Super-agent Robert Baer has hewed a fraught position since he left the CIA in 1997. America's most well-known spy (George Clooney won an Oscar for portraying a character loosely based on Baer in the movie Syriana) has pushed firmly against the Washington consensus on foreign policy but always declined from taking on the agency that employed and decorated him. Baer has said in the past that he does not want to be a CIA whistleblower. Still, when he does speak, it is always with significance. Indeed, when Bob Baer talks, some listen and some shudder. But in a recent telephone interview, Baer was even more forthright, plain-spoken and unflinching than might be expected. So a prodding question seemed to emerge and linger over the interview: are journalists really reporting Baer's most provocative and penetrating observations? To borrow a turn of phrase (without any intended irony): I'll report, you decide.
Baer, who received the CIA's Career Intelligence Medal in 1998, debunked the notion that the Obama administration is seeking a well-intentioned but misguided policy in regards to ISIS and the Greater Middle East in general -- as most of the best minds have characterized the folly of U.S. action recently. From Baer's insider and privileged vantage point, the approach seems even more damning than that.
"I don't think the smart people think they're going to bomb their way out of anything," Baer said, when I asked him if the administration's organizing strategy could be reduced to such sporadic military strikes. "But they think they're going to be able to get to the November elections. They keep their fingers crossed it's not going to completely blow up before 2016. It's all about [U.S.] elections we're talking about here. Elections only. And no reality of what's happening on the ground."
I prod Baer to elaborate, and he distills the administration's promotion of its policy. "Yeah, they say hey we're winning. That ISIS has given up a couple of positions, let us bomb some more. You know, we'll bring justice and we'll all be done with it." Baer, what's more, does not think the administration's self-interested policy will be successful. "No, it's absolutely going to fail," he said. The Sunnis of the area, Baer explains, have been pushed to the brink. Discussions with Sunnis who hold real sway on the ground should be opened with a sense of urgency, "but I mean, that's not an election winning strategy," he added.
Baer was equally blunt about America's practical intelligence on ISIS. "Probably immediately not at all," was how Baer characterized the likelihood America would find those that beheaded its citizens, as U.S. and British leaders have publicly and dramatically vowed to their publics. "They simply don't know who is who in this organization, who gives the orders and what the hierarchy is, if there is one -- or is this an independent group operating on its own. There are just hundreds of unanswered questions that could take years to get to. They also have no witnesses to the crime. So, I mean, they say they've pinpointed the guy who appears in the videos -- I suppose the British have. But you know, actually getting to him..."
In short, according to Baer, America's strategy towards a turbulent, resource-rich region of millions of people is driven by American elections. Meanwhile, our knowledge and understanding of ISIS is practically nil anyway. And the Sunnis that form ISIS' base of support grow angrier as the Shiite theocracy in Iran tightens its grip over Baghdad. These sources of conflict show no signs of abating. After all, as Baer noted, talks with an alienated, enraged Sunni community does not lend itself to sloganeering.
"I know what the end game, because I talk to them. In Washington there's a policy right now not to talk with any of these people. They want to freeze them out. Anyone who's talking about partition, changing the Iraqi constitution, don't talk to them. So what you're seeing is we're ignoring 20 million people between Aleppo and Mosul. Just say, you know, you guys are irrelevant. But I mean people live there, how can you say they're irrelevant. But that is it's official policy, I know that."
To the U.S. leadership, ISIS' base of support among the Sunni faithful can be discounted as a matter of policy -- a willful, delusional subtraction that could have pronounced consequences. All the same, it would seem, from the outside looking in, that some kind of back channel dialogue must be moving forward. Such unofficial talks are, after all, a staple of statecraft. And although the frustrated Sunnis in question do not have an official state, they are increasingly claiming some kind of institutional authority and legitimacy in their territories -- and expanding them.
"No there are none," said Baer regarding such unofficial talks. "They have certain Sunnis who live in Baghdad that passed through the Maliki system that were approved. And they are claiming that those are the Sunnis that we are allowed to talk to by the Maliki government and we should be talking to ... And they've all been sort of vetted by this government in Baghdad which has been completely rejected by the people who live in Anbar and other Shi'a provinces. Just totally rejected."
What's more, that willful subtraction is another sequel error to W Bush's catastrophic missteps. "When we invaded Iraq in 2003, [Washington officials decided] we're not going to pay any attention to what sort of system the Sunnis want. We're just going to throw them out of the army and throw them out of politics in general, and take their pensions, and think they're going to be happy. It was just an act of idiocy. But we're doing it again, spending a billion dollars a month on just the air campaign."
ISIS is capitalizing on that idiocy handily. "Yes they have a strategy," said Baer. "They want to be bombed. They're putting equipment out, you know, for us to shoot at. It's a calling card for them. 'Look, we're the enemy of the United States, and look what we're doing. We're fighting the crusaders.' They absolutely want to be bombed. And I think inevitably there's going to be a terrorist attack attached to ISIS in the United States. But again, I doubt it's going to be a general strategy." The central target is Saudi Arabia. "For true legitimacy, they need Mecca and Medina."
In that regard, ISIS sounds a lot like Al Qaeda. But the two are not to be conflated. "In a sense it's more grounded," said Baer about ISIS, relative to Al Qaeda. "I mean, you have to look at bin Laden as Trotsky: 'There's going to be a world revolution and we're going to start it by individual acts of violence. We don't really need territory.' [ISIS members] in a sense are more grounded. Because they actually have spot on the ground. They've fought in Syria and now they're fighting in Iraq and they know what it is to hold territory. And they're administering it. And as I understand fairly well, putting signs up, making electricity work, making the trains run on time, sort of like the Shabab did in Mogadishu, or the Taliban did in Afghanistan. So they're making things work, as opposed to al Qaeda who just hoped that violence would provoke something."
That practical know-how could be put to chilling effect, if ISIS has its way. Baer believes that ISIS' intention is to ethnically cleanse the Shiites and Alawites from the areas it controls. "Yeah I think they want to make a pure Islamic state. Sort of like the 7th century," he said. "Anyone who's fallen away from the true faith... should be put to the sword." That's a lot of people to kill, I point out to Baer. He highlights the Khmer Rouge, and Stalin.
If U.S. policy stays on its current course, America could become mired in "the 100 hundred years war. 100 years of seeking justice," said Baer. But the former CIA super-agent sees an alternative: the partition of Iraq and Syria along sectarian lines, with the Shiites, Alawites and Sunnis coalescing and retreating to their strongholds. Minority communities, Baer adds, would unfortunately have to move.
As for Turkey -- which has always opposed partition on the grounds that a new, independent Kurdish state would mobilize its already rebellious Kurdish tribes -- it will have to face the entrenched realities, maintained Baer. "Of course they're terrified of a Kurdish state and what that means. Frankly, they can't dam the floods of history either."
America, in turn, must recognize its own limitations, and the futility of trying to superimpose its socio-political precepts onto the region. "I'm opposed to any American involvement in the Middle East, simply because I worked there," said Baer. "You know, I'm still trying to figure out Pakistan. I talk to people all the time. I've been there. I've worked there. Was there in the '80s. And I ask people in the White House that ran Pakistan for years: 'do you understand Pakistan?' And they said, 'no.' And I said, well is the chief of the army in charge, and they said no. Are the core commanders in charge. Well, probably they elected the chief of staff but we don't know what they want and I said, well is it possible that bin Laden was held by part of the government, and they said 'yes.' It's a system we don't understand. How can you have a president that doesn't have power? Or a chief of staff of the army? It's not a military dictatorship. It's not a dictatorship. There's no chain of command. You say, well how does something like this survive? Or exist? Well it does. Is it comprehensible? I suppose if you were a Pakistani general it would be. But short of that--they're not out writing memoirs so, so we don't know. It's so hard for us to get involved if we don't understand the place."
Recognizing such a lack would be a tall order for many Washington bureaucrats. But if officials can summon the collective humility to acknowledge the accumulating will of foreign people and their ancestral affiliations, America could reinterpret borders and states that are dysfunctional, unwind its heavy, enervating presence and allow peace and stability to gain a foothold in the region. "Once you get the Iraqi government to back off shelling Fallujah and Ramadi and sending in Shi'a militias to rob the city and the rest of it, you'll see the push for the radicals will become a bit irrelevant and very soon completely irrelevant and pretty soon you'll see the communities turn against them." With that, Mr. Baer claims the last, surprisingly hopeful last word.