Washington's intelligence bubble needs a pin prick

Posted: Thursday, July 29, 2010

Though George Washington warned, "Over-grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty," vows to curtail military excess almost always go unheeded in the city of his namesake.

Indeed, the modern gravy train runs through my hometown of Alexandria, Va., a silver dollar's toss away from the white marble statues of our founding fathers.

Keys to new BMWs are handed out as "signing bonuses" and $50,000 flat fees go to headhunting firms who sell "Top Secret" experts on the free market, according to the Washington Post.

The gluttony should dismay Americans interested in a strong and efficient defense.

Even while the rest of the country suffers decline, these "experts" - including an estimated 265,000 top secret status carriers in the private sector - continue to live high on the hog,

To be sure, private intelligence agents do important work. They spy on the bad guys and think of better ways to kill them. They also advise America's top brass and plan for futuristic wars in different galaxies.

But Washington's mountain of "intelligence" re-spun from high-tech devices, analyzed, sliced and diced to fit a narrative of America at war with an enigmatic enemy also buries the good work of underpaid CIA linguists slogging it out in desolate posts abroad.

It is easy to forget amid the constant preparations for more war that America's real defense requires peace. As John Quincy Adams said in July 1821, America "has a spear and a shield: but the motto on her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace."

In the case of the "war on terror," this also requires persuading 1.2 billion Muslims that America has their best interests in mind - mainly democratic change, human rights and good will.

While travelling and researching in far-flung places of the Islamic realm for a new book, I stumbled on several key quandaries that help radicalize young Muslims to take up arms against my own country.

Muslims ask: Why is there no peace deal in Israel and Palestine? Does President Obama really want to use his brains and muscle to stamp out a lasting two-state peace deal? Why are American troops still fighting in Afghanistan? And why in the world is Osama bin Laden still running around the mountains of Pakistan?

These legitimate questions demand answers but folks in the Islamic realm do not have them. In fact, they don't even have many clues. As long as they remain open, al-Qaeda and its allies will fill the air with conspiracy theories. Their goal is to convince as many new recruits as possible that the United States would like nothing better than to permanently "occupy" the Islamic world.

Through rose-tinted lenses in Washington, America still stands for freedom and an end to all oppression.

Not so in the Islamic world, as I discovered.

The two "occupations" that concern Muslims the most are America's in South Asia and Israel's in the West Bank.

To his credit, President Obama is trying to pick up where his predecessor bought into "bad intelligence." He has expressed abhorrence for pre-emptive war. He also wants to finish the job in Afghanistan and Pakistan - clean out the rat's nest as it were - and pressure Israel - as much as is politically feasible for his own career - to end its occupation of the West Bank.

There can be little wonder as to why Afghans remain skeptical of U.S. intentions. After all, the war on their soil is now the longest in America's history.

Yet it is the other key "occupation" that forever mires America's efforts to be seen for what most of its own citizen's would rather she be: a peacemaker.

As long as the Mideast conflict simmers and boils, young Muslims will remain susceptible the views of radical leaders like Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, who told me in an interview that "without resisting the occupiers, the occupation, the occupier himself will never be convinced that he has to leave."

Herein lies the essential disconnect. Washington has convinced itself that it is facing an "offensive" and amorphous jihad from across the Islamic world, but this same "jihad" is usually viewed as a "defensive" one by the young Muslims subjected to such manipulations.

Al-Qaeda's propaganda geniuses - as opposed to "intelligence experts" - have crafted their own recruitment campaigns to play upon paranoia and fear. Their simple and direct message: "America and Israel want you under their boot."

But then it is hard to argue with global perceptions when you are so busy lavishing billions on brain power inside the Beltway.

• Philip Smucker is the author of "My Brother, My Enemy: America and the Battle of Ideas Across the Islamic World." His previous book was "Al-Qaeda's Great Escape."



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