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Dangerous Assumptions

From our own Steve Schippert last week in Dangerous Liaisons:

...gracing the pages of the New York Times’ International Herald Tribune is a commentary, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda, by a researcher and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy which attempts to dispel the notion of al-Qaeda – Hizballah (and thus, Iranian) cooperation....

and Monday in the Times Online:

AL-QAEDA leaders in Iraq are planning the first “large-scale” terrorist attacks on Britain and other western targets with the help of supporters in Iran, according to a leaked intelligence report. (emphasis mine)

There is no shortage of articles and reports that attempt to dismiss connections between Sunni and Shia groups. Thankfully, those of us who assume the role of Devil's Advocate have ample evidence from which to draw. Unfortunately, while the contrarians risk a charge of animal cruelty for beating a dead horse, peddlers of the demonstrably false are still viewed as unassailable experts.

In the intelligence business people love to talk about the importance of history. No one wants to doom themselves and their supported policymakers by repeating bad history; everyone cherry picks their favorite historical example to support their conclusions about present-day affairs. The danger of course is that if you are basing your conclusions on bad historical information, you're not avoiding doom, you're driving straight for it.

Proponents of the "Sunnis don't work with Shias" meme will no doubt point out that the inter-faith cooperation we see today is a historical anomaly, but history is not just a catalog of the past, it is a map of myriad evolutions. Good analysis doesn't repackage the past, it attempts to predict the future, which makes looking too far back a mistake and a disservice.

Of course drawing conclusions based on incomplete information is a risk all external commentators run, regardless of how well documented their findings. However, if recent history has taught us anything, it is the importance of the seemingly implausible that lies right in front of our faces.

2 Comments

Just an observation on the general state of things, Michael. Have you noticed how often people reach to cite one quote or another to support their position, however bankrupt that position might be? That is both the beauty and the horror of the Internet. People can find just about anything they need to support a position, even if its not at all relevant.

Your comment of the "seemingly implausible lying right in front of our faces" is insightful to looking to the future, but also to explaining the inability of everyone to have predicted the attacks of September 11th.

We no longer live in a predictable world. That alone makes the perspective of the analyst or commentator that much more important. The survivability of Iraq depends on Sunni-Shi'a (and Kurd) cooperation.

No big paradigm shift there, the Internet merely facilitates the process, as you say. Of course with a lot more opinions in play, the apparent support for position A or B can seem misleadingly strong.

What disturbs me as an analyst, and as one who is helping to train a new generation of same, is the steadfast refusal of supposed professionals to follow basic tradecraft. Gather data to support your preconceived notions and call that authoritative? Rely on data whose relevance is increasingly called into question? And people claim that it is bad/insufficient collection that is the cause of failures.

I understand that time is short and the demand to publish is strong (and the ideology that pays the bills needs feeding) but of all the places in that town, a think tank is where – ostensibly – you have the time and liberty to actually think about the work, not just update a canned meme with a few new bullet points to meet a deadline.