The president's speech on Libya this week raised more questions than it answered. And with fighting there escalating, as Gadhafi's troops battle poorly trained and armed rebels driving them back from strategic territory they had gained, it seems likely that circumstances will force a more expansive role than President Obama outlined.
We are already under pressure from our allies to provide arms to the rebels, directly or indirectly. But we are not positioned to make an informed decision unless we have a better understanding of what is happening on the ground. In his speech, the president stated U.S. goals as narrowly as possible -- to protect civilian populations from slaughter at the hands of Gadhafi's forces. He has demurred on the larger issue of whether it is the goal of the military operation to remove Gadhafi from power, though clearly, any outcome short of Gadhafi's departure would harm U.S. interests. But the problem in Libya, as it was in Iraq, is that we have too little idea what will happen after we achieve our declared military aims.
The administration seems to have been taken totally by surprise, first by popular uprisings in Tunisia, then Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. But the fault is not Obama's alone. Despite billions of dollars invested each year in intelligence-gathering by a myriad of government agencies, we continue to miss what's happening in places vital to our national interests. It's a problem that dates back for decades.
Our intelligence agencies gave us little advance warning that the Soviet Union was on the point of collapse in the 1980s and that the Berlin Wall would fall in 1989, or to predict that the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe would disintegrate and the Soviet Union would dissolve in 1991. Ten years later, our intelligence agencies failed to uncover a careful and well-planned al-Qaida operation in the United States that resulted in the most devastating attack on American soil in the nation's history. Two years after that, we went into Iraq confident that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that, when we deposed him, we would be embraced as liberators.
These are not minor intelligence failures. Despite a massive intelligence reorganization and the claim that we have better coordination and information-sharing among agencies in the aftermath of 9/11, we still keep coming up short on basic facts our leaders need in order to make the right policy choices.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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