Three Charitable Ways of Looking at Imperial Hubris

June 21, 2004

For all of us who were licking our lips in anticipation of the soon-to-be-released book Imperial Hubris, a purported insider’s account of the failures of the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism policy that almost unbelievably is from someone still on the inside—namely, one of the CIA’s top analysts, today’s Talking Points Memo post by Spencer Ackerman and its addendum on Kevin Drum’s blog gave us something very bitter to chew on: the image of an intelligence community that is incredibly mad at our current President because he has not been ruthless enough:

…[The author, “Anonymous,” of Imperial Hubris] does believe, and states at numerous points in the book (and reiterates in our interview), that we have no choice but to fight a very bloody battle. He writes in the concluding chapter, in a section titled “Cant Will Kill Us,” that:

Our principles stop us from fighting bin Laden as he fights us. ‘We must fix the sources of al-Qaeda’s support — poverty, illiteracy, and hopelessness.’ ‘Bin Laden is attacking the civilized world; we must work with others and respond in a manner in line with international law.’ Cant, all cant — the obfuscating and ahistorical language of cowardice and defeat….

America is in a war for survival. Not survival in terms of protecting territory, but in terms of keeping the ability to live as we want, not as we must….There are two choices. We can continue using and believing the cant cited above, or we can act to preserve our way of life — what Mr. Lincoln said is man’s last best hope for self-government — by engaging in whatever martial behavior is needed. We owe this to ourselves, our heritage and our posterity. We protect none of these by cloaking cowardice with canting words about international comity, civilized norms, and high moral standards. Such words are proper only in a suicide note for the nation.

Messrs. Ackerman and Drum have already expressed their alarm at such a line of thought, as have other notable bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias, Daniel Drezner, and Adam Mordecai on the “Change for America” blog (the blog started by Joe Trippi, noted adviser to Howard Dean in the glory days of the Dean campaign).

Hence, I don’t think it would serve the Blogosphere all that much for little ol’ me to merely second all these motions for alarm. Instead, as a hopefully useful service to the Blogosphere, I now offer three (relatively) charitable ways of looking at Imperial Hubris:

[In declining order of seriousness…]

1) CIA folks, bless their game-theory, psyops, and covert-action hardened hearts, have a understandable proclivity to focus upon history’s harsh, amoral truths. For example, there’s this bon mot from Milt Bearden, at the end of his November 9, 2003 op-ed piece in The New York Times:

There were two stark lessons in the history of the 20th century: no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded.

[Mr. Bearden should know. He was a key CIA officer organizing the mujahadeen insurgency against the Russians in Afghanistan.] As a pertinent and recent example, there’s its corollary (whose attribution I forget) that the NATO action against the sovereign state of Serbia in 1999 should not be seen as a victory despite the obvious fact that Slobodan Milosevic is now facing a war crimes trial at The Hague. Instead, one can argue that the NATO bombing campaign was essentially a military/political failure. (After all, the conditions to which Milosevic acceded after the NATO bombing campaign were weaker than the Rambouillet Accords that the bombing was supposed to force upon him. Moreover, it gave Milosevic cover to accelerate tremendously his ethnic clensing of Kosovo.) In this line of thought, the only possible saving grace (and it’s a pretty perverse one) was that the damage the NATO bombing campaign did to Serbia’s civilian infrastructure—especially in Belgrade—convinced the Serbian middle-class and elite that Milosevic was a disaster, and this may have significantly contributed to the popular movement that overthrew him a year later (although it must be noted that the bombing by itself—i.e., in the absence of a critical mass of a grass-roots Serbian-nationalist-but-anti-Milosevic activists—probably wouldn’t have done anything).

2) CIA folks, bless their amoral game-theory/psyops/covert-action hardened hearts, have a really interesting take on how to build book publicity optimally: Be all things to all people (and, if necessary, omit or spin away gigantic parts of your arguments). In this case of “Anonymous” and his book Imperial Hubris, we read him in an interview with Julian Borger in the definitely dovish UK broadsheet The Guardian seemingly mentioning only his harsh criticisms of the Bush Administration and conveniently forgetting to mention any of his shocking proposals for what the Administration should do instead. Then, as quoted above, when interviewed with Spencer Ackerman (whose day job is with the often hawkish New Republic), Anonymous plays up his supposedly keen insights into the harsh, amoral side of history.

Now, to be honest, I only have one other data point for this hypothesis, but it’s a quite interesting and recent one. (Besides, as every desperate scientist knows, two points are all you need for a perfect linear fit. Indeed, it’s nigh-impossible to ever get a perfect linear fit with more!) This other data point is the notable attempt of retired CIA officer Robert Baer to be all things to all people as he publicized his second book Sleeping With The Devil by offering color commentary on the outing of most-definitely-not-retired CIA officer Valerie Plame by unnamed “senior White House officials” who feloniously passed information to partisan hack extraordinaire venerable journalistic institution Robert Novak. Specifically, when speaking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition on Oct 5, 2003, Baer was utterly indignant about the outing:

BLITZER: Bob Baer, you once worked undercover. You were a clandestine case officer for the CIA. What does this case say to you?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA AGENT: Well, it says a lot of things to me. I agree with Jim Woolsey. He’s absolutely right. This hurts national security, not only compromising the operations this woman might have been involved in, but more than that, the CIA, especially today, needs to go over and work under what we call non-official cover, you know, for law firms or whatever in order to do their job, to find out information about weapons of mass destruction.

We are now sending a message to the people who provide that cover, you can’t trust the CIA, or at least the White House.

… [Blitzer asks then question to former CIA director James Woolsey] …

BLITZER: Bob Baer, you speak with lot of your former colleagues over at the CIA. This must have a pretty serious impact on morale and attitude. What have you been hearing?

BAER: It’s demoralizing the ranks. What they’re feeling is they’re being — the CIA is being politicized continually. It hasn’t stopped. It occurred under the Clinton administration. It’s happening today.

And it frankly gets in the way of the job, and people are beginning to wonder exactly what the administration’s position or whoever leaked this is, vis-a-vis the CIA. And it’s making the job more difficult. It’s already dangerous enough. So it’s demoralized the place.

… [Blitzer plays clip of Novak on Crossfire. Asks another question of Woolsey]…

BLITZER: Last word from you, briefly, Bob Baer. What do you want to happen right now?

BAER: I want some accountability on this, find out who did it, and this has got to stop. And I think it would really help the CIA to identify somebody and get the agreement of the journalists and the politicians to quit messing around in intelligence.

… but when speaking to Pat Robertson just a day later on CBN (as transcribed by Billmon*), he was quite willing to put the most charitable possible spin on the scandal:

Pat Robertson: Bob Baer, thank you for being with us today.

Robert Baer: Thank for having me, Pat.

Pat Roberston: Listen, what about this Wilson wife thing? Did you know her? Did you work with her at the CIA?

Robert Baer: No, I didn’t know her, but I’ve certainly read a lot about it. And I listened to your earlier comments, and I agree with you. This is a tempest in a teapot. First of all, it’s not illegal to name one person. You have to do it repeatedly, and it has to be with the intention of harming national security. So, we’re never going to get an indictment against whoever leaked that name, but it may be a political vehicle to go after the White House.

Pat Roberston: I mean, again, what’s the big deal? Was she, as far as you can tell, in deep-cover counterintelligence, or was she an analyst as Novak said?

Robert Baer: Well, apparently she was an analyst. The problem is that Novak doesn’t get to decide whose cover can be rolled back and who can’t. But we also had the case of Sen. (Robert) Toricelli (D-NJ), who leaked two names of two people who were definitely undercover and had to be withdrawn from overseas. And an independent counsel wasn’t appointed then. So, this happens on both sides of the House and the Senate.

(* Personal Historical Note: That comment by “wmk” on the Billmon post bringing to Billmon’s attention Mr. Baer’s comments to Wolf Blitzer was my very first contribution to the Blogosphere. Ah, those were the days…)

3) The Lord has an incomprehensibly sublime sense of humor. A supreme irony like a book entitled Imperial Hubris containing enjoinders for total war exists in the same category as that motto of Thomas Jefferson

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

which stands as one of the most gorgeous pieces of political rhetoric ever penned in the English language despite being a grotesque hypocrisy for Mr. Jefferson personally.

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One Response to “Three Charitable Ways of Looking at Imperial Hubris


  1. The above sound like pretty uncharitable ways of looking at IH

    I’d paraphrase them as:

    1. Maybe he’s bloodthirsty, but he’s a spook. They’re like that.
    2. He’s just playing the bloodthirst card for the book tour.
    3. God only knows…


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