbollah has had a free hand in its home base since the withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon six years ago. There does not appear to be a single sentence of McLauglin’s lesson one validly supporting his theme that administration inaction has somehow contributed to the current war.

Lesson No. 2 is that the chances of detecting and heading off imminent disaster are enhanced when there is intense, unrelenting and daily attention by a senior and respected U.S. figure who wakes up every morning worrying about nothing else — the role that Ambassador Dennis Ross played so effectively in the 1990s. It is true that plenty of able people in the U.S. government still focus on the Middle East. But without constant tending to the concerns of all the regional parties, rapid flagging of issues for decision in Washington and continuity of focus by one individual with access, we will lurch from crisis to crisis.

Again, not a single fact supports Lesson No. 2. McLaughlin’s lips move, but he’s not saying anything.

Lesson No. 3, related to all of this, is that process matters, especially in the Middle East, where the issues are so contentious and the parties so divided. Without ongoing, regular and near-continuous negotiation, there are few reference points that all the parties can accept when conflict breaks out. It may not even matter whether perceptible progress is occurring continuously. The important thing is that the table is always set, everyone has a chair and someone is in charge. That has not been the case for some time in the Middle East.

Lesson No. 3 is also lacking in factual support for the proposition that “process matters” in the Middle East. When was someone last in charge in the Middle East? It’s not clear, but taking a hint from McLaughlin’s reference to Dennis Ross, I’m afraid it’s when Bill Clinton was president.

Lesson No. 4 is that even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. The absence of a diplomatic relationship with Iran and the deterioration of the one with Syria — two countries that bear enormous responsibility for the current crisis — leave the United States with fewer options and levers than might otherwise have been the case. Distasteful as it might have been to have or to maintain open and normal relations with such states, the absence of such relations ensures that we will have more blind spots than we can afford and that we will have to deal through surrogates on issues of vital importance to the United States. We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.

Facts? Evidence? I thought it was the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency to prevent “blind spots” with respect to our enemies. Apparently not.

Lesson No. 5 is that there are no unilateral solutions to today’s international problems, not even for superpowers. They have been rendered impossible by a host of factors unique to this era — globalization, the Internet, the technological revolution and the increasing role of non-state actors with influence that spills across existing borders. The disproportionate influence of Hezbollah at the moment illustrates the point. This doesn’t mean turning everything over to international forums. But it is tempting to think that successful passage through the current thicket might have been eased by steps such as a series of regional conferences, linked to our allies and to the United Nations, at which all parties could have been forced — grudgingly and slowly — to put their cards on the table regarding issues such as Iraq, regionally based terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would this have gotten us anywhere?

“[I]t is tempting to think…”? I’m afraid that McLaughlin has not succumbed to the temptation.

In a region as complex as the Middle East, nothing guarantees progress. But what is clear is that these problems are intertwined, that all the states in the region have vital interests at stake, and that approaching these issues serially will only prolong the familiar cycle of one step forward and two steps back.

McLaughlin appears to have added a Lesson Six: Don’t approach the problems serially. Approach them all at the same time. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. And while we’re at it, can we approach the problem that the powers-that-be at the Central Intelligence Agency appear to be morons?

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