Academic journal article Parameters

Socio-Cultural Intelligence and National Security

Academic journal article Parameters

Socio-Cultural Intelligence and National Security

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article reviews, assesses, and makes recommendations relating to the provision and use of socio-cultural intelligence in support of national security policy. It details responses to gaps in socio-cultural intelligence during the 2000s, and reinforces the importance of socio-cultural intelligence in addressing challenges in the emerging operational environment.


The March 2005 report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction (The WMD Commission) concluded that America's inability to discern crucial aspects of Iraq's weapons program stemmed from failures to understand "the context of Iraq's overall political, social, cultural, and economic situation." (1) In other words, "the Intelligence Community did not sufficiently understand the political dynamics of Saddam Hussein's Iraq." (2) Given the state of affairs with US policy towards Russia, China, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and other current and potential points of friction one wonders if we have improved our ability to understand such political, social, and cultural dynamics.

The implications for failing to sustain and improve socio-cultural intelligence capabilities are manifold. The failure to understand the true nature of Iraqi deception about weapons of mass destruction reinforced biases and misperception, ultimately leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The deliberate heightening of Sunni-Shia tensions in Iraq during the mid-2000s by Sunni extremists who wanted a sectarian war created the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Many analysts missed the social, economic, and political antecedents to the Arab Spring, including the relationship between increasing dissatisfaction with government corruption, rising food prices and unemployment, increased religiosity, and the emergence of new, organized factions willing to demonstrate against the government. It appears analysts also failed to recognize Russia possessed both the intentions and capabilities to wage a pseudo-war in Ukraine, and that China would increase its expansionism in the South China Sea and escalate its cyber attacks on the United States.

Throughout the 2000s, strategists, planners, and policymakers seeking the same socio-political context identified in the WMD Commission Report lamented a paucity of capabilities to understand what has been termed "socio-cultural intelligence," an area of intelligence collection, analysis, and reporting that atrophied in the 1980s and 1990s. (3) As former National Security Advisor Steven Hadley recently observed, "whether it's Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or the 2011 Arab Awakening, we are starting from scratch" and "after the kinetic phase against ISIS, there's going to have to be some work done. How are we going to do that?" (4)

Indeed, post-Cold War intelligence programs undervalued social science disciplines as emphasis was placed on technical collection and reporting disciplines. While the 1990s witnessed an increase in the open, unclassified resources available to help policymakers understand foreign cultures, movements, and peoples, they were not considered as part of the baseline data collected and analyzed for defense, development, and diplomacy missions. Policymakers did not have access to the best assessments, data, or experts available to inform intelligence analysis, estimates, or policy formulation.

The United States has a long history of collecting and using demographic, cultural, and identity-related information in support of national security policy. But the record is mixed. When there is a national security crisis or war, socio-cultural intelligence efforts are funded, social scientists are mobilized, and policymakers have access to key insights into foreign populations. Lacking the imperative for such support or direct intervention by senior leaders, however, funding for sociocultural intelligence activities atrophy. …

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