A Look at Stephen Marrin’s “Improving Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline” and Remembering a Professor and Friend, Roger Hilsman

Stephen Marrin says literature in intelligence studies must be compiled and evaluated in a structured way for it to become aggregated and made cumulative as the literature of other academic disciplines. Intelligence studies writers today often overlook past practitioners’ works. Marrin says contributions by Roger Hilsman (above) are among those overlooked. Hilsman was this author’s professor, faculty advisor, and friend during undergraduate and graduate study. Due to the fact it is edifying and thought provoking, and due to sentiment over a generous professor, greatcharlie.com has presented Marrin’s article to its readers.

In February 2016, Routledge, part of the Taylor & Francis Group, provided free online access to an article from Intelligence and National Security entitled “Improving Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline.” The article, by Stephen Marrin, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst and General Accounting Office analyst and current associate professor at James Madison University, considers whether the body of intelligence studies scholarship is sufficient as a basis for the development of intelligence studies as an academic discipline. In the article, Marrin notes that in the 1950s, there was concern that the lack of literature on the intelligence profession. Ensuring that knowledge about the intelligence business would be captured and made accessible to others was uncertain. He says that paucity has been resolved as both government and academia have been contributing literature to advance knowledge in the field. However, he argues intelligence studies literature has not been compiled, evaluated, and aggregated in a structured process yet. Marrin illustrates this by reviewing the discourse on the view of Sherman Kent, the renowned Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and CIA intelligence analyst, that the “integrity” or independence of the analytic function had to be retained outside the direct line authority of the decision maker. For the counterargument, researchers often turn to Kent’s contemporary, Willmoore Kendall, who suggested that if this were done the contribution from intelligence analysts would be marginalized in the decision making process.

Marrin is convinced that Roger Hilsman’s 1952 writings are as good as or better than Kendall’s in challenging some of Kent’s ideas. Nevertheless, he says Hilsman’s work is usually overlooked. Marrin further discusses Hilsman’s strong case for a closer relationship between intelligence analysis and decision making. Hilsman argued, “a more effective integration of knowledge and action”—or intelligence analysis and decision making—will require intelligence analysts to become more policy-oriented. Hilsman also argued that in order for intelligence to be “useful and significant,” it “should be frankly and consciously concerned with policy” and that its practitioners should have “a frame of mind which is … instrumental, action-conscious, policy-oriented. The major task before the researchers is one of recasting their thought to the context of action, and adapting their tools to the needs of policy.” Marrin believes the rediscovery of Hilsman’s work and those of others will result in a much more substantive debate about the respective roles and functions of intelligence analysis vis-à-vis decision maker assessment. Marrin later proffers that intelligence studies should emulate the key practices that enable any field of knowledge to become cumulative and in doing so become its own coherent academic discipline. In reviewing the need to evaluate intelligence studies for gaps or holes as a step to become more cumulative, Marrin discusses Hilsman’s evaluation of “the academic observers” in Strategic Intelligence and National Decisions (The Free Press, 1956)). Marrin’s article is edifying, thought provoking, and another valuable contribution by him to the body of intelligence studies scholarship.

What is most interesting to this author is Marrin’s reference to Roger Hilsman’s work. Hilsman was this author’s professor, independent study advisor, faculty advisor, and friend during undergraduate study at Columbia College, Columbia University, and mentor during graduate study at Columbia. Hilsman was a phenomenal educator. Discussions on policymaking and analysis that he had with students during seminars held at his residence were marked not only by the inspiration and encouragement he would give to students in their research and career plans, but also by a frankness and realism that would give them a leg up in future endeavors. The reminiscences Hilsman would share directly with this author during office hours were from those periods of his life that are perhaps the most intriguing in his biography. That included: studying at West Point; service in Merrill’s Marauder’s and command of an OSS guerilla warfare battalion both in Burma in World War II; work as a military planner for NATO and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe; service in the administration of US President John Kennedy as Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research for the US Department of State; and, service as Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs in the administration of US President Lyndon Johnson. During lectures, he would always provide a riveting anecdote from his experiences during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to accompany his “pearls of wisdom”. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of what he proffered on intelligence analysis and “the politics of policymaking” was the need not only to gather and analyze intelligence to understand key actors among ones’ opponents and to formulate policy, but to understand the relevant actors in the US policymaking process to understand how to promote, formulate, and implement viable policy approaches. Due greatly to the insights and lessons, and due in part to nostalgia and sentiment for a generous professor, greatcharlie.com has decided, with permission from Taylor & Francis Online, to present Marrin’s article to its readers. Quod enim munus rei publicae ad ferre maius mellusve possumus, quam si docemus atque erudimus luventutem? (What greater or better gift (or performance of duty) can we bring to the state than if we teach and instruct youth?)

Stephen Marrin, “Improving Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline,” Intelligence and National Security 31, no. 2 (February 2016): 266-279.

Abstract

As the field of intelligence studies develops as an academic complement to the practice of national security intelligence, it is providing a base of knowledge for intelligence practitioners to interpret their past, understand their present, and forecast their future. It also provides the basis for broader understanding of intelligence as a function of government for other government and security officials, academicians, and the general public. In recent years there has been significant growth in the numbers and kinds of intelligence-related educational and training opportunities, with the knowledge taught in these courses and programs derived from the body of intelligence studies scholarship. The question posed here is: to what extent is this body of knowledge sufficient as a basis for the development of intelligence studies as an academic discipline?

Intelligence studies is an academic complement to the practice of national security intelligence; the contribution that higher education makes to interpreting its past, understanding its present, and forecasting its future. It forms a body of knowledge that is academic—frequently embedded within broader studies of government and foreign policy—yet also useful for the intelligence professional. As the literature grows and entire academic degree programs, departments, and even colleges are dedicated to the study and teaching of intelligence, it is becoming more established as an academic discipline.1 At the same time, there are significant gaps in the literature due to a generalized failure to ensure knowledge accumulation and aggregation over time. Improving intelligence studies as an academic discipline will require reinforcing best practices that exist in academia by identifying, acquiring, storing, creating, and disseminating new knowledge.2 More effective implementation of these practices will strengthen the coherence of intelligence studies as an academic discipline while at the same time increasing its impact on broader scholarship, public understanding, and government practice.

Intelligence Studies Literature: Large and Growing

The intelligence studies literature is quite large, and growing. This was not always true, however. In 1955, Sherman Kent observed that the intelligence profession lacked a literature and as a result was unable to ensure that knowledge about the intelligence business was captured and made accessible to others.3 To address this inadequacy, Kent strongly argued for the self-conscious development of a professional literature. Soon after, in 1957 Washington Platt observed that: “the literature dealing specifically with the principles of strategic intelligence is scant, and does not reflect even the best of what is now known.”4 Platt attributed this to “the newness of the systematic pursuit of strategic intelligence, and in part to the lack of graduate courses and graduate students” as well as the general paucity of researchers on the subject.

Many of the problems of the 1950s and the early years of intelligence studies have been fixed as both government and academia have contributed to knowledge advancement in the field. The US government has traditionally participated in this process through CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence, and National Intelligence University’s Center for Strategic Intelligence Research.5  Other governments such as Britain, Romania, Turkey, and Spain have also begun to support intelligence studies research, especially through intelligence studies associations. At the same time, academia has contributed to intelligence studies through the development of a cadre of intelligence studies specialists primarily in political science and history departments. They tend to come together in conferences organized by various academic and professional associations where a good part of the intelligence studies scholarship is developed and presented. Foremost among these are the Intelligence Studies Section portion of the annual International Studies Association conference, the British Study Group on Intelligence and Security and Intelligence Study Group, the Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies, and the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers, though many others also support intelligence studies research and scholarship.

Once it has been developed, new contributions to the intelligence studies literature are then published in a handful of dedicated journals including the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security, the more policy-oriented International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, and the widely-referenced CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, in addition to more specialized journals generally produced by various intelligence-related organizations and associations.6 While most of the intelligence studies literature exists in the form of journal articles, book publishers have also gotten involved, with Routledge’s Studies in Intelligence book series focusing on the research market, Rowman and Littlefield’s Professional Intelligence Education Series focusing on the practitioner market, and Georgetown University Press and CQ Press focusing on the academic market. The growing literature makes up the body of knowledge in the field. The accumulation of the literature has become so notable that in 2009 the Chronicle of Higher Education published a profile of intelligence studies as a growing academic discipline.7

When one surveys the extensive intelligence studies literature in all its variety, the literature can appear to be quite large indeed. Scholars who have evaluated the intelligence studies literature have focused on general overviews or the state of the literature in specific countries.8 Some of these evaluations have even focused on the importance of learning from history, both for its own sake as well as for improving practice in the future.9 This is, essentially, the contribution that scholarship can make to practitioner-oriented efforts to learn from past experience in various history and lessons learned centers which are dedicated to avoid the Santayana admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”10

At the same time, there are some significant problems with the intelligence studies literature which is impeding the field from developing as a coherent academic discipline. In general the intelligence literature is rich in history but both insular and theoretically thin perhaps because of a generalized failure to ensure knowledge accumulation and aggregation over time.

Failing to be Cumulative

The primary problem with the intelligence studies literature specifically is that it is anything but cumulative regarding its own intellectual history. Intelligence studies as a field of knowledge has books and journals to document “lessons identified” but it does not have a structured process for compiling and evaluating the literature so that it is aggregated and made cumulative.

Referencing prior work on the same or similar subjects, a technique used to layer new knowledge on top of old as a way to ensure knowledge is cumulative, is infrequently done by intelligence studies’ authors. Even those who should cite relevant contributions from the three core journals in the field frequently fail to do so. The end result is the repetition of ideas and knowledge rather than the creation of new knowledge. To mix a couple of metaphors, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants and creating an academic discipline, intelligence scholars seem to be re-inventing the conceptual wheel every 15 years or so without really making advances in terms of disciplinary knowledge. While this kind of conceptual repetition occurs in other academic fields as well, frequently characterized by the phrase “old wine in new bottles”, it is especially noticeable in the intelligence studies domain.

Failing to Learn from Sherman Kent

This is not to imply that past knowledge has been forgotten completely. For example, over the past 25 years Sherman Kent has been established as one of the giants in the field partly due to the efforts of Jack Davis, who has raised Sherman Kent’s profile significantly through his writings.11 This higher profile helps in the knowledge aggregation process because it provides a touchstone in the literature that later scholars and practitioners can refer back to. They can then use it as a jumping off point to make additional observations and contributions to the body of knowledge. But even then, sometimes key ideas fail to be picked up by modern scholars.

As an example, Sherman Kent’s 1949 distinction between intelligence and strategic intelligence is not widely referenced in the literature.12 As Kent put it: “Intelligence is a simple and self-evident thing. As an activity it is the pursuit of a certain kind of knowledge. In a small way it is what we all do every day . . . But no matter whether done instinctively or with skillful conscious mental effort intelligence work is in essence nothing more than the search for the single best answer.”13 Kent then goes on to distinguish this definition of “intelligence” from “strategic intelligence” which he says is “knowledge vital for national survival” and what he considers to be unique problems related to this effort.

Yet modern efforts to define intelligence do not include Kent’s 1949 distinction between intelligence and strategic intelligence. In fact, there is as of yet no consensus on the definition or purpose of intelligence. Perhaps a consensus is not required; other fields do not have unanimity on core concepts either. But the development of schools of thought around different kinds of definitions would provide taxonomies of concepts that could be used to evaluate each definition against the others, and greater understanding of the variation in perspectives embedded within this discussion of definitions.

This failure to be cumulative in terms of the definition of intelligence has also limited the development of theories of intelligence. The disagreements over definitions frequently reflect different assumptions about what the purpose of intelligence is. Definitions can be conceived of as static representations of the underlying vision of purpose, and articulating the variety of visions of purpose may be more important than achieving consensus on definitions. So rather than argue over which words to use in a definition, it would be more effective for knowledge development purposes to address what the different purposes of intelligence are, create schools of thought around them, and then foster structured debates between the respective schools of thought. Knowledge manifestly increases when the formal articulation of conflicting perspectives leads to intellectual debate as the proponents of one school of thought take on the proponents of another in a collegial debate. The development of an academic discipline is at least partially contingent on its ability to create productive debates between different schools of thought, and then grow knowledge cumulatively as the debate continues. While there has been recent progress on developing different kinds of intelligence theory, intelligence studies has not yet effectively created schools of thought or fostered these structured debates.14

Forgetting Roger Hilsman

Even when key ideas from early writers such as Kent are identified and retained in working scholars’ memories, sometimes key contemporaries are forgotten. For example, Kent argued for retaining the “integrity” or independence of the analytic function outside the direct line authority of the decisionmaker.15 The end result would be independent, objective intelligence analysis for national security decisionmakers. This concept of an independent analytic corps was subsequently challenged by Kent’s contemporary, Willmoore Kendall, who suggested that if this were done the contribution from intelligence analysts would be marginalized in the decisionmaking process.16 Instead, Kendall preferred to see a closer relationship between intelligence and decisionmaking in which “the intelligence function (helps) the policymakers ‘influence’ the course of events by helping them understand the operative factors on which the US can have an impact.”17 When scholars reference the purpose of intelligence and the relationship between intelligence and policy, they now cite Kent followed almost immediately by Kendall as a way to identify two early schools of thought on the subject.

But Roger Hilsman’s mostly-forgotten 1952 writings are as good as or better than Kendall’s as a challenge to some of Kent’s ideas. Hilsman made a strong case for a closer relationship between intelligence analysis and decisionmaking, arguing that “a more effective integration of knowledge and action”—or intelligence analysis and decisionmaking—will require intelligence analysts to become more policy-oriented.18 Hilsman directly questioned Kent’s conception of a separation of intelligence from decisionmaking by asking “whether this division of labor is a wise or even a valid one”19 and he ended up concluding that it was “both arbitrary and awkward.” Hilsman goes on to say that in order for intelligence to be “useful and significant” it “should be frankly and consciously concerned with policy” and that its practitioners should have “a frame of mind which is . . . instrumental, action-conscious, policy-oriented. The major task before the researchers is one of recasting their thought to the context of action, and adapting their tools to the needs of policy.”20

In other words, Hilsman disagreed with Kent, and believed that intelligence analysts should work in close cooperation with decisionmakers. Intelligence studies scholars know what Kent said about the intersection between intelligence analysis and decisionmaking and they also know about Kendall’s challenge, but they seem to have forgotten Hilsman even though his ideas have as much relevance as anything else written about the subject over the past 60 years.

The potential value of rediscovering Hilsman is a much more substantive debate than that which currently exists about the respective roles and functions of intelligence analysis vis-à-vis decisionmaker assessment. As an example, at one point a solution had been found which approximates Hilsman’s working relationship of knowledge and action. It was known as the National Security Studies Memorandum (NSSM) in the Nixon and Ford Administrations and the Presidential Review Memorandum (PRM) in the Carter Administration, and received a fair amount of praise for being an effective way to bridge intelligence and policy.21

Unfortunately, the PRM/NSSM product line was disbanded in 1980 and appears to have been completely forgotten by both academia and government.22 With a couple of exceptions, it has not been referenced in the literature for almost 30 years, and current long-serving members of the national security community are not aware that it used to exist. Yet some have begun to recommend and implement various mechanisms for doing exactly what the PRMs and NSSMs were built to do. For example, former Deputy National Security Advisor James Steinberg called for the National Security Council to play a more direct role in facilitating a better working relationship between intelligence producers and consumers.23 In addition, senior intelligence professionals Josh Kerbel and Anthony Olcott recommended a much closer relationship between intelligence and policy.24 If implemented, these suggestions would essentially recreate the old PRM/NSSM product decades later. But this reinvention of the wheel was not necessary. Instead, all that was needed was better utilization of the ideas that were already in the intelligence studies literature.

Ignoring Platt, Knorr, and Hughes

Another example of forgotten intelligence studies scholarship is Washington Platt’s 1957 book Strategic Intelligence Production: Basic Principles. The titles of Platt’s chapters speak to the very interests of intelligence scholars and practitioners today: Principles of Intelligence Production; From Information to Intelligence; Intelligence Production: An Act of Creative Thinking; Help From the Social Sciences; Probability and Certainty; Forecasting; Characteristics of the Intelligence Profession. All of these chapters could make contributions to the ongoing discussions regarding analytic process, utility of the social sciences, increasing imagination, futures work and forecasting, and professionalization. But Platt’s work has also been forgotten, even though it contains some important ideas that current scholars and practitioners would find quite interesting.

Finally, other forgotten scholarship includes some of the best work on intelligence analysis as a social science and the relationship between intelligence producers and consumers. Klaus Knorr’s 1964 monograph “Foreign Intelligence and the Social Sciences” contains the best evaluation of how analysts use social science methodology in the entire intelligence literature, yet is rarely cited or referenced in most work on intelligence analysis.25 In addition, Thomas Hughes wrote a short monograph in 1976 on the relationship between intelligence and policy that is one of the best treatments of the subject, but there are very few references to it in the literature.26

In their treatment of these subjects, current scholars are ignoring insights from prior works and are instead rebuilding the wheels that were built decades ago. It is necessary to know who the giants are in order to stand on their shoulders and right now it does not appear that the intelligence studies field as a whole possesses sufficient understanding of who those giants are or what can be learned from them.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Some scholars conduct more thorough literature reviews than others, and there have also been efforts to remind current scholars and practitioners of those who blazed the trails before them. For example, intelligence studies literature reviews began as early as Hilsman’s evaluation of “the academic observers” in his 1956 book chapter reviewing the works of George Pettee, Sherman Kent, and Willmoore Kendall.27 A set of reviews organized by Roy Godson in the 1980s also provided a review of what had been published up to that point.28 But then these reviews are forgotten, and have to be rewritten for a new generation.

A recent example of this is Anthony Olcott’s evaluation of the writings of Sherman Kent, Willmoore Kendall, and George Pettee that compares and contrasts their differing perspectives and approaches to strategic intelligence analysis.29 This is a valuable contribution to the literature because it reminds other scholars of these authors’ writings. It also reminds them that to understand where the literature is today it is necessary to go back and understand the perspectives of those who helped build it into what it is today. Unfortunately, Olcott’s contribution does not reference Hilsman’s 1956 book chapter which evaluated the very same authors that Olcott did with the very same goal in mind: to evaluate these early writings in order to compare and contrast their different perspectives and approaches to intelligence analysis. This is not intended as a criticism of the author, because most every scholarly contribution fails to address some significant prior work. Instead, it is being flagged here because it is symptomatic of a broader problem in the intelligence studies literature related to the limitation of knowledge accumulation in the field.

Academicians and scholars document, store, and disseminate existing knowledge as well as grow new knowledge. So why have scholars failed to learn from their own history? Because there has not been sufficient emphasis placed on the infrastructure which facilitates knowledge production in the field. In the field of security studies, for example, Stephen Walt has recommended that scholars focus on the relationship between academia and practice in ensuring healthy evolution of knowledge over time.30 He also identifies research support as well as prevailing norms and ethos of the security studies community as mechanisms where improvements can be made to knowledge production in the field. Unfortunately, the kind of emphasis that Walt put on the knowledge infrastructure in the security studies field does not have an equivalent in intelligence studies. But this lack of emphasis in the past presents us with an opportunity to build that infrastructure with an eye to the future.

Developing Intelligence Studies as an Academic Discipline

To become more cumulative, intelligence studies should emulate the key practices that enable any field of knowledge to become cumulative and in doing so become its own coherent academic discipline. This involves establishing formalized processes for creating, documenting, storing, and disseminating knowledge in such a way as to ensure that future generations of scholars and practitioners can benefit from it.31 The steps involve: (1) documenting what is known; (2) evaluating it for gaps or holes; (3) working to fill those gaps in knowledge; (4) distributing this knowledge to those who need or want it; and (5) institutionalizing these efforts.

In most academic disciplines, scholars articulate important ideas which are then evaluated and critiqued by others in the field. This leads to the development of competing schools of thought, with individuals representing those schools. But even if the idea is debunked, that discussion remains in the literature for later generations of scholars to learn from. So there also needs to be a tradition of critiquing previous interpretations, and building secondary and tertiary arguments off of the arguments of the main proponents of each school. It is from this process of evaluation and critique that the giants in the field are identified and their insights transferred to new scholars, leading to longer and deeper intellectual histories. To support this, there also needs to be a heavy emphasis on citation and footnotes in order to link current ideas back to the ongoing scholarly debates. More effective implementation of these academic best practices will strengthen the coherence of intelligence studies as an academic discipline while at the same time increasing its impact on broader scholarship, public understanding, and government practice.

The first step in improving the body of knowledge is to document what is known. This has to be a dynamic rather than static process; perhaps an annualized bibliographic book series. This is labor intensive and probably not something that most scholars would choose to do on their own. The closest working approximation to what is required is the online Muskingum College intelligence bibliography compiled by J. Ransom Clark, which is a tremendously valuable resource for both intelligence studies scholars as well as students of intelligence.32

Other efforts are either limited to specific subject matter topics, or have not been updated recently.33 To continue developing this kind of working bibliography, governments and professional associations interested in ensuring that intelligence studies remains an active academic discipline may have to collaborate on this kind of project.

The second step in improving the body of knowledge is to evaluate what is known; the literature that has already been developed. This would involve a variety of literature reviews oriented towards identifying the research questions that have been explored sufficiently, others that still require some work, and yet still others that have not yet been answered. The Intelligence Studies Section (ISS) at ISA has implemented something like this as its contribution to the International Studies Encyclopedia.34 ISS broke the intelligence studies literature down into 20 different topics, and lined up authors to write literature reviews on each of those topics. These topics include those of interest to practitioners, such as analytic methods, organizational structures and processes, training and education, and so forth. In published form, the end result provides current and future scholars and practitioners with a starting point for understanding the current state of that segment of the literature.

This kind of evaluative literature review is also being done through the Guide to the Study of Intelligence being developed by the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). The purpose is to provide high school, college, and university instructors with “a literature review of significant works useful for educators” in order to help them with course development.35

The subject matter is wide ranging, and covers many specialized topics within the intelligence studies literature. Additional efforts like it and the one by ISA’s Intelligence Studies Section would improve the intelligence literature by ensuring that both scholars and practitioners were able to evaluate the existing state of knowledge in order to know where the gaps in knowledge are.

The third step in the process is to begin filling in the gaps in the literature identified in the evaluations. There are a variety of ways to do this, including by developing a dedicated (and funded) research agenda akin to the Army War College’s Key Strategic Issues List to back-fill gaps in knowledge. Another way to fill in gaps in knowledge is through themed conferences and symposia. Alternatively, open calls for papers for paper-based conferences on various intelligence-related themes could lead to some interesting new contributions to the literature. A model for this kind of activity could be the 2005 International Conference on Intelligence Analysis that Mitre coordinated on behalf of Mark Lowenthal, the then-Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for analysis and production. This conference was modeled on an academic conference, with a paper requirement and proposals open to the public. It also led to the presentation of papers which have since made their own contributions to on-going discussions in the scholarship.

Funding and content for these conferences could come from consortia made up of experts from government, academia, professional associations, and private industry; together they should have the infrastructure, contacts, and knowledge necessary to successfully implement this kind of venture. Associations could provide a focal point for acquiring and coordinating the kinds of knowledge that would be helpful in terms of outreach to the academic community. For example, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has partnered with the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) on events related to analytic transformation, but other associations such as ISA’s Intelligence Studies Section or the International Association for Intelligence Education (IAFIE) would both be good partners for those wanting to engage academia. The broad point is to find appropriate collaborative partners for these sorts of knowledge-building initiatives.

The fourth step in the process would be to disseminate the new knowledge to those who can use it, including current and future intelligence scholars and practitioners. That could involve better communications between those who research and write about intelligence and those who teach it, so that a feedback loop is established to maximize learning. The students could be those in academia in intelligence studies or intelligence school programs, or those in governmental training courses. The Harvard University Intelligence and Policy Program also provides a potential model for those who want to establish a form of continuing education in the field devoted not to practitioner proficiency per se, but rather broader understandings of purpose and how best to manage the enterprise.36

Finally, the last step in the process would be to institutionalize these efforts. One kind of institutionalization would be through academic Intelligence Studies centers; academic equivalents to CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence or NIU’s Center for Strategic Intelligence Research.37 Such programs can centralize knowledge about the theory and practice of intelligence as a profession, and can provide this knowledge to government, other parts of academia, the news media, and segments of society in a more structured way than has been done in the past. The knowledge resident in these departments in the form of faculty, staffs, libraries, and the other infrastructure can provide the optimal educational environment for those who want to learn more about intelligence studies.

Another way to institutionalize these efforts would be to encourage Ph.D. students to specialize in intelligence studies. Intelligence studies has not developed a cumulative tradition of scholarship partly because there are relatively few intelligence studies Ph.D.s. This means that there are not many scholars who look at the body of knowledge in a longitudinal sense; how it has grown and changed over time. The Ph.D. is not a static representation of knowledge and it cannot be evaluated based on that criterion. Instead, one must evaluate the Ph.D. based on the ability of the bearer to create new knowledge. In this case, that means relevant contributions to our understanding of intelligence. To make that contribution to knowledge, the Ph.D. student first has to survey and evaluate the current state of existing knowledge before deciding precisely how to contribute to new knowledge.

More Ph.D. students studying more intelligence-related subjects will enable the literature to become more cumulative than it ever has been, identify where cumulative progression of knowledge has stalled, and contribute to the institutionalization of footnoting and other practices that would be indicative of greater scholarly rigor. The most effective way to encourage more doctoral students is to provide them with funding. This funding could come in the form of fellowships which bring junior scholars into academic institutions where they would add to the creativity and learning of that institution by managing different projects or developing new courses. This kind of fellowship could be funded by governments in the same way that they fund other kinds of Ph.D.s, the private sector which would benefit from the knowledge created, or professional intelligence associations in their efforts to support related educational activities.

Finally, a push to make the intelligence studies literature more cumulative would also be to make it more professional, more structured, and more disciplined which will increase its impact on broader literatures as well as among intelligence professionals. Currently intelligence studies as a field of knowledge is subordinate to other more traditional academic disciplines including political science, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and communications disciplines. Unfortunately, while the intelligence studies literature itself is extensive, many mainstream scholars do not sufficiently incorporate its knowledge and insight into their work.38

As a result, both conventional academic scholars and by extension the general public do not incorporate the extensive nuance reflected in the intelligence studies literature and instead frequently rely on broad brush generalizations and mischaracterizations. Improving the coherence and rigor of intelligence studies as an academic discipline will highlight the breadth and depth of the literature to those who were previously unaware of it.

Intelligence studies as an academic discipline was in its formative stages for about 20 years, from the mid-1980s through to the early 2000s. It then entered a form of adolescence resulting from the flow of interest and money in its direction after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Through the 2000s the literature has grown in terms of sophistication and abstraction, with much additional emphasis on key intelligence concepts and theories. As the field continues to mature, improving intelligence studies as an academic discipline will require a return to scholarly fundamentals and best practices in order to create a cumulative, comprehensive, and influential body of disciplinary knowledge for future scholars and practitioners to learn from and contribute to.

Notes

1 For a recent discussion of intelligence studies as an academic discipline, see Loch Johnson and Allison Shelton, “Thoughts on the State of Intelligence Studies: A Survey Report”, Intelligence and National Security 28/1 (2013) pp.109–20.

2 These recommendations are derived in part from remarks given at the Conference on Learning the Lessons of All-Source Intelligence Analysis sponsored by State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Intelligence Community Lessons Learned Center, Washington, DC, July 2008.

3 Sherman Kent, “The Need for an Intelligence Literature”, Studies in Intelligence Spring (1955) pp.1–11.

4 Washington Platt, Strategic Intelligence Production: Basic Principles (USA: Praeger 1957) pp.133–4.

5 Russell G. Swenson, “Meeting the Intelligence Community’s Continuing Need for an Intelligence Literature”, Defense Intelligence Journal 11/2 (2002) pp.87–96.

6 For more on the value of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence for conventional scholars and practitioners, see Jason Vest, “Artificial Intelligence”, Foreign Policy, 4 January 2006.

7 Peter Monaghan, “Intelligence Studies”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 March 2009.

8 Loch K. Johnson, “An Introduction to the Intelligence Studies Literature” in Loch Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence (Westport, CT: Praeger 2007) pp.1–20; Kenneth G. Robertson, “The Study of Intelligence in the United States” in Roy Godson (ed.) Comparing Foreign Intelligence: The US, USSR, UK and the Third World (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s 1988) pp.7–42; Geoffrey R. Weller, “Assessing Canadian Intelligence Literature: 1980–2000”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 14/1 (2001) pp.49–61; Len Scott, “Sources and Methods in the Study of Intelligence: A British View” in Loch Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence (Westport, CT: Praeger 2007) pp.87–108; Eric Denécé and Gérald Arboit, “Intelligence Studies in France”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 23/4 (2010–11) pp.725–47; Gustavo Díaz Matey, “The Development of Intelligence Studies in Spain”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 23/4 (2010–11) pp.748–65.

9 Christopher Andrew, “Intelligence Analysis Needs to Look Backwards Before Looking Forward”, paper given at the New Frontiers of Intelligence Analysis Conference, “Shared Threats, Diverse Perspectives, New Communities”, 31 March–2 April 2004. Stephen Marrin, “Preventing Intelligence Failures By Learning From the Past”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 17/4 (2004) pp.655–72; John Hedley, “Learning from Intelligence Failures”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 18/3 (2005) pp.435–50; Len Scott and R. Gerald Hughes, “Intelligence, Crises and Security: Lessons from History?”, Intelligence and National Security 21/5 (2006) pp.653–74.

10 George Santayana, The Life of Reason (NY: Scribner’s 1905–6).

11 Jack Davis, “The Kent-Kendall Debate of 1949”, Studies in Intelligence 36/5 (1992) pp.91–103; Jack Davis, “Sherman Kent and the Profession of Intelligence Analysis”, Occasional Papers 1, no. 5, Washington, DC, Central Intelligence Agency, The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, November 2002; Jack Davis, “Sherman Kent’s Final Thoughts on Analyst-Policymaker Relations”, Occasional Papers 2, no. 3, Washington, DC, Central Intelligence Agency, The Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis, June 2003.

12 Thomas F. Troy, “The ‘Correct’ Definition of Intelligence”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 5/4 (1991–2) pp.433–54; Martin T. Bimfort, “A Definition of Intelligence”, Studies in Intelligence 2/4 (1958); Michael Warner, “Wanted: A Definition of Intelligence”, Studies in Intelligence 46 (2002) pp.15–22; Kristan Wheaton and Michael Beerbower, “Towards a New Definition of Intelligence”, Stanford Law and Policy Review 17 (2006) pp.319–30; Alan Breakspear, “A New Definition of Intelligence”, Intelligence and National Security 28/5 (2013) pp.678–93.

13 Sherman Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1951) p.vii.

14 For recent progress on intelligence theory, see Gregory F. Treverton, Seth G. Jones, Steven Boraz and Phillip Lipscy, Conference Proceedings: Toward a Theory of Intelligence Workshop Report (Arlington, VA: RAND National Security Research Division 2006); Peter Gill, Stephen Marrin and Mark Phythian (eds.), Intelligence Theory: Key Questions and Debates (London: Routledge 2008); Stephen Marrin, “Intelligence Analysis Theory: Explaining and Predicting Analytic Responsibilities”, Intelligence and National Security 22/6 (2007) pp.821–46.

15 See “The Problem of Objectivity and Integrity” in Kent, Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy, pp.195–201.

16 Willmoore Kendall, “The Function of Intelligence”, World Politics 1/4 (1949) pp.542–52, p.550.

17 Davis, “The Kent-Kendall Debate of 1949” p.95.

18 Roger Hilsman Jr., “Intelligence and Policy-Making in Foreign Affairs”, World Politics 5/1 (1952) pp.1–45, p.45.

19 Ibid., p.25.

20 Ibid., p.44.

21 Arthur S. Hulnick and Deborah Brammer, “The Impact of Intelligence on the Policy Review and Decision Process”, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, DC, January 1980.

22 Stephen Marrin and Philip H.J. Davies, “National Assessment by the National Security Council Staff 1968–80: American Experiment in a British Style of Analysis”, Intelligence & National Security 24/5 (2009) pp.644–73.

23 James B. Steinberg, “The Policymaker’s Perspective: Transparency and Partnership” in Roger George and James Bruce (eds.) Analyzing Intelligence: Origins, Obstacles, and Innovations (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press 2008) pp.82–90.

24 Josh Kerbel and Anthony Olcott, “The Intelligence-Policy Nexus: Synthesizing with Clients, Not Analyzing for Customers”, Studies in Intelligence 54/4 (2010) pp.1–13.

25 Klaus E. Knorr, “Foreign Intelligence and the Social Sciences”, Research Monograph No. 17, Center of International Studies, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, June 1964.

26 Thomas L. Hughes, The Fate of Facts in a World of Men, Headline Series No. 233 (NY: Foreign Policy Association 1976).

27 Roger Hilsman, Strategic Intelligence and National Decisions (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press 1956) pp.123–37.

28 Godson, The New Study of Intelligence, pp.1–6; Robertson, “The Study of Intelligence in the United States”, pp.7–42; Christopher Andrew, “Historical Research on the British Intelligence Community”, in Roy Godson (ed.) Comparing Foreign Intelligence: The US, USSR, UK and the Third World (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s 1988) pp.43–64.

29 Anthony Olcott, “Revisiting the Legacy: Sherman Kent, Willmoore Kendall, and George Pettee – Strategic Intelligence in the Digital Age”, Studies in Intelligence 53/2 (2009) pp.21–32.

30 Stephen M. Walt, The Renaissance of Security Studies, International Studies Quarterly 35/2 (1991) pp.211–39.

31 This is the knowledge advancement portion of the professionalization process. Stephen Marrin and Jonathan Clemente, “Modeling an Intelligence Analysis Profession on Medicine”, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 19/4 (2006–7) pp.642–65.

32 J. Ransom Clark, “The Literature of Intelligence: A Bibliography of Materials, with Essays, Reviews and Comments, Muskingum University, 1998–2012” < http://intellit.muskingum.edu/index.html>

33 George C. Constantinides, Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography (Boulder, CO: Westview Press 1983); Marjorie W. Cline, Carla E. Christiansen and Judith M. Fontaine (eds.), Scholar’s Guide to Intelligence Literature: Bibliography of the Russell J. Bowen Collection (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America 1983); Neal H. Petersen, American Intelligence, 1775–1990: A Bibliographical Guide (Claremont, CA: Regina Books 1992); The Future of Intelligence Analysis, Vol. II, Final Report, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 10 March 2006; Greta E. Marlatt, “Intelligence and Policymaking: A Bibliography”, Naval Postgraduate School, December 2010.

34 Robert A. Denemark (ed.), International Studies Encyclopedia (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell 2010) < http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405152389.html> with specific intelligence-related publications listed here: < http://intellit.muskingum.edu/refmats_folder/teachingiss.html>

35 AFIO Weekly Intelligence Notes #37-10, 5 October 2010 < http://www.afio.com/sections/wins/2010/2010-37.htm>

36 Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow (eds.), Dealing with Dictators: Dilemmas of US Diplomacy and Intelligence Analysis, 1945–1990, BCSIA Studies in International Security (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 2006) pp.ix–x.

37 Stephen Marrin, “Intelligence Studies Centers: Making Scholarship on Intelligence Analysis Useful”, Intelligence and National Security 27/3 (2012) pp.398–422.

38 Amy B. Zegart, “Cloaks, Daggers, and Ivory Towers: Why Academics Don’t Study US Intelligence” in Loch Johnson (ed.) Strategic Intelligence (Westport, CT: Praeger 2007) pp.21–34. Also see Amy Zegart, “Universities Must Not Ignore Intelligence Research”, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 July 2007. For examples of intelligence studies works that are good treatments of the subject but fail to address existing scholarship, see Richard Posner, Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield 2005); Douglas Hart and Steven Simon, “Thinking Straight and Talking Straight: Problems of Intelligence Analysis”, Survival 48/1 (2006) pp.35–60; David Omand, Securing the State (NY: Columbia University Press 2010); Ken Lieberthal, The US Intelligence Community and Foreign Policy: Getting Analysis Right (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution 2009). For an exception consisting of a treatment of intelligence which also cites the relevant intelligence studies literature, see Robert Jervis, Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 2010).

Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.

While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!

Legendary Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, is directly responsible for Iran’s security in the Middle East beyond its borders. Events have conspired to put Suleimani in position to lead Iran in a struggle that could confirm it as the region’s dominant power.

According to a June 17, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Is Exploring Talks with Iran on Crisis in Iraq,” a senior US diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on June 16th to explore whether the US and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from an Islamic militant insurgency. More than a decade after the US invasion, fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and other insurgent groups, have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. Iraq appears to be collapsing. ISIS is the same group that helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Under US policy, the hope was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. However, the FSA has not been truly successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while also fighting the Assad regime.

The reported meeting between the US and Iran on the Iraq matter took place after US Secretary of State John Kerry signaled in an interview on Yahoo! Newsthat the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq. The partnership seemed unlikely from the start given the US has called Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and alleged it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, the Obama administration recognized that Iran’s involvement in Iraq was inevitable. The Obama administration’s approach to the ISIS crisis includes exploiting the situation to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a more intercommunal government, to include Sunnis and Kurds, in an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. Indeed, Obama has insisted that no American military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, made headway on the issue. It was agreed a session will be held in the Parliament in Baghdad to discuss establishing a new government, more representative of ethno-religious groups in Iraq. That seems risky given the situation. Certainly, an arrangement could be cobbled together quickly. Yet, a rushed effort may not serve Iraq’s long-term interests. It could be overcome by a decision by Iran to back hard-line Shi’a leaders. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders. Reportedly, Quds Force fighters recently went into Iraq, joining comrades already operating in country. There are concerns Suleimani has mobilized Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’a militia groups.

While Kerry, in his Yahoo! News interview, left the door open for military cooperation with Iran, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stepped the US back from it. Psaki stated that while there may be discussions about the political situation in Iraq, “We’re not talking about coordinating any military action with Iran.” She also said the Vienna meetings with Iran would not discuss “military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” Less than three hours later, the Pentagon ruled out military coordination.

As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required. The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now over Iraq. US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from groups such as ISIS, want to be assured that the US can still be relied upon. Force must be used to deal with ISIS. The Obama administration pledged that it will stand with the Iraqi people, much as it pledged to stand with the Syrian opposition, but it is unclear as to what will be seen from the US. It might act cautiously enough in response to ISIS as not to be truly effective at all in the endeavor. Perhaps an additional 21st century reality might emerge from this situation. When the US does not act, it may need to accept that other states with sufficient and effective capabilities will. Without reservations, Iran will act to secure its interests in Iraq. Conceivably, tacit cooperation with the US, as in Bosnia in 1995, and Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, might be acceptable among more moderate elements of the Iranian regime, However, going it alone would undoubtedly be the preferred option by the majority of Iran’s military and security officials and hardline political and religious leaders. If that occurs, the outcome in Iraq may not be shaped to the desires of the US in the long-run. If the US ever decides on military action, it may not need to consider how it might coordinate with Iran, but rather, whether it could act effectively militarily in the midst of unilateral a intervention by Iran.

Iran’s Response as a Regional Power

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already believed that Iran was gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East. Khamenei stated: “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated on September 20, 2013, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” Through bold and decisive actions, Iran has sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region. On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western state wile over using as a means to weaken the government in Tehran. In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime. Iran has trained and equipped pro-Assad Syrian militiamen, and organized them into the National Defense Front. It has sent truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013. An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad. Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria. Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus. To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria. In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country. In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement. Trained mostly in Iran, some groups have carried out small-scale attacks on police.

Iranian leaders view Obama as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than in actions in which US participation would be very limited as in Libya. Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. To their surprise, Obama withdrew from Iraq as a result of a campaign promise rather than strategic considerations. The whole enterprise appeared wasteful. Suleimani on September 27, 2013 remarked: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace. The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.” Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq, but the door was also left open for the growth of Al-Qaeda there.

Saudi Arabia would be very displeased to see Iran take control over the situation in Iraq. Yet, if the US is hesitant on Iraq, in the midst of the Islamic militant thrust toward Baghdad, Saudi Arabia will likely be as well. The type of military commitment Saudi Arabia would need to make in Iraq would very likely require various forms of US support to maintain. Saudi Arabia has already had a hand in the matter regarding the supplying, arming, and training of Islamic militants running through the country.

Tehran likely heard Obama recently explain that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter. Accordingly, Obama explained the US has a stake in that. On June 12, 2014, Obama proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. He believes part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. In his view, over the last several years, trust and cooperation has not developed between moderate Sunni and Shi’a leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts in part for some of the weakness of the state. That weakeness, and then carries over into their military capacity. Accordingly, while support would be provided to the Iraqi military following consultations with the Iraqis, political change would also be sought. Obama stated, “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shi’a who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists. And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shi’a and Sunni that we haven’t seen so far.” As leaders in Tehran would know that the talent to captivate through speeches is not the same as the talent to lead internationally. Public statements on Iraq have been satisfying enough for those who would not look more deeply, perhaps seeking simple answers. Yet, they conceal the reality that forcing together a sustainable, cooperative political arrangement in Iraq will prove difficult.

Tehran likely chuckled after hearing Obama emphasize multilateral action during his commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York on May 28, 2014. Obama explained “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.” He would later clarify this statement with reporters by explaining the US must take a more robust regional approach to partnering and training, partner countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He further explained, “We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.”  Given the troubles of the US-led actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizing multinational operations in the future will be extremely difficult, especially during crises. Great Britain has already announced that it is not planning military intervention of any kind in Iraq. Indeed, unless there was some type of coordination with Iran, the US would have to act alone.

Tehran is probably not convinced of Obama’s capability to solve the crisis in Iraq given what they witnessed on Syria. On Syria, Obama appeared paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of decisive and assertive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. After accusing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the renowned decision not to take military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

How Iran Might Proceed in Iraq

Iraq will be a real test for Iran’s military and security services. It would be an opportunity to confirm Iran’s dominance in the region. Suleimani, who oversees Iran’s security interests in Iraq, is a legend among Shi’a in the region. On September 25, 2013, Baghdad Shi’a Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat al-Eslam Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Qassir praised Suleimani. He stated, “If there is any fear in the Israelis’ hearts, Qassem Suleimani is its cause. If America has faced problems in the region, know that Qassem Suleimani is the cause; if any problems have been created for the House of Saud, know that Qassem Suleimani has had a hand in it. Therefore, know why they have implemented this war against Qassem Suleimani. Know that Qassem Suleimani is a spear that lands in Israel’s hearts and we are proud that there is a leader like him among the current global Shi’a leaders.” Khamenei based his vision for Iran’s role as the premier power in the Middle East on the capabilities of IRGC commanders as Suleimani given their virtue, faith, and obedience to him and respective capabilities to formulate and implement successful action plans.

National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission Spokesman and Member of the Iranian Parliament, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, on June 24, 2014, neither confirmed nor denied the presence of IRGC Quds Force in Iraq, stating, “I do not deny this matter and of course do not confirm it, because I am not in a position to do so. But we are implementing [existing] agreements between Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq [that are] within the legal international framework.” He further stated, “If the Iraqi government formally requests aid from us, we will not hesitate and will aid our neighboring country within the legal international framework.” However, it would be logical for Iran’s intervention in Iraq to initially involve the Quds Force, and small numbers of IRGC combat units. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops, would increase intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.   By moving throughout Iraq, particularly ISIS held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links would be sought with Iraqi Army commanders and troops in the field to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Intelligence collected concerning ISIS that would be utilized in the development of an operational plan. Those MOIS and Quds Force personnel, along with other IRGC units, would also engage in direct combat with ISIS fighters, gaining a detailed knowledge of the battle lines. Iran would further train and equip Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, and deploy some in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq.   Others will be deployed directly against ISIS. They would receive truckloads of arms and equipment. Supplies and other weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades would be flown into the Iraqi Army. Iran could possibly deploy Lebanese Hezbollah to join the fight.

Iran might soon after opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “If the legal government of Iraq and Mr. Maleki, as the primary representative of this government, (formally) request aid from Iran, as a neighboring and friendly country, we will aid him without any limitations.”  He went on to state, “For example, we can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi army that we have been able to provide the Syrian army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That might mean having great numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there. Aspects of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts. Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent. They would provide Iraqi and Iranian units with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by ISIS. Iran might deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units. Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support military movements and control of recaptured territory. Basij volunteers in Iran may be mobilized to serve in Iraq.

Tacit US-Iran Cooperation “a la Bosnia” Is Unlikely

In Bosnia, IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel operated successfully, working in concert the US and other states to airlift of arms supplies to the Muslim-Croat Federation’s Armija. Regarding the actions of ISIS in Iraq, Velayati, explained on June 19, 2014, explained: “Iran opposes extremism and America also opposes extremism. Thus, these two countries move in a parallel ‘direction’ but this does not mean cooperation between these countries.” He concluded, however, “I do not see an outlook for cooperation between these countries, because, in our assessments, they seek a sort of dominance in Iraq and in some other important and oil rich countries in the region.” Again speaking on behalf of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini rejected cooperation with the US stating, “The Americans want to be in Iraq next to Iran at any cost. As Iran is aware of the White House’s behind-the-scene plan, it will never be placed next to America.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani kept the matter alive on the Iranian side, explaining Iran has not ruled out working with the US against ISIS in Iraq. On June 15th, he was quoted as saying, “We can think about it if we see America confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.” However, conspiracies abound in Iran on whether the US wants to stop ISIS. Khamenei has stated, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.”

Tehran has undoubtedly observed that the Obama administration already has increased intelligence-gathering flights by drone aircraft over Iraq. It has been alleged to be the beginning of a phased approach. The US might also initially seek to shore up Iraqi forces with security assistance. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops. However, what resonates with Tehran is degree of uncertainty apparent in the administration’s reported reaction in Washington. Indeed, despite what has been done so far in Iraq, Obama’s White House advisers are now engrossed in a policy debate on airstrikes. National security officials have raised concerns over the ability to target roving bands of insurgents and degrade their fighting capabilities. Airstrikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could worsen the crisis. Another big concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people. Obama’s insisted on June 13th that if he decides to act, military action would be “targeted” and “precise,” reflecting his desire for a cautious path that avoids civilian casualties and prevents the US from being dragged back into Iraq. Obama has promised to “consult with Congress,” stopping short of saying he would put the issue to a vote. Congressional opposition to airstrikes in Syria contributed to Obama’s decision not attack.

By engaging in a lengthy discourse and considering gradual response in Iraq, US authorities appear relatively relaxed about events in Iraq compared to their counterparts in Iran. Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to include Suleimani, and hard-line political and religious leaders, realize that waiting could lead to tragic consequences. ISIS has begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives. Syria provides a template to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory. On June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.  Iranian military and security official know that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to prevent attacks against them. If attacks were launched, ISIS would follow through without hesitation with such threats. That is the sort of thing ISIS as terrorist group does. If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk. ISIS would certainly initiate attacks on Iran. They know ISIS will attempt to establish an Islamic state in captured territory whether it is sustainable or not.

Tehran knows US efforts to reform the Iraqi government will weaken Iran’s influence over Baghdad. On June 23, 2014, Khamenei explained, “In the Iraq situation Western dominance-seeking powers, specifically the regime of the United States of America, are seeking to take advantage of the ignorance and prejudice of powerless masses.” He added, “The main goal from the recent events in Iraq is prohibiting this country’s people from the achievements that they have gained despite America’s lack of presence and interference. [Iraq’s] most important achievement is the rule of a democratic system.” He further explained, “America is discontent about the present trends in Iraq, meaning the holding of elections with the good participation of and the determination of trustworthy choices by the people. America is seeking Iraq’s domination and the rule of individuals obedient to America.”

For the Obama administration to believe that Iran would allow the reduction of its interests in Iraq without some response would be counterintuitive. Iran knows that the type of representative government that the US seeks cannot be designed on the fly and is an enormous request under the circumstances. The fact that Maliki ever came to power evinces the US inability to manage events politically in Iraq. As Velayati, on June 19, 2014, explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.”

The Way Forward?

Officials and advisers in the Obama administration likely came to terms before this crisis in Iraq that proposals for military action in Iraq would be the most difficult documents to put before the president. Any military action would need to be minimal, yet effective enough to achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, which is not easy plan. For this reason, Obama’s advisers had difficulty getting their president to rapidly come to terms with any proposals offered on Syria or Ukraine, consequently creating uncertainty globally over how the US would proceed.

Iraq seems to be unraveling and time is of the essence. Right across the border from Iraq, however, Iranian leaders see a great danger, and they are attending to it. The Iranians are not going to wait and see what the US does next. They want to stop ISIS. Yet, they want to protect their interests in Iraq by shaping the political situation in Baghdad in their favor. If they manage to do so, they can further Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region. Military and security officials may also gain a louder voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on the nuclear negotiations and other issues. Moreover, the failure of the US to act decisively and effectively in Iraq would eliminate fears within all quarters in Tehran that the US might take military action against Iran, a far greater enterprise than fighting ISIS. In the US, White House advisers are once again agonizing over a foreign policy decision. They, however, have wiled the idea that from the chaos, they can eke out the opportunity to put Tehran’s man out of power in Baghdad and create a new government. By attempting to absolve itself of the “unpleasantries” of exercising military power while claiming the title as the world’s leader, the Obama administration could cause the US to face another negative turn of fortune on foreign policy. Something significant militarily must be done immediately, even before the US induced process of reform is completed. If not, the Obama administration must be ready to accept the bitter scenario of the field in Iraq eventually being fully turned over to Iran.