It is often mistaken that a majority of America’s foreign policy screw-ups are the result of bad intelligence. However, this claim is not true. Surprisingly, most of the known foreign policy blow-ups had the backing of good intelligence prior to their inevitable occurrence. Former CIA forecaster, Paul Pillar, asserts that the various foreign policy issues that have plagued the United States in recent years are largely a consequence of poor leadership, as opposed to poor intelligence. From this claim, one may wish to ask, what is the cause of America’s continued historical failure on foreign policy? The answer, according to Paul Pillar, lies in the country’s leadership, both in the CIA and in Washington.
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According to Weiner, the CIA is responsible for collecting and assessing information obtained from various parts of the world concerning countries’ security situation (12). Poor leadership is the primary cause of the unsuccessful implementation of good foreign policy. Consequentially, it should be blamed for most, if not all, wars and terrorist attacks in the US and abroad. Although bad intelligence, intelligence failures, intelligence oversight, and underestimation of threats and refusal for change by intelligence agencies have all played a role in undermining America’s foreign policy, bad leadership (both in the CIA and Washington) is the primary and most significant cause of this implosion. Hence, this paper agrees with Pillar’s observations.
The role of the US in Afghanistan’s war has not only been a controversial one but also a case of bad foreign policy by the leadership in Washington. Stork admonishes the role of the US in Afghanistan and even compares it to the famously tainted Nicaraguan war (12). Prior to America’s involvement in supporting a coup against the Kabul regime in Afghanistan, the US Congress had already been provided with intelligence against such attempt (Coll 33).
Alexander Alexiev, a consultant in the Rand Corporation who had visited Afghanistan on behalf of the Pentagon, demonstrated the extent of corruption among the political rebel leaders. According to Alexiev’s report, political leaders led a luxurious and fancy lifestyle while the fighters they commanded lacked the essentials of soldiers, including war boots and armor. In fact, close to 80 percent of armory aid from the US never reached the soldiers. Additionally, he illustrated how most of the leaders were tied to illicit drug trafficking and illegal arm-smuggling cartels. This case notwithstanding, the US Congress in Washington advocated for the continued secretly support and funding of the anti-regime.
In a memoir by the former National Security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski speaks about how he pushed for a decision through the Special Coordination Council (SCC) responsible for covert operations to end America’s involvement in the Afghan war. His plea was based on the intelligence he had gathered from the Afghans concerning their discontent in America’s participation in the war and their determination in preserving their nation’s independence. However, rather than acting on Brzezinski’s intelligence and commanding an immediate withdrawal of support for the anti-regime bodies, the leadership not only increased funding but also marshaled support from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China. Stork also asserts that the failure of the UN negotiations that were sponsored by the United Nation to lobby for an end to the Afghan war was a result of lack of genuine political interest by the leadership in Washington, hence supporting Pillar’s assertions (13).
The Iranian revolution that took place in 1979 was not caused by the lack of good intelligence, as it was made to seem. Instead, it resulted from bad leadership in the White House. According to Pillar, lack of attention by policymakers in the White House coupled with intense disagreements within the administration of President Jimmy Carter kept the US from making pertinent decisions (3). Looking back at the 1953 Coup de tat, the CIA highlighted several incidences that underscored Pillar’s claims that poor leadership and not bad intelligence was the cause of most of America’s screw-ups regarding foreign policy. Gasiorowski explains why supporting a coup attempt was a bad decision made by the US leadership (4).
According to CIA revelations, motivations that propelled the support of the coup to end Mossadeq’s dictatorship were not only sinister but were also driven by selfish economic and political interests. These motives clouded the judgments of the US officials and leaders in the CIA, thus causing them to ignore and/or underestimate intelligence. As a result, the interest resulted in the careless decision of moving forward with the coup. Prior to the failed coup attempt and the rise of the Iranian revolution, evidence gathered later indicated that the leadership in the CIA had all the pointers that the attempt to overthrow the current regime was a failure in waiting.
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Despite the CIA and the US leadership being made aware of Mossadeq’s popularity and powerful following, the parties’ geostrategic and economic interests in the region caused them to underestimate Mossadeq’s forces. This situation then resulted in the failure of the rebel troops, backed by the support of the CIA, to overthrow the existing regime, thus leading to the eruption of a war that could have been avoided if good leadership was in place.
President Tarry’s’ decision to intervene in Korea underscores Pillar’s argument that intelligence is not a decisive factor in the success of foreign policy (2). Rather, victory is influenced by leaders’ own strategic sense, lessons drawn from their personal and historical experience, domestic politics imperatives, and their psychoneuroses. America’s flawed foreign policy was not only incoherent but also disproportionate to the perceived threats. Blue chip intelligence gathered by the aptitude community warned against a lengthy war with the USSR if the current foreign policy was to be implemented. The leadership should have taken such intelligence seriously through making the necessary foreign policy adjustments that could prevent the eruption of a war. Instead, the US went ahead (against all pointers) to deter the Russians by issuing threats of destroying and destabilizing the Soviet Union. One of the adjustments that Jervis suggests that should have been made was the pursuit of the alternative ways of solving the crisis (564).
Regarding the perception of the Russians as a potential threat by the United States, Jervis highlights that efforts to dispel false perceptions against the Russians’ intentions in support of a war were futile since the majority of the leadership in the political establishment was adamant on pursuing an aggressive foreign policy against the Soviet Union (566). Kennan made one such effort by affirming that the claim that the Soviet Union was interested in going to war at all costs was an incorrect and inaccurate appraisal. The Moscow Embassy later reaffirmed his view in 1949 stating that Russia was committed to years of peace and that it did not desire to go to war with the US (Jervis 565). If the United States leadership could have considered such pointers in its foreign policy, the Korean War could have been averted.
An argument that was well known and proposed to the US leadership was the fact that nuclear weapons alone were not sufficient in defeating the Russians and that the superpower nation would need to prepare itself on all levels of force to match up the Russian force. This situation meant an increase in the US military establishment. However, considering the political climate at the time, economists advised against high military spending due to the increased competition for funds. According to Jervis, the Council of Economic Advisors warned that rampant increments in budgetary allocation towards defense would cripple the economy to the point of threatening the national security (568). This caveat meant that the US military would lack the necessary resources, both financial and military, to go to war with the Russians. As a result, the US leadership should have pursued an alternative foreign policy to evade the war.
A confidential report prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency indicating the state of conditions in Tibet are indicative of the failure by the American leadership to implement tough decisions on intelligence (McGranahan 102). The Central Intelligence Agency report highlighted the fact that the majority of the Tibetan population were anti-Americans and contemptuous of the Chinese (1). For instance, Tibetans would hold regular protests demonstrating against the Chinese control of their country in front of the Chinese government offices (Conboy and Morrison 54). This large group was yearning for liberation and independence from China.
Before the Chinese invasion and planned colonization, Norbu describes how Tibet was already a highly functional society with its own advanced culture, educational structure, and theocratic religion that was different from the Mongolian or Chinese culture (75). Despite these intelligent findings, Washington did little to help the Tibetans attain their independence, a case that may even have contributed to China’s takeover on Tibet against the people’s will. In fact, a handful of American air missiles had been dropped on rebel bases. Based on the intelligence gathered, such imposed control by the Chinese would not only be against the will of a majority of the Tibetan population but it was also common sense and inevitable that it would spur a revolt against China and the monarchical rule. Norbu compares this scenario to burying a person alive. In such cases, revolution is inexorable (75).
Intelligence gathered by the CIA also pointed to the possibility of a revolt by outlining that the conditions of the small nation had changed and that the government no longer adhered to the wishes of the Tibetan ruler. Moreover, according to the CIA report, the Tibetan government was committed to secretly supporting the uprising of a revolt through actions such as the establishment of a newspaper in the Tibetan language. Through publishing a newspaper in the local language, the government hoped that it would communicate and reach a majority of the population. The fact that the leadership in Washington failed to acknowledge and act accordingly to the intelligence gathered on the possibility of a revolt denotes and underscores Pillar’s argument that leadership and not intelligence is the main cause of most of America’s foreign policy mistakes.
In conclusion, the United States has historically made many mistakes in the area of foreign policy. One would argue that most of the mistakes made are the result of bad intelligence by agencies such as the CIA. However, despite sufficient intelligence, the leadership in Washington either ignored, undermined the intelligence gathered, or failed to prioritize and make pertinent decisions that could have averted the wars. Therefore, Paul Pillar’s claim that bad or poor leadership in both Washington and the CIA is the cause of a majority, if not most, of America’s screw-ups not only holds water but also is accurate.
Central Intelligence Agency. Conditions in Tibet. CIA, 1948.
Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin Books, 2004.
Conboy, Kenneth, and James Morrison. The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet. University Press of Kansas, 2002.
Gasiorowski, Mark. “The CIA Looks Back at the 1953 Coup in Iran.” Middle East Report, vol. 30, no. 3, 2000, pp. 4-4.
Jervis, Robert. “The Impact of the Korean War on the Cold War.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 24, no. 4, 1980, pp. 563-592.
McGranahan, Carole. “Tibet’s Cold War: The CIA and the Chushi Gangdrug Resistance, 1956–1974.” Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2006, pp. 102-130.
Norbu, Dawa. “The 1959 Tibetan Rebellion: An Interpretation.” The China Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 1979, pp. 74-93.
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Pillar, Paul. “I Served in the CIA for 28 Years and I can tell You: America’s Screw-ups Come from Bad Leaders, not Lousy Spies.” Foreign Policy.
Stork, Joe. “The CIA in Afghanistan: The Good War.” MERIP Middle East Report, vol. 141, no. 1, 1986, pp. 12-13.
Weiner, Tim. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Doubleday, 2007.