Today I search for lessons gained from 55 years of personal involvement in the Middle East, including 37 years during which I lived in predominantly Muslim countries. Throughout this half century and more I’ve been, as I remain, an avid consumer of information and analysis produced by a consistently excellent corps of international journalists reporting from this part of the world. Because I was for 26 years a producer of intelligence about the Middle East for the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Clandestine Service, I have a special appreciation of the extraordinary challenges that confront those in both occupations who strive to understand and explain to others the complexity of developments—especially their underlying causes and long-term effects—throughout this fascinating region.
In looking back, I am often struck by the similarities, rather than the differences, between these two otherwise strictly compartmented professions of intelligence collection and news reporting. I therefore hope to give no offense to my many valued friends in the Fourth Estate if I make the observation that successful spies and successful news hawks often impress me as being products of the same gene pool—individuals who are by nature inquisitive and persistent, with keen powers of observation and analysis—all dedicated to mastering the art of persuasive communication.
Being cousins of a sort, intelligence officers and journalists share a critical responsibility to convey to readers the meaning behind events that they observe and report. This calls for the special qualities of sensitivity to nuance, clarity of vision, objectivity and, ever more important these days, intellectual honesty in the face of constant temptations to tailor the message to reinforce the preconceptions and satisfy the prejudices of our respective "customer bases."
Failure to See What Needs to Be Seen
With these observations in mind, I will now speak strictly from the perspective of a loyal but deeply concerned alumnus of the CIA. Let me start by emphasizing my view that the most dangerous threat facing the United States early in this new century is the difficulty Americans seem to have, individually and collectively, in hearing and understanding viewpoints different from our own. As a result, we experience persistent failure either in appreciating or taking adequately into consideration the fundamental social and political realities that motivate people of other nationalities and cultures whose actions and policies we presume to judge and whose destinies we sometimes arrogantly undertake to control directly.
Nowhere is that unfortunate proclivity more evident than in our dealings with the Arab and Muslim worlds, where imprecise technical terms like "covert action," "regime change," and "preventive war" are casually tossed about nowadays. These phrases are used to describe activities that have, by some perverted process of logic, come to be accepted as legitimate instruments of U.S. national policy, even as the same practices continue to be regarded as unacceptable behavior under international law.
Often I’ve observed and deplored the shallow limits of official Washington’s institutional memory, and so I would like to illustrate my point by briefly recalling an event that occurred five decades ago. It was a time when, in my view, failure of intelligence reporters (of which I was one) to appreciate and convey to Washington the human dimension of a particular Middle East situation led to the employment of unwarranted and illegitimate methods of covert intervention; these actions sowed the seeds of future political instability and violence in this specific country and throughout the region.
Today many analogous situations have developed with similar causes and results. In all of these cases—from Iraq to Iran, Palestine and Lebanon—I have felt that much of the responsibility for incompetent and unwise policymaking falls on the shoulders of those who have failed adequately to inform and educate in depth the people who need to know. And these people include not only policymakers and legislative representatives but the American general public. We are the ones who must be well informed about the true causes and subtle complications of the critical situations when we expect our leaders to resolve them wisely and with minimum harm to all concerned.
Professional ethics and discipline strictly prohibit both intelligence professionals and journalists from attempting consciously and deliberately to influence governmental policy through their reporting. However, both can and should contribute to a better understanding on the part of all citizens of the underlying political conditions and social attitudes affecting motivations on all sides of an international controversy. It is in this spirit that I invite journalists to consider the example I’ve chosen to share as a way of offering them a tool for evaluating the effectiveness of their reporting and analysis today.
Lebanon’s Lessons for Journalists Today
For those who remember and revere Walt Kelly, the cartoonist who became one of the icons of political journalism, this historical anecdote will have particular appeal. This circumstance involved Kelly during the 1957-58 internal and violent conflict in Lebanon, which was, in essence, an incipient civil war that culminated in the intervention of about 20,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers in the summer of 1958.
A vocal and violence-prone minority faction of Lebanese was infected by Gamal Abd-al-Nasser’s radical Arab nationalism, which was then at the zenith of its popularity in the region. Another minority, dominated by diehard right-wingChristian elements, was equally in favor of public alignment with Washington’s anticommunist and anti-Nasser Eisenhower Doctrine. It was this latter "pro-American" group, firmly in power at the time, with which Washington was openly aligned. And the CIA supported this Lebanese group through a covert action program consisting of large secret subventions of cash to individual political candidates during a critical parliamentary election and the provision of lethal weaponry to private paramilitary forces loyal to these pro-American political factions. (As a direct participant in both activities, I can speak with authority on the subject.)
As it happened, however, the majority of Lebanese wanted their government carefully to maintain the country’s uncommitted status—essential, they felt, to preserving peace and prosperity among the society’s diverse ethnic and religious communities. Most people recognized that unless Lebanon’s traditional balance was delicately preserved, its unique climate of political and religious tolerance, as well as its extraordinary commercial vigor, could turn into chaos very quickly.
This was indeed a situation that is in many ways analogous to the political impasse facing Lebanon today. Unfortunately, the United States was deeply imbued at this time with cold war attitudes—although the term "neocon" had not yet been invented. Anyone exhibiting outward signs of not being openly "with us" was automatically accused of being "against us." And so it became America’s self-appointed task to teach Lebanon that "good guys" should feel obligated in the name of freedom and democracy to confront and defeat "bad guys," by hook or by crook. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?)
As the conflict was nearing its height, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut received a semiofficial visit from Walt Kelly, creator of the memorable "Pogo" cartoon strip. Kelly was not there to draw funny pictures, however. He was there in his capacity as a political journalist, a serious investigator, who wanted to observe first hand the fascinating complexities of Lebanese politics. With that purpose, he asked to meet a spokesman of the "opposition." Embassy officials, however, declined to oblige, presumably out of concern for diplomatic propriety.
A gentleman named Saeb Salam, a family acquaintance whom I admired as a friend and respected as a national leader in Lebanese politics, was then a prominent spokesman for the group in opposition to open alignment with the United States. In these cold war times, this meant he was regarded by Washington as a dangerous adversary. A former student of my father’s at the American University of Beirut, a Sunni Muslim and a former prime minister, Salam was the right person to explain the contrarian point of view to our American visitor.
I took Kelly to meet Salam, and we were treated to a remarkably sensible, balanced and constructive explanation of why it was neither in Lebanon’s interest nor in the interests of the United States that Lebanon be pushed off the fence and forced to become, for all practical purposes, a belligerent in both the cold war and the potentially explosive ideological conflicts looming within and among the Arab states. Kelly was deeply impressed, as was I. Unfortunately, the crisis only worsened, leading to the landing of U.S. military forces on the beaches near Beirut in July 1958.
Following this precedent-setting American military intervention in the Middle East, Washington soon began looking desperately for an appropriate "exit strategy" by which to extricate our troops and the residue of our national honor from what was rapidly becoming a quagmire. (Sounds more and more familiar, doesn’t it?)
The only acceptable option finally available to the U.S. government was to acquiesce in the appointment of a compromise government whose make-up satisfied both the opposition parties and the rest of the concerned citizens of Lebanon. At this point, they were grateful just to see foreign military forces leave them alone to settle their country’s problems by themselves. No surprise to anyone: The prime minister who emerged to lead the new government was America’s erstwhile demon, Saeb Salam.
A decade and more later, of course, at the height of the Vietnam War, Kelly’s swamp critter, the much-beloved character Pogo, paraphrased Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous naval battle report to Washington in 1812, and in the process invented what was to become the mantra of the Vietnam era: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
This is advice that should never have been ignored half a century ago; and it is wisdom that should not be forgotten today.
Ray Close is a member of the fourth generation of his family to live and work in the Arab world. For 26 years he worked in the Middle East for the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service.