The lid has finally blown off the pressure cooker in Cairo. And as the Director of National Intelligence is apparently just now starting to notice, there are a few more pressure cookers on the stove that are beginning to make odd noises.
Alas, in the real world there is no rewind button. So while it's tempting to dwell on how ineptly the President and his team have coped with the unfolding revolution in Egypt -- and God knows it's fun, given the breathtaking combination of arrogance and stupidity this administration has displayed -- our nation's security requires that we focus on the future. More precisely:
- Where are we now, in Egypt and more broadly in the Mideast?
- What is likely to happen next, and then down the road, in this volatile and vital region?
- What do we want to happen?
- How can we tip the odds in our favor?
Where We Are Now
Managing a revolution is like leaping across a chasm; it's best to reach the other side in one hop. When the old regime falls and is immediately replaced by a popular new regime -- which is what happened in countries including Poland and Czechoslovakia at the end of the Cold War -- that country's future usually is stable. But when the old regime falls and isn't immediately replaced by a new regime capable of quickly forging a new political structure, that country's future is up for grabs. This is what happened in Russia in 1917, when in February the Czar was overthrown and replaced by Kerensky and his (fairly decent) Social Democrats, who then fumbled in the Duma and lost control in October to Lenin and his (murderous) Bolsheviks.
In Egypt the House of Mubarak has collapsed, and the country's army is dutifully holding things together until a new political structure can be erected. So while the jubilation in Cairo's Tahrir Square is understandable, Egypt hasn't had a revolution. It's had half a revolution, which means the country's future is in play.
What Lies Ahead in the Mideast
In today's world of mass communication and social networking, the uprising in Egypt is likely to spread throughout the region. Indeed, the uprising in Egypt itself was triggered, at least in part, by the recent popular uprising in Tunisia. And now there may well be popular uprisings in Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iran. There could be popular uprisings in Lebanon, Syria, and even in Gaza and the West Bank. And since information moves around the globe literally at the speed of light, it wouldn't be surprising to wake up one morning, turn on the television, and see scenes of mass unrest in Havana. (And if we do see a popular uprising in Cuba, wouldn't it be nice if the CIA got its act together -- fast -- and tossed a few banana peels under the Castro brothers' feet....)
In short, we have suddenly entered one of those rare moments in history when the world is about to be remade.
What We Want to Happen
When you study history, it's the story of competing operating systems. Our operating system is Western civilization: We put the individual at the center of life, while separating church and state. We believe in property rights and the rule of law. Western civilization unleashes the entrepreneurial talents of its people, and it encourages intellectual curiosity. It's an endless struggle for equality among the races and the sexes. Is Western civilization perfect? Of course not; it's designed and operated by human beings, and we make horrific mistakes from time to time. But when all is said and done, Western civilization is history's most extraordinary accomplishment; it's the modern world.
In just the last century, there were two efforts by other operating systems to knock us off. The first of these was fascism, which led to World War II. The second was communism, which led to the Cold War.
Stand back from history, and there's another operating system that's been with us for a long time: Islam. In this operating system, church and state are often combined, and the individual is subservient to this church-state combination -- without the option to opt out. Islam doesn't unleash the entrepreneurial talents of its people, and it discourages intellectual curiosity -- which is why there hasn't been a major scientific breakthrough from the Islamic world in a thousand years. There's one other striking feature of this operating system: it treats women as though they were property rather than people. Simply put, this operating system is incompatible with the modern world -- and that's the glitch. Why is this a problem? Because the most radical and determined leaders of Islam, like their fascist and communist predecessors, wish to impose their operating system on the entire world -- including us.
All we Americans have ever wanted is to be left alone. We have no wish to impose our operating system on anyone else, and we won't allow anyone else to impose their operating system on us. This means that to avoid war, the world's various operating systems need not be the same as ours -- but they must be compatible with our operating system so we can live together peacefully.
What President George W. Bush called the War on Terrorism, and what President Obama calls overseas contingency operations, isn't really an effort to impose our operating system on Islam. It's an effort to push Islam down the road toward the modern world so that we can live together peacefully. In effect, it's an effort to help Islam develop Version 2.0.
Honorable people can disagree over whether we've gone about this in the best possible way. What's indisputable is that since 9-11 Islam's operating system has been pushed harder than it's ever been pushed before. In a sense, Version 1.0 is falling apart and the code for Version 2.0 is being written before our eyes -- in Iraq, for example, and now in Egypt and soon throughout the Mideast.
Since this is their operating system, not ours, it isn't our business to impose our values on each line of code the Moslem world's new leaders may write. But it is our business -- indeed, our survival depends on it -- to assure that whatever new version of Islam emerges is compatible with Western civilization and willing to live with us in peace. This is really what "the war" is all about.
Tipping the Odds in Our Favor
It's true that history never repeats itself. But human nature doesn't change, so historical patterns repeat themselves all the time. For instance, in western Europe during the 1920s and 1930s the communists worked underground to take power in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere. When World War II erupted, the Soviet Union itself and also these underground communists formed an uneasy alliance with the Allies to defeat our common enemy, the Fascists. (Read the superb novels of Alan Furst for an entertaining, and stunningly accurate, overview of all this.) When the war ended, both the Soviet Union and its communist supporters in western Europe turned back to the business of revolution through covert operations and, more importantly, through overt political activity. And western Europe was up for grabs.
All we wanted was for western Europe to get back on its feet. President Truman and his great Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, understood that for these countries to find their way forward the communists had to be stopped at all costs. What we said to the western Europeans was, in effect, you're on your own and best of luck -- but for our own security we're not letting the commies play in your sandbox. If you don't like our meddling in your politics, too bad. Work with us, and the sooner we stop the communists the sooner we'll get out of your sandbox.
While most people today think of the Cold War as a nuclear struggle between the Free World and the Soviet Union -- and indeed it was -- the Cold War was also a 45-year ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of western Europe's citizens. From the Truman administration through the Reagan administration, we fought this ideological battle at the political level and the diplomatic level. We fought it at the intellectual level, for example at conferences, in leading publications read by European opinion makers, at swishy embassy dinner parties and over endless cups of espresso with university students in cheap cafes across the continent. At the CIA we fought it out with the bad guys at 3am in the back alleys of cities like Rome, Paris and Berlin. It was hard going all the way, with more blunders and setbacks than any of us who were involved care to remember. But in the end, western Europeans themselves rejected communism, the Soviet Union collapsed -- and we'd won.
Just as we kept the communists from hijacking western Europe, we now must keep the radical Islamists from hijacking the Mideast. To be precise, we've got to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from getting power, in Egypt or in any other country that will come into play. This is the great battle that lies before us, and we've got to fight it out in every way -- militarily, diplomatically, intellectually, and covertly.
Among other things, we're going to need a first-class intelligence service. And while launching covert actions will be part of its job, its most crucial (and most under-rated) responsibility will be to provide our nation's leaders with an accurate picture of what's going on right now in the Mideast and what's likely to happen next. Who are the key players, and what are their strengths and weaknesses? In each country, whose side will the generals be on when unrest threatens the incumbent regime? More importantly -- much more importantly -- whose side will the 22-year-old lieutenants be on when the demonstrators start marching. (It's the lieutenants, not the generals, who determine the outcome of a revolution because they are the guys with the guns. If the lieutenants won't shoot, because they side with the demonstrators or, simply, because their brothers and sisters are in the surging crowd, it's over no matter what orders they get from the generals.)
A Word or Two of Advice
On the off-chance that my successors at the CIA are reading this essay, please allow me to offer two pieces of advice:
First, I see that you've just established a 35-person task force to project likely developments in the Mideast. Better late than never. But if I were you, I'd reach out -- fast -- to really smart people with proven track records of accurately projecting that region's future. Walid Phares comes to mind, and if you haven't already read his brilliant essays at American Thinker or watched the interviews he's given on EWTN -- yes, EWTN -- then do it. Read the remarkably insightful essays that Fouad Ajami has published in The Wall Street Journal, then call this distinguished scholar and invite him in for lunch. Get in touch with Michael Ledeen over at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; he knows more about what's going on in Iran than all the rest of us combined, and he has a habit of being proved right. And when you meet with these gentlemen, ask them who else to talk with and to read. (And don't look confused if one of them says, "Spengler". That's actually David P. Goldman, and his "Spengler" essays on Iran's catastrophic demographics, and on why rising wheat prices are triggering unrest on the Arab street, are just extraordinary.)
Remember, as intelligence analysts your job isn't to know everything; your job is to identify the people who know what the President and his team need to know, and then to pull it all together into a form that policy makers can absorb and turn into action. If they can see the future coming at us, soon enough and clearly enough, they can change the future before it happens. That's why projecting the future is the overriding purpose of an intelligence service.
Second, as you focus on the Muslim Brotherhood don't let yourselves get caught in one of those idiotic "hawks versus doves" arguments. You're all too young to remember this, but during the Cold War the CIA's analysts twisted themselves into pretzels arguing about the "split" between the Kremlin's so-called moderates and hard-liners. When something happened in the world -- anything, come to think of it -- my in-box would overflow with papers arguing whether it meant that the Politburo's hawks had gained power over the doves, or whether the Politburo's doves were now ascendant over its hawks. It was total nonsense. Any time you put three people in a room there's going to be a disagreement about something. Of course there were disagreements inside the Politburo -- and politics in the Soviet Union being a winner-take-all game, sometimes a member of the Politburo suddenly turned up as ambassador to Paraguay, or dead in an implausible auto crash. But these arguments were over strategy and tactics, not over the ultimate objective, which of course was the imposition of a Pax Sovietica on the world.
Just like the communists before them, the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders may disagree about how to move forward. But there's no disagreement among them on where they want to go; namely, to impose an Islamic caliphate on the world.
Finally -- if you'll indulge me for one more paragraph -- a word of advice to all of you who have kindly taken the time to read this far: It's easy to be a pessimist, and to focus on the mistakes we've made and the setbacks that inevitably lie ahead. (It's amazing how Fox News keeps finding talking heads I've never heard of before, who spin out one apocalyptic Mideast scenario after another. It's also getting boring.)
Back in the Cold War years a lot of our deep thinkers were convinced we'd lose. And we nearly did. But then, suddenly, three unlikely leaders stepped onto the world stage: a Polish pope, a woman prime minister, and an ex-actor from California. Together they threw the switch from playing defense to playing offense, and within a decade we'd won the Cold War. So don't let the pessimists get you down. And if you just can't bring yourself to believe we can defeat the Islamists and win this global struggle, stop by my office and I'll let you touch my piece of the Berlin Wall.
Herbert E. Meyer served during the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence and Vice Chairman of the CIA's National Intelligence Council. He is the author of two new eBooks, How to Analyze Information and The Cure for Poverty.