Opinionated and Dangerous

Leaked intelligence report on Iraq shows experts have been so wrong, so unaccountable. When it comes to buying into expert opinion, user beware.

In some fields performance seems to matter little even when mistakes could kill hundreds of thousands. The National Intelligence Estimate report on Iraq leaked over the weekend highlights just how unaccountable foreign-policy and country "experts" have been when they've made glaringly erroneous assessments-including those costing human lives.

The leaked report found that the Iraq War, far from stanching terrorism, has fomented it and the Islamic extremism that animates it. That finding contrasts sharply with predominating expert projections. Today, the once cottage but increasingly commercial "expert" industry is driving national debate and public consciousness. These experts directly and indirectly advise heads of state and other important decision makers on issues as critical as war. Currently, nothing happens to these experts after they give bad advice. But just what should the consequences be, especially for those who have been vociferously and pugnaciously wrong? Should they get sued? Fired?

The intelligence report is predictably being brandished by those who failed to read the fine print on America's Iraq intelligence when it would have mattered most: before the war. While Rep. Nancy Pelosi may have politically appropriated the report, in the beginning of the war she denounced anti-war protesters and declared her "unequivocal support and appreciation to the president … for his firm leadership and decisive action."

There are a number of experts who could legitimately claim that they predicted a rise in terrorism with the invasion of Iraq, and their far-sightedness should be championed. By contrast, there was the tsunami of bad counsel and augury on Iraq: What about the "expert" who predicted that Americans would be welcomed by Iraqis as heroes and that the military campaign would be a cakewalk? And the many experts who stated emphatically that Iraqi oil revenues would easily pay for the country's reconstruction? Or the one who assured that democracy would be seen as an American "gift" to the Middle East? Or the many experts who had earlier claimed that economic sanctions on Iraq would bring down Saddam Hussein's regime in no time?

What about the expert who told us that the Taliban would be history on the day U.S. troops arrived in Kabul? Flashing further back, didn't someone predict that tough U.S. economic sanctions would quickly bring Iran to its knees? Remember the dozens of Iran experts who assured us that the rule of the mullahs was in its last days back in the mid-1980s? Recently we heard that the mullahs in Teheran were so scared for their survival that they would abandon their nuclear program if America and its allies stood tough.

How about the guy who predicted that Israel's incursion into Lebanon would be successfully completed in one or two days? What of the analyst who insisted Israel's Lebanon campaign meant nothing in the broader Muslim world because it was just a Shi'a and Iranian "thing"?

I could go on and on but obviously there is a problem here. We don't hold foreign policy or country experts up to any sort of standard. It doesn't seem to matter whether they are right or wrong. And they aren't ashamed to discuss and write articles with absolute authority on a country they have not visited in the past twenty years, if ever. As long as they are articulate, write and say what people like to hear and are team players, the Council on Foreign Relations blesses them and major networks hire them as consultants. The height of their achievement is when presidents and vice-presidents quote their "expert" predictions in national speeches and interviews.

Cynics may say experts tend to be pawns in a charade that justifies the politicians' endgame, with true expertise beside the point.  If the cynics are right, this comes at a great cost to the average citizen, and there is even a more desperate need for real accountability. This accountability should take two forms.

For everyone who claims or is acclaimed (by the media) as an expert on a country the following information should be disclosed: aggregate time spent in the country; number, nature, length and dates of visits over the past twenty years; names and nature of relations with key leaders and decision makers; level of competence in the language; course of study in areas such as history, politics, religion and economics; writing/research on the country; and reasons why there might be a conflict of interest on policy recommendations or predictions about the country.

Finally, it would be invaluable to have a real-time online database where all predictions, past and future, by renowned experts are reported, verified and stored. As events unfold, the accuracy of all predictions could be assessed and reported.

There should be no reason why anyone who is a country or regional expert, appears frequently on television or radio, advises the U.S. government, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, or is on the editorial board of a journal would not want to disclose the above information. If their claims of expertise and independence are justified, disclosure could only enhance their stature. While much of the above indicates an individual's basis for good judgment, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A record of predictions and advice, in addition to first-hand experience in the country, is crucial to assessing real expertise.

Now, the country is focused on Iran. The report on Iraq should serve as a parable. When it comes to buying into expert advice, user beware. The expert's expertise must first be verified.

Hossein Askari is Iran Professor of International Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University.