Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Power of Groupthink, Iraq and the 2006 elections

Norman Podhoretz's editorial in the December 2005 issue of Commentary needs to be read even by those who vehemently disagree with him and his perspective, because it highlights the serious and troubling phenomenon of bandwaggoning and groupthink. I realize that this was probably not Podhoretz's intention in penning his essay, of course!

But President Bush's assertions and those of other key members of his administration did not occur in a vacuum. Constant repetition of the same phrases, over time, creates inertia for politicians, columnists and pundits. It was taken for granted, even, as Podhoretz quotes, by Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, that Saddam Hussein was seeking and developing WMD.

Here's where we run into problems. To seek to develop does not constitute successful possession. This is where intelligence and analysis come in. How serious of a program? How likely to succeed? Given other threats--where did the Iraqi threat fall on the spectrum? What were the best tools to assess, deal, contain and eliminate the threat?

Intelligence agencies fudged. No one wanted to definitively say "yea" or "nay" because of the possibility of being wrong. Michael Eisenstadt raised the issue in the fall 2005 issue of The National Interest that Iraq may have retained very small amounts of chemical or biological weapons that were dramatically over-estimate and engaged in deliberate deception. He recommends:

" ... intelligence analysts and policymakers need to understand better how proliferators think about and plan to use WMD and to re-evaluate their own fundamental assumptions on the subject. In both 1991 and 2003, it was widely assumed that Iraq would assign to WMD a central role in deterrence and warfighting. In both cases, however, Iraq sought to deter or thwart the designs of the United States by a combination of political and conventional military means, and perhaps, in the latter case, by deceiving its enemies regarding its WMD capabilities. Furthermore, how does one factor the possibility of deception into intelligence assessments and policy discussions, without succumbing to the type of systematic overestimation of an adversary’s WMD capabilities that led to the intelligence failures that preceded Operation Iraqi Freedom (where lack of evidence regarding WMD was seen as proof of the effectiveness of Iraqi denial and deception measures)?"

These weren't the questions that were popular to ask, however.

As I noted earlier, the Democrats are in a pickle. No prominent Democrat took a Scowcroftian position prior to the war--that Iraq, even if it was trying to reconstitute WMD programs, was too weak and disorganized to be a threat and that Iraq was containable. In other words, Scowcroft didn't dispute that Hussein might be trying to "seek and acquire" WMD but concluded that his efforts would not be successful.

The Podhoretz article is an opening salvo in the 2006 campaign--Democrats (and Podhoretz makes sure he has "evidence" on every major Democrat) are going to be challenged with their own statements. (Moderate Republicans will also have the same problem to deal with).

I can only see the following responses:

--something "changed" between January 2001 when President Clinton left office and President Bush was sworn in, that the Iraqi threat of 1998 had mellowed;

--Bush "mishandled" things

--a Fulbright-style mea culpa: serious mistakes were made. Of course, the problem with doing this is then it is hard to run on a platform of greater competence.

Not that the Democrats are out of a well-deserved pickle in any way, but this sounds like the "he did too" excuse used in the school playground when someone gets in trouble.

Ultimately this is about responsibility and accountability for what has been called the biggest military mistake since 9 B.C..
I think there's a fourth response that you've left out--and one that Dems have to articulate--believing that there was a substantial WMD threat from Saddam does not mean that the only policy option was a pre-emptive invasion and occupation of Iraq.

I also disagree with your assessment of Biden's comments. Perhaps under pressure of the program he didn't articulate it well enough but the focus in 2002 was on getting coercive inspections in place, not regime change.
Saddam was a threat, and we had an opportunity to remove him. We have to separate postwar problems and mistakes from the essentially correct strategic decision to decapitate him from power. You deal with the threats as you can.
The whole Iraq discussion is now a muddled stew in which WMD, terrorism, democracy, insurgents, energy interests and U.S. credibility are all thrown together.

The president continues to throw together this mishmash that insurgents and terrorists blend into one threat, and that the solution is staying in Iraq in perpetuity if necessary, and to prop up the new government. But wasn't it the case that Zarqawi prior to the invasion was in Iraq--but in the Kurdish areas, the guys supposed to be our friends.
In response to conservative realist, that Saddam was a threat is a relative statement. The Shias close to Iran who will take over could be a bigger threat in the long run. Others are a threat and arguably bigger threats, and we haven't done much about them. North Korea is a known weapons proliferator, and we sat around while they made significant progress in their nuclear weapons program. A. Q. Khan is a threat, but we won't even interrogate him. After all he was proliferating real nukes all over the world, and we still haven't closed all segements of that network.

Interesting article in today's Asia Times: "What Staying the Course Means" on the domino effect of toppling Saddam without thinking through the consequences.

Ultimately, there were far bigger and more pressing threats that needed to be tackled. Now we have burnt significant military, diplomatic and of course monetary capital going after a low priority threat while creating new problems that may be much harder to contain.
One of the requirements for the exit strategy, or what is now being called the victory strategy, is the stability and formation of the Iraqi army. However, many are now saying that the Iraqi army evolving is becoming as bad, if not worse, than the regimental army that supported Sadaam Hussein previously.
Ayad Allawi has accused Shia Muslims in the Government of being responsible for death squads and secret torture centers. Ayad has advised that, “The brutality of elements in the new security forces rivals that of Mr. Hussein’s secret police.” Many Shia officials state that justification for the so called Iraqi Army Death Squads stems from the years and years of oppression they suffered under Sadaam Hussein. I do not buy this argument; I do not think we went into Iraq to help one religious group settle a score with another religious group. If this is what is now occurring I think we really need to address our policy in Iraq.
Raymond B
The preceding posts make the point: you prioritze threats, you recognize limits to what you can do or achieve, and you accept that you live in an imperfect world. It seems really difficult for Americans to accept the idea that there are always "worse roads" to travel on, a point made at the Kazakhstan lunch last week by Paul Starobin as to why Kazakhs who don't like authoritarian tendencies of the Nazarbayev government or existing corruption may not at the same time want a revolutionary change.
As a democrat, I was ashamed for my party in terms of their failure to provide a strong voice against Bush in the run-up to the war. But of this I am certain -- had Gore been in the White House we would not be in this damned pickle.

Bush utilized the anger and the grief of the nation after 9/11 to help push through his war agenda, and the Democrats knew that they would have to pay a hefty price politically to speak up against it. That's weakness. Possibly cowardice. But the stupidity and recklessness is all Republican.
Interesting points.

Where blame should be assigned for current failures (or credit for successes), whether a Gore Administration would have done things differently, whether the Democrats who voted to give the president the authority to prosecute war in Iraq really wanted him to pursue containment instead--all valid points. But what Podhoretz is arguing--and Dems need to squarely address this--is that there are Democratic fingerprints all over the regime change strategy. This is a point Dimitri Simes has also made, that regime change was first enshrined in 1998. Podhoretz also seems to argue that the reason it took to 2003 is that Democrats were too scared/timid to act on their own recommendations.

In essence, what he's trying to do is to say that those who want to put this all at the doorstep of PNAC and the Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal have to look in the mirror.

And my point is that Dems and moderate Republicans were given the Hobson's choice of having to pay a "hefty price politically" because after so many years of accepting the image of Saddam Hussein as some sort of Dr. Evil on the verge of destroying U.S. cities with WMD it was impossible to say, wait a minute, let's put the threat in perspective.

Dems as a party also need to come to grips with what plagued them in 2002: either recognize that there is no "Democratic" foreign policy approach and essentially let each faction choose its own course (neocon light or "Demhawk", noninterventionist, liberal internationalist and so on), or else pick a leadership team, rally behind their viewpoints, close ranks and accept that you may risk possible defections in a Green and pro-Bush directions.
Podhoretz confuses "regime change" with the far more costly, bloody, and adventurist neo-fascist WHIG/OSP/OSI cabal policy of invasion and occupation as Demsin06 points out. And battlepanda' delicately touches upon the critical issue facing democrats.

In harsher, but more accurate terms - the Bush government disinformation warriors exploited the horrors and the dead of 9/11 and terrorized the American people through a relentless repetition of deceptive threatspeak proclamations protending of mushroom clouds, known stock piles WMD, imminent threats, grave and gathering dangers, and days of horror like none we have ever known, intending to coerce or pursuade congress and America into supporting the war and occupation of Iraq. The plans were a secret. There was never any meaningful assessment of the costs, the timeframes, or the ultimate objectives. Instead America was subjected to a shapeshifting chari vari of rosy partisan prognistications, visionary hopes, and hollow promises, - all of them subsequently proven FALSE!!!

The Bush governments' wild framing of Iraqi threats and deceptive conflating of Saddam, bin Laden, and terrorists into one evildoer slurry were based on a festering litany of WHIG/OSP/OSI/Rendon Group concocted, packaged, and mass marketed exaggerations, misrepresentations, and contamination of the intelligence product. Again all subsequently proven FALSE!!!

Unlike the intelligence communities product detailing dire warnings of "imminent al Quaida threats" before 9/11 which the chickhawks in the Bush government tragically ignored, - there was no such warnings or discussion of imminent threats concerning Iraq eminating from any intelligence agency anywhere on earth before the war.

Rather, it was the neo-fascist WHIG/OSP/OSI cabals operating behind our backs in the secret catacombs of the Bush government singularly responsible for the contaminated the intelligence product and who superceded the intelligence apparatus ruthlessly pimping - I mean mass marketing a festering litany of deceptive, hyped, exaggerated, cherrypicked, stovepiped, single sources, uncorroborated, 'sexed-up", "dodgey" and patently false misrepresentations justifying the Bush governments pre-existing ambtions and designs in Iraq.

The Bush government disinformation warriors and the complicit parrots in the socalled MSM then resorted to the further abuse of besmriching the patriotism of our fellow Americans who dare question or challenge these false claims.

The despicable, grossly offensive, patently false, scurrilous sliming of every and any voice of alternate opinion, dissent, or opposition, or any one who dared to question or challenge these deceptive claims effectly cut off the debate, closed the discussion, and prevented any reasonable analysis of the necessity of attacking and occupying Iraq.

The horrorshow in Iraq is singlularly and exclusively the unholy work and catastrophic FAILURE of the Bush government warmongers, profiteers, and disinformation warriors.

Democrats, the socalled MSM, and the America people all share some responsibility for lacking the courage and the wisdom to challenge the Bush government secretive, deceptive, manipulative misrepesentations, imperial hubris, supremist ambitions and predatory policies. We all could have and should have done more to curb the Bush governments rabid ambitions and designs to plunder and profiteer - I mean invade and occupy Iraq.

That said, we are all the victims of a government run amock, commandeered by ruthless neo-fascist warmongers and profiteers bent on neverendingwar and emprire, plundering Iraq's oil, slaughtering muslims, and profiteeing wantonly from war, occupation, and resonstruction.

Iraq is, as Creveld claims - the worst strategic blunder in 2000 years, and the Bush government alone is singularly accountable and culpable for betraying the public trust, throwing sand in the face of the political process, an perverting the core principles that formally defined our unique experiment in democracy.

Worse, the Iraq horrorshow has helped, not hurt our jihadist enemies, and hurt not helped America.

We do our children and our soldiers and grievous disservice by failing to recognize the radical abuses, deceptions, failures, dereliction of duty, acts of malfeasance and perfidy, and wanton profiteering of and by the Bush government warmogners and profiteers.

Impeach them all.
Just to wrap up the threads of discussion here.

To make sure everyone is clear on this, I am separating responsibility for the conduct and execution of policy (this falls firmly on the executive branch--although I still think that Congress cannot shirk its own oversight and budgetary responsibilities) from the role that leading Democrats played in helping to "enable" the Bush administration's plans for Iraq by buying into and making the case about the imminent threat posed by Saddam's Iraq.

It was just easier to go with the flow and to talk about Saddam's nuclear program as a reality--how many leading Dems pre 9/11 were making the point Eisenstadt alludes to, that lack of evidence about the Iraqi nuclear program might have indicated that there wasn't really an effective program in place rather than taking this as a sign that Iraq was simply really, really good at concealment?

I understand how post 9/11 hysteria and fear played into all of this, and I'm not discounting it, but it could have just as easily been directed differently and focused on North Korea, Iran, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

In the end, my point in raising all of this was to make the argument that Dems have to get their story and narrative straight otherwise they will continue to get the flip-flog tag planted firmly on them. More leading Dems--HRC, Pelosi, Kerry, Gore, and so on--need to be prepared to face their statements head-on, and do a better job than I think Biden did when Russert confronted him this past Sunday.
subodhatal is too lenient on conservative realist
IN NO SENSE WHAREVER (except to fellow iraqis) was sadam a threat;

but i digress
as to podhoretz's argument; sure many dems thought WMD's might exist, sadam was a potential threat if not held in check, yada yada
however, rather than being afraid to act they need only point out that they were in fact keeping him in check ala` scowcroft and were WISE ENOUGH to see the folly of the course bush coose and steer away from it, especially considering the fact that the main winner here will be iran and they were/are certainly a greater threat , even to isreal, indeed, especially to isreal (tonyforesta is pretty spot-on)
i don't think pod's arguments really carry much weight or, more importantly in the context of your initial comments, much political punch
i deem that they won't be very useful as a 2006 political counter-thrust, and even less so as a 2008 tool, should were still be floundering around then

that being said i second battlepanda's comments; but ther right can't really exploit that too well
The democrats are doing exactly what leadership in a functioning democracy do, debate, analysing, testing, validating, and ultimately honing the facts and message. When this debate is given adequate oxygen, democratic leadership will coalesce, form a more unified platform, and articulate a united message.

Theright is so used to controlling the message pimped - I mean mass marketed by the totalitarian dictatorship that is the Bush government, (for example the FALSE framing of democrats Iraq position as a "cut and run", policy which no democrat promotes) - that they are incapable of recognizing or evidently remembering the fact, that a functioning democracy must and should debate this monumental issues, challenge the government's policies, and work toward truly bipartisan solutions and policies.
Thanks for all the comments--a great discussion. I think that leaders should challenge, probe, debate and discuss--but I think that the current Democrat frontrunners in the Senate have baggage they need to deal with in the same way that Fulbright did versus LBJ on Vietnam--dealing with the mistakes made after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was voted on.

I just made a new post for today, posing a hypothetical question to HRC on her stance. I think this will still be a salient issue in 2006 and 2008.
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