Daniel W. Drezner

How DARE James Clapper not politicize his intelligence analysis!!

Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided his sober assessment of the situation on the ground in Libya:  Responding to questions, Mr. Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Qaddafi had a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on. “This ...

Yesterday Director of National Intelligence James Clapper provided his sober assessment of the situation on the ground in Libya: 

Responding to questions, Mr. Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Colonel Qaddafi had a potentially decisive advantage in arms and equipment that would make itself felt as the conflict wore on.

“This is kind of a stalemate back and forth,” he said, “but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.”

Mr. Clapper also offered another scenario, one in which the country is split into two or three ministates, reverting to the way it was before Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. “You could end up with a situation where Qaddafi would have Tripoli and its environs, and then Benghazi and its environs could be under another ministate,” he said.

The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail.

The White House wasn’t the only actor that didn’t like what Clapper was saying:

Clapper’s prediction of defeat for the Libyan opposition prompted a furious Sen.Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to demand that Clapper resign or be fired.

"The situation in Libya remains tenuous and the director’s comments today on Gadhafi’s ‘staying power’ are not helpful to our national security interests,” Graham said in a statement, using a different spelling of the leader’s name. "His comments will make the situation more difficult for those opposing Gadhafi … and undercut our national efforts to bring about the desired result of Libya moving from dictator to democracy.

Yeah, how dare Clapper say things that jibe with open-source analysis of the situation!! 

I kinda sorta understand the argument that Clapper shouldn’t have said this in public, but not really.  To have a quality debate about policy options on Libya, this kind of dispassionate analysis is crucial.  Clapper’s job description is to provide an assessment of what’s actually  occurring on the ground, regardless of what people want to happen on the ground.  It’s then up to policymakers to craft responses to try to alter or reinforce that situation as they see fit.  Calling for Clapper’s resignation because he provided what appears to be an accurate assessment of the current state of play seriously politicizes the job of intelligence analysis and assessment.  Doesn’t the past decade suggest that politicized intelligence leads to catastrophic foreign policymaking? 

What worries me is not what Clapper said but how the White House responded:

The White House was clearly taken aback by the assessment that Mr. Qaddafi could prevail, and Mr. Donilon, talking to reporters a few hours later, suggested that Mr. Clapper was addressing the question too narrowly.

“If you did a static and one-dimensional assessment of just looking at order of battle and mercenaries,” Mr. Donilon said, one could conclude that the Libyan leader would hang on. But he said that he took a “dynamic” and “multidimensional” view, which he said would lead “to a different conclusion about how this is going to go forward.”

“The lost legitimacy matters,” he said. “Motivation matters. Incentives matter.” He said Colonel Qaddafi’s “resources are being cut off,” and ultimately that would undercut his hold on power.

A senior administration official, driving home the difference in an e-mail on Thursday evening, wrote, “The president does not think that Qaddafi will prevail.”

Hmmm.  Over the past week, the Libyan opposition to Qaddafi has been winning on only one dimension — garnering international support.  On the ground in Libya, not so much.  And the international support won’t affect the situation on the ground anytime soon.  Even the tightest financial sanctions don’t matter at this point. Qaddafi possesses far more financial reserves than, say, the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo — and yet Gbagbo has managed to stay in power for five months.  Sanctions should eventually work in the Ivory Coast, but they’re not going to work anytime soon in Libya. 

Contra Donilon, the only way in which the dynamic changes on the ground in Libya is if international support becomes far more concerted and proactive in support of the Libyan rebels.  Based on Mark Landler and Helene Cooper’s analysis in the New York Times, however, the Obama administration won’t be spearheading that kind of policy shift.  For Donilon to suggest that, absent U.S. action, the dynamic is working in favor of Libya’s anti-Qaddafi movement smacks of utopian thinking. 

Graham and others should criticize the Obama administration’s handling of Libya if they want to see a more forceful policy response.  Criticizing the DNI for providing an accurate intelligence assessment, on the other hand, is seriously counterproductive. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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