The Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies by George Friedman

by rthieme on April 19, 2005

The Secret War:
Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies
by George Friedman
Reviewed by Richard Thieme

The Hunting of the Snark

The truth may indeed set us free, but if there is one lesson to be learned from reading George Friedman’s The Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies (Doubleday 2004)  it’s that truth is a snark glimpsed vaguely just as it disappears into a misty glade.

And … those who claim to have photographed the mythical beast had better provide more than their own word in support of the claim.

George Friedman is founder of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting), a private intelligence organization. Friedman “leads a team of analysts with an unparalleled record for accuracy and clarity in its forecasts. With its own proprietary network of on-the-ground sources around the world, Stratfor has been called “a private-quasi CIA” by Barron’s, and cited by the mainstream media for its uncanny accuracy and ability to uncover the globe’s best-kept secrets and predict world-changing events in ways that no one else can.” (http://www.stratfor.com)

That’s a pretty heady claim, and it raises serious questions. As the old joke concludes, calling a lamb’s tail a leg doesn’t give a lamb five legs, and being cited by mainstream media for “uncanny accuracy” doesn’t make the claim credible. In fact, in a world of managed perception, subtle propaganda and effective disinformation, one expects documentation when someone claims to out-CIA the CIA. Neither Stratfor nor Friedman provide it.

To evaluate America’s Secret War means evaluating Stratfor to some extent and that means evaluating George Friedman. The credibility of each nests within the credibility of the next.

It is true that the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, both owned by Dow-Jones, followed after hedge-fund managers promoting Stratfor’s successes and ran stories, but Wall Street is a herd animal and investment managers are seldom fired for following the crowd. Stories in those publications often follow rather than lead their constituencies, so that alone doesn’t tell us much. In addition, the Wall Street Journal noted that Friedman had some big misses too, which raises two key questions: before predictions have been tested by time, how does one evaluate a private intelligence organization and its claims? Is the data available for doing solid forensic analysis?

The answers, to date, are (1) with difficulty, and (2) no.

The formal structure of America’s Secret War doesn’t help. Written in a journalistic style (Friedman is a Hungarian refugee who learned to have his weighty academese translated into a breezier style), the narrative demands acceptance at face value as it sweeps us along. In the old days, journalism meant documentation—footnotes, bibliographies, named sources. We don’t get any of those in America’s Secret War.

Friedman himself warns that “It is important to understand how the CIA, or any intelligence agency, evaluates intelligence. Every bit of intelligence has a source and every source has a history. Whether the collection method is from a woman picking up a man in a bar in Beirut or a satellite intercepting cell phone calls, intelligence comes from someone. … The value of the information depends on two things: First, who the source is and where he is placed—is he a cabdriver or a government minister? Second, what is the source’s track record?” (p.206)

But does he provide that either for Stratfor’s analyses or his book’s sources? No. He implies that his sources and methods are better than the CIA’s (combined with the listening capabilities of NSA), but there is no documentation, so how would anyone know? Because he relies on the historical analysis that makes up the bulk of the book to support implicitly the book’s more controversial claims, we are left looking outside of the book itself for points of reference. The book is, in effect, a black box.

Let’s choose two of the more controversial claims to illuminate where Friedman moves onto shaky ground.

The first is Friedman’s claim that “Musharraf had actuallyshifted Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and materials to six new locations in mid-October, soon after the U.S. air attacks on Afghanistan began.” (p.212). “The United States could not tolerate the existence of nuclear weapons or facilities that were not under the verifiable control of a government in which the United States had confidence.” (p. 219). “… what emerged in American thinking … was a strategy for a global covert and overt assault, taking out all of Al Qaeda and all dangerous nuclear facilities in one fell swoop…. in an extreme case, the United States was prepared to make a preemptive nuclear strike on an unsecured nuclear facility if that was the only way to destroy it.” (p.221) “US officials deliver[ed] this message to Musharraf: Unless US observers, to put it politely, were given access to Pakistani facilities in order to guarantee that nuclear materials were not being taken out by nuclear scientists and technicians close to ISI, the US would have to take steps to destroy those facilities, steps that would, if no other way was available, include nuclear strikes.” (p.226)

How does one begin to evaluate the accuracy of this extraordinary claim, that we were ready to “go nuclear” on Pakistan? As a layperson without access to a private intelligence apparatus, I can only ask those with better connections. A few weeks ago, Bob Woodward and I delivered keynotes for Infosec World and I asked Woodward about these claims. Woodward had never heard of Stratfor or Friedman but responded to specifics by saying, “Nonsense! I talked to people at CIA and elsewhere about how we put pressure on Pakistan and it never included threats of nuclear attack. Besides,” he added, “how would we know where all of their weapons were? That’s impossible.”

Another weighty claim is Friedman’s assertion that our primary intention in invading Iraq was to force the hand of the Saudis and compel them to resist an Al Qaeda they had funded and supported.

How he advances this thesis illustrates a critical problem with his methodology. A complex scenario with multiple streams of motivation and intention is reduced to a single scenario. Friedman oversimplifies. Where is the report of neo-con strategizing in the nineties, when the Middle East was perceived to be a vacuum after the fall of the Soviet Union?  Not mentioned. Where is a judicious discussion of the reasonable belief that Sadam Hussein did in fact pose a serious threat that needed to be neutralized, WMD or not? Not developed.

This is not the first time Friedman has swept everything into a single scenario. In 1991 he co-authored with Meredith LeBard The Coming War with Japan. Using the breakdown of the Soviet-American alliance after World War 2 as an analogy, when a common enemy no longer united them, Friedman predicted that Japan and the United States would go to war over dominance of the Pacific Basin. In an interview on “Booknotes” on C-Span, he  made clear that he did not mean economic conflict. He meant a shooting war.

Friedman’s analysis minimized the importance of China, the global Islamist threat and other important factors. The book was often dismissed at the time as preposterous, a verdict that has held up pretty well. You won’t find it mentioned in the voluminous PR about Stratfor and its “uncanny accuracy.”

In a review in the New York Times Review of Books (May 30, 1991), James Fallows wrote: “It is easy to imagine the dilemma the publisher faced when deciding whether to call its new book The Coming War With Japan. The authors are not widely known…. If a book by these two had been published under a title that would accurately sum up its argument—such as, After the Cold War: Diverging National Interests Between Japan and America—few people would have paid much attention to it. By swinging for the fences with an inflammatory title and hyped-up passages every few chapters on the “inevitability” of war, both the publisher and authors virtually guaranteed that reviewers would say, as I’m about to, that the book does not come close to proving its announced case.”

The same can be concluded of America’s Secret War fourteen years later. The “secrets,” i.e. the real motivations behind our strategic moves, are claimed to be the result of an unflinching examination of how we went to war unencumbered by moralism. That claim might be said like this: “Like all nations, America must say more palatable things on the world stage where a moral universe is pretended but in fact must strategize on behalf of her own self-interest.” That is not nearly so controversial as lighting up the nukes and trumping the House of Saud with a subtle geopolitical finesse, but it would have been nearer the truth.

There is no way to evaluate the claims of this book other than through secondary analysis. The book itself provides few bread crumbs to follow through a dark forest. But even this brief review can reasonably conclude that “this book does not come close to proving its announced case.”

Originally published in the National Catholic Reporter

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