Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: A Man Has Got to Know His Limitations

GailForce:  A Man Has Got to Know His Limitations

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

I’m currently in Alabama helping out my 85-years-young mom so I haven’t had time to blog, but the following paragraph in a recent New York Times article caught my eye:

The United States military has secretly sent a task force of more than 150 planners and other specialists to Jordan to help the armed forces there handle a flood of Syrian refugees, prepare for the possibility that Syria will lose control of its chemical weapons and be positioned should the turmoil in Syria expand into a wider conflict.

This brings me to what I’d like to blog about today: Governor Romney’s foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute this week.  The governor has come under a lot of criticism in this area.  The critics seem to mostly focus on the governor’s lack of specifics for solving foreign policy issues.  I may be wrong, but I think there are two reasons for this.  First and most likely is that foreign policy is an area President Obama has had some notable success.  It’s hard to attack the man who ordered the assault on Osama Bin Laden.  The critics who say the president is taking too much credit are wrong.  He could have ordered a drone or cruise missile strike or even dropping bombs on the compound.  Instead he ordered the high risk option of sending in America’s best fighting force drum roll please:  NAVY SEALS!  Additionally, during his speech announcing Bin Laden’s death, the president gave credit to the intelligence community and the military.  The bottom line, as Commander-in-Chief he had the responsibility and he made the decision to go forward with the operation.

I think the second reason is very practical.  The general public, as well as most people running for office, do not have access to all of the information.  I’ve blogged about this before.  There is a tremendous amount of activity going on every day in the national security arena and most of it is classified.   Looking just at the intelligence community every 24 hours they collect over one billion pieces of information (and that’s a 2007 figure it’s probably much more now).  Since most of that data is probably classified, Governor Romney and his foreign policy team probably do not have access to it.  I’m sure they are aware of that fact and consider the best course of action is to not lean too far ahead of themselves.

As for the theme of Governor Romney’s talk, he began by bringing up the post-World War II accomplishments of General George Marshall.

I join you in praying for the many VMI graduates and all Americans who are now serving in harm’s way. May God bless all who serve, and all who have served. Of all the VMI graduates, none is more distinguished than George Marshall—the Chief of Staff of the Army who became Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, who helped to vanquish fascism and then planned Europe’s rescue from despair. His commitment to peace was born of his direct knowledge of the awful costs and consequences of war.  General Marshall once said, “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” Those words were true in his time—and they still echo in ours.

He continues this theme when criticizing, President Obama’s Middle East policy and handling of the Arab Spring.

As one Libyan woman said, “We are not going to go from darkness to darkness.” This is the struggle that is now shaking the entire Middle East to its foundation.

It is the struggle of millions and millions of people — men and women, young and old, Muslims, Christians and non-believers — all of whom have had enough of the darkness. It is a struggle for the dignity that comes with freedom, and opportunity, and the right to live under laws of our own making.

It is a struggle that has unfolded under green banners in the streets of Iran, in the public squares of Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen, and in the fights for liberty in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Libya, and now Syria.

In short, it is a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair. We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism.

Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today’s crises from becoming tomorrow’s conflicts. Statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets.

We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led. And though the path was long and uncertain, the thought of war in Europe is as inconceivable today as it seemed inevitable in the last century.

This is what makes America exceptional: It is not just the character of our country — it is the record of our accomplishments. America has a proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership — a history that has been written by patriots of both parties.

That is America at its best. And it is the standard by which we measure every president, as well as anyone who wishes to be President. Unfortunately, this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. I want to be very clear:

The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out—no one else. But it is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.

One of the few foreign policy issues that the Romney team appears to be gaining traction on is the Benghazi situation.  It’s interesting since initially, Romney was criticized for speaking out too soon was the crisis was unfolding.   During his VMI  talk, the governor stated:

The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts. They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East—a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself. The attack on our Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 was likely the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001.

This latest assault cannot be blamed on a reprehensible video insulting Islam, despite the Administration’s attempts to convince us of that for so long.

Congressional testimony on Benghazi is ongoing, but I’ll give my two cents on the criticism of the intelligence community.  The challenge is huge.  I’ve already talked about the large amount of data that comes in on a daily basis that has to be screened and analyzed.  When looking at the data, you can’t just look at it in isolation.  You have to figure out if any of it is related to information received yesterday, last week, last month, last year, five years ago.  There is no doubt in my mind that as soon as the information of the attack on our facilities in Benghazi came in there were a number of intelligence analysts who thought it was probably a terrorist attack.  The challenge is gathering enough facts to back that up for the leadership.  In my 28 years as an intelligence professional, rarely did I have enough facts that would stand up in a court of law.  You simply looked at a situation and made the best estimate possible.  I specialized in support to military operations so I found out pretty quickly if I was right or wrong with my analysis.

Here’s an example I used in my book “A Woman’s War.”  During the Cold War, it was normal for the former Soviet Union to keep two nuclear submarines carrying nuclear tipped ballistic missiles off of both the East and west coast of the U.S.  One day without any notice or warning they upped the total to four to five off of each coast.  This situation could have been a trigger to make the Cold War go hot.  Instead, the conclusion of intelligence analysts was the Soviets were doing routine maintenance on their land based ballistic missiles, and upped the number of their sea based ballistic missile force to keep their capability to hit all of the U.S. targets they had on their attack list should the Cold War go hot.

Now how did we figure that out?  We certainly didn’t call up the Soviets and ask them what was going on.  It was pretty straight forward.  There was no crisis going on between the Soviets and the U.S. and the rest of the Soviet military did not seem to be in increased alert.  A simple miscalculation in intelligence analysis could have led to another world war.  Imagine if the powers that be had decided to shoot first and ask questions later.  Imagine if someone in a U.S. government leadership position had said, “they always have two now they just put 4-5 off of each coast.  They’re preparing to launch the missiles at us let’s take out their submarines before they can launch their missiles!”  On the surface it would seem the intelligence community didn’t have a strong case or much information to base this analysis on but in that and in countless other situations the intelligence community guessed right.

Speaking at Geoint 2012 Conference this week in Orlando, the Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper made the following key points about the Benghazi situation:

  • There were demonstrations is some form or another – some quite violent in 54 countries at the height of the situation.
  • No one harbored any illusions.
  • Challenge is tactical warning ahead of an attack.
  • If people do not emit or discuss their behavior, it’s hard to find out what they are going to do.
  •  This environment is now the new normal and people are going to have to be on the alert.

Think I’ll end here.  As always, my views are my own.




Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on