from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

The Blame Game

March 3, 2011

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The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters)
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters)

The blame game.  It’s an old inside the Beltway tradition that too often spills into the 24 hour news cycle.  If something bad or unexpected happens, it is always someone’s fault.  It has to be, right?  Don’t get me wrong, accountability is a good thing.  If I mess up, I own up to my mistakes, learn from them, and move on.  That same ethos should also apply to government officials, bureaucrats, and the departments or agencies that they staff.   There should be a lot of people accepting responsibility in Washington for the fair share of government failures—both big and small—over the last decade or so.  At least, in a perfect world that would be the case.

During the course of the Arab uprisings there hasn’t been too much clothing rending over “intelligence failures,” but there has been enough that I have now grown profoundly annoyed.  A few nights ago over dinner, a recent acquaintance professed his shock that the CIA and Mossad (he might as well have added MI6, Tunisia’s intelligence services, and Egypt’s own General Intelligence Service), with all of their resources and assets, just missed the revolutions that are sweeping the Middle East.  Really?  Seriously?  Are we really going to go down this road?  No one “missed” the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions because revolutions are, by their very nature, totally unpredictable. This is hard to believe; in retrospect it all seems so clear—the economic grievances, the corruption, the brutality of the police/security services, the electoral malfeasance, and the arrogance of leaders.  Surely, these factors caused the revolutions that brought Ben Ali and Mubarak down.  Right?  Actually, no.  Observers need to be careful with the word “cause.”  Establishing a causal relationship between these factors and revolution is hard.  There were a host of social, political and economic problems present in Egypt for a long time, but many previous protests did not spark a mass rebellion.  The success of the January 25th uprising against Mubarak even surprised its instigators in the same way the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 shocked dissidents there.

So why was it different this time in Egypt?  A common refrain among the protestors in Tahrir Square was, ‘We are no longer afraid.”  Mubarak’s (and for that matter Ben Ali’s) ability to control his population was based on violence or the threat of violence.  Once the fear factor melted away and people realized that the costs of going into the streets to demand change were not as high as previously believed, a revolutionary bandwagon began that ultimately overwhelmed Mubarak.  This all seems obvious, but there is no way of predicting when this bandwagon will begin.  Observers can only see this phenomenon clearly in retrospect.  So to all you pundits, columnists, Hill staffers, and anyone else who wants to get in on whipping the intel community for its failure to warn of the Middle Eastern revolutions, it is time to take a step back and come to grips with the fact that in the maddeningly complex world of human behavior, some things just can’t be foreseen.

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