Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA ought to be required reading for every member of the new Administration (along with Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and Douglas Frantz's and Catherine Collins' The Man from Pakistan: The True Story of the World's Most Dangerous Nuclear Smuggler.) Weiner's book is a cautionary tale of just how unexpected the sudden shifts in the world can be, and just how unprepared our intelligence community has been over the past sixty years.
Weiner notes that President Jimmy Carter and his CIA Director Stansfield Turner were wholly unprepared for the Iranian revolution that plagues the world still:
The idea that religion would prove to be a compelling political force in the late twentieth century was incomprehensible. Few at the CIA believed that an ancient cleric could seize power and proclaim Iran an Islamic republic. "We did not understand who Khomeini was and the support his movement had," Turner said--or what his seventh-century view of the world might mean for the Untied States.
"We were just plain asleep."
It is hard to imagine that anyone in the incoming team is "just plain asleep" to the still rising tide of Islmaist fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shia variety, but the story in today's Guardian makes you wonder. "Obama camp prepared to talk to Hamas," runs the headline, and the opening paragraphs of the story are enough to alarm even the most ardent Obamian:
The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon George Bush's doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.
The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.
The Guardian has spoken to three people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive. A tested course would be to start contacts through Hamas and the US intelligence services, similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the PLO in the 1970s. Israel did not become aware of the contacts until much later.
Read those paragraphs again, and substitute "Al Qaeda" for "Hamas" whenever the latter appears. If the newspaper's information is credible, the work that the president-elect has done to reassure the country on his national security intentions via the retention of Defense Secretary Gates and the appointment of National Security Advisor General Jones will be undone. Solid, serious appointees cannot overcome such a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the radical Islamist movement. At least overtures to Iran could proceed with the hope of communicating with the pro-American population suffering under the rule of the mullahs. There is zero evidence that Hamas can be reformed or that there is a large population beneath its iron rule that longs for its overthrow in Gaza.
This week I interviewed Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald, and the transcript reveals a world view that refuses to take Hamas at its word, just as the world refused to take Hitler at his word in the '30s. It is also a world view that, like the Carter Administration's, simply doesn't want to believe that religious fanaticism can lead to deeply self-destructive acts and policies in the belief that the sorrows and sufferings of this world lead to glory in the next.
There is a fourth book that should be issued to every incoming Obama official, theologian George Weigel's Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism. Weigel's crucial warning is that the secular absolutists of the American MSM and the American left are wholly unprepared to deal with a religion-powered world view because they cannot take it seriously. Just as Jimmy Carter and his colleagues could not foresee the depth and power of Khomeini's virulent vision, so the "sources close to the transition team" clearly have no idea what they are suggesting. We have to hope that those sources will be sent back to the universities and think tanks they came from, and get nowhere near any policy-making position.