Paul Pillar

This is Being Caught Off Guard?

Remember all the stories and commentary about the Obama administration supposedly having been caught off guard by the wave of unrest in the Middle East? About how, due either to the malfeasance of intelligence agencies or the inattention of policymakers, this was a surprise to the administration, which then had to scramble to catch up with events? Well, now Mark Landler reports in the New York Times that last August President Obama ordered a secret study on the very topic of the likelihood of unrest in Arab countries, and what the United States could do to shape policies that would juggle the competing interests the United States has in reform in those countries and cooperation with those governments. The study was part of a process that involved the CIA, State Department, and other agencies. Although the report is still classified, it reportedly concentrated attention on four countries with descriptions that match those of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain. Part of the reason for addressing these issues in the format of a special study was that in regular meetings on U.S. relations with the Arab countries the immediate strategic interests loom so large that it is very difficult to concentrate attention on the subject of reform.

Given how much at variance this report is with all that earlier public commentary, it is remarkable that news of the study did not leak out earlier. The administration probably deserves credit for maintaining enough discipline not to have done the self-serving thing by getting out word of this study, either through an open release or a high-level leak, three weeks ago. Evidently someone on the inside was sufficiently disturbed by the major disconnect between the public story and the private reality to have finally resorted to a leak. And as with all leaks, there is a hazard. In this case the principal hazard is to stimulate Arab regimes to pressure the White House to back off from any pro-reform campaign. But by now events have moved the issue so far along that this hazard is probably minimal.

It is hard to think of much, if anything, more the administration could have done to prepare for the events that began unfolding in the Middle East a month ago, beyond the kind of study that Landler's report describes. Given the impossibility of predicting the timing of popular eruptions that are not the product of some conspiratorial schedule, the administration was in the business of contingency planning, not preemptive action. Given the very policy trade-offs and delicacies in foreign relations that necessitated the secrecy of the exercise, there was no bold and obvious course for the policymakers to take—especially before any eruptions actually occurred. And given that the sort of policy attention Obama's directive from last August represents is what warnings and analysis of departments and agencies that work for him are supposed to elicit, evidently the warnings and analysis about the prospects for unrest were sufficient to do their job.

The disconnect between the commentary and the reality illustrates several common tendencies: to equate public inattention with governmental inattention; to fail to recognize that many foreign policy problems raise conflicting interests and do not lend themselves to a single bold course of action; to misread not following a single bold course as evidence of indecisiveness or of being surprised; and to jump to conclusions about the performance of bureaucracies without a factual basis for doing so.

If this is what being caught off guard consists of, I hope the administration gets caught off guard more often.