Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”
It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise. It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.
The notion that this was a spontaneous reaction to a provocative film is inane. After all, someone dubbed that film and distributed it widely with nary a U.S. official aware. Facebook was used to inflame tensions and call for rallies. Perhaps, once again, diplomats are spending too much time engaging with high level officials to the detriment of spending time on the street, not with intellectuals, but taking the pulse of more disgruntled segments of society. A recent traveler to Tunisia told me a few days ago that many young people there were listless, just waiting for something to happen.
In subsequent days, the contradictions about whether the United States had warning ahead of time will get resolved. It would be tragic if, more than a decade after 9/11, some in the administration had foreknowledge but could not get that information to the right people in time.
Congress was correct to investigate the intelligence failures that colored the George W. Bush administration decision to intervene in Iraq. Intelligence failures under the Obama administration may be different, but their implications could be just as profound. Perhaps it is time—in a serious, non-partisan way—to examine why it is that the CIA and State Department continue to be caught so flat-footed in the Arab world.