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Being Intelligent About American Intelligence in the Middle East and Africa

In an era of global complexity in which social and political problems in places like Egypt could have serious ramifications, it would make sense for our most senior officials to listen more closely to those specialists who know the street.
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How intelligent is American "intelligence?" How much does our government know about political and social life in the Middle East and Africa? If the intelligence track record in Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently in Tunisia and Egypt are indicative, then perhaps an intelligent re-assessment of intelligence is in order.

Media reports suggest that the US government apparently was surprised by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In a wide-ranging interview on last Sunday's State of the Union with CNN's Candy Crowley, Edward Walker and John Negroponte, two former ambassadors with deep diplomatic experience in the world--especially in the Middle East--discussed whether the US reaction to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt constituted an "intelligence" failure. Ambassador Negroponte responded by suggesting that the intelligence analysis of the situation might have been better, but chose not to use the phrase "intelligence failure." Both Ambassador Negroponte and Ambassador Walker agreed that that the US intelligence effort reflected a lack of imagination.

As a scholar who has spent a great deal of time living in other countries, I have great respect for the distinguished service of Ambassadors Walker and Negroponte. Their informed comments, however, reflect a deeper problem about being intelligent about intelligence. Just how much do our senior diplomats know about conditions on the ground in places like Tunisia, Egypt and other African or Middle Eastern countries? If my many years living as an field anthropologist in sub-Saharan Africa are applicable, most senior diplomats appear to be far removed from the realities of the street. Their daily routine is often taken up by staff meetings, official receptions, contact with other diplomats, and consultations with members of a nation's political elite. Sometimes they speak the language of the nations to which they are assigned. Often, they do not. They have probably read widely and thought deeply about the political social and economic problems of the region, but do their reflections enable them to know the street? With some exceptions, I would suggest, most of our senior diplomats and political officials do not know the street.

The culture of diplomacy, then, tends to breed a climate in which practitioners are perhaps mired in the past, an atmosphere that reinforces a "lack of imagination." Such a lack of imagination results in "surprise situations" in which officials are reacting to a crisis rather than shaping events.

This widespread lack of imagination, however, reveals a deeper cultural dislocation. In contemporary mainstream American culture we value our "can do" attitude, applaud our spirit of competitiveness and covet our sense of optimism. The cultural importance of "can do" certitude, rooted deeply in our past, makes it difficult for many of us to admit to a mistake or, worse yet, a failure. In the same vein, the spirit of competitiveness -- the need to get things done and move on to the next challenge -- sometimes compels us to move from subject-to-subject or crisis-to-crisis with blazing speed which means many of us possess only superficial knowledge of a subject, a crisis, or a region.

During my long term research in the Republic of Niger it took more than three years to learn an African language thoroughly enough to begin to understand the street, the place where social and political action takes root and spreads. Once I possessed that hard-earned linguistic competence, it took another two years to discover people whose information I could trust.

It would be unrealistic to think that our political and diplomatic leaders should be area specialists who have spent decades refining their knowledge of the Middle East, Africa or China. But in our era of global complexity in which social and political problems in places like Egypt could have serious economic and political ramifications, it would make sense for our most senior officials to listen more closely to those specialists who know the street. In this way they might avoid making reactive decisions based on imaginations mired in the past.

Anthropologists, sociologists, historians and geographers do possess a nuanced knowledge of the social, economic and political dimensions of the street, which means that they possess a wealth of "intelligence." But even if our most senior officials suddenly choose to consider this valuable intelligence, will they possess the imagination to make sense of it?