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I recently read The Essence of Decision:  Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow for my first upper level political science class, the politics of nuclear weapons.  My primary reaction is awe at the competence of most of the key players in the Kennedy administration, especially Kennedy himself.  The book makes clear that there was a lot of luck involved in the successful resolution of this crisis, and that there was plenty that was out of the hands of the principal players on both sides, but here was an executive who rolled up his sleeves and immersed himself in the gritty details of policy and followed through their implementation. And, inexorably, the descriptions of the internal deliberations of the Kennedy administration lead me to think of the administration I’m most familiar with, the Bush administration, and, more specifically, its handling of Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

Consider, for instance, Allison and Zelikow’s description in Chapter 4 of the implementation of the naval blockade, which is representative of the Kennedy management style as a whole during the crisis:

Kennedy and his advisers eventually knew each of the ships by name and argued extensively about which should be stopped first, at what point, and how.  [Theodore] Sorensen records “the President’s personal direction of the quarantine’s operation…his determination no to let needless incidents or reckless subordinates escalate so dangerous and delicate a crisis beyond control.

Contrast that with the remarkably consistent descriptions of former Bush administration insiders, who outline a sort of  deliberational mimicry and  bankrupt policy formation process in general but especially with regard to Iraq.  Typical of these is Paul O’Neill’s account as former Bush administration Treasury Secretary, recounted in Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty:  George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill.   O’Neill describes meetings and policy formation on page 147 and following:

Everybody played their parts:  literally. For this President, cabinet meetings and the many midsize to large meetings he attended were carefully scripted.  Before most meetings, a cabinet secretary’s chief of staff would receive a note from someone on the senior staff in the White House.  The note instructed the cabinet secretary when he was supposed to speak, about what, and how long.  When O’Neill had received his first such note, he was amazed.  The idea of a cabinet meeting or any significant meeting between the President and his seniormost officials being scripted seemed to kill off the whole purpose of bringing people together.  He had been in many White Houses.  He had never heard of such a thing.

Recounting a cabinet-level meeting on energy policy on the heels of Cheney’s energy task force, Suskind reports:

O’Neill had been made to understand by various colleagues in the White House that the President should not be expected to read reports.  In his personal experience, the President didn’t even appear to have read the short memos he sent over.

That made it especially troubling that Bush did not ask any questions.  There are so many worth asking about each of these areas, O’Neill thought as he sat quietly, dozens of queries running through his head.

Suskind goes on to quote John J. DiIulio, Jr., who ran Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative, on the Bush administration’s deliberation process:  “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one:  a complete lack of a policy apparatus.”

Into the void that was President Bush’s role, stepped Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, consummate bureaucrats.  Condoleezza Rice, whose role as National Security Adviser meant she was responsible for the policy formulation process in the NSC, completely failed in that regard, and is generally regarded as the most incompetent person to ever hold the position.  Again, there is a remarkable consistency to virtually all the insider accounts and studies of the Bush administration, from Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies to DiIulio’s Tempting Faith, extending into the books analyzing the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

Aside from being a work of history about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision is a reflection of the different ways of understanding complex organizations’ decision-making.  Chapter 5 explores the most refined of the three models of understanding discussed in the book, Governmental Politics, in which it is understood that not only are nations’ decisions made by individual institutions within, but also that those decisions are “formed, and deformed” by bargaining amongst and within these institutions.

The section beginning on page 265 entitled “Better Decisions” reflects on the different ways in which organizations can produce good and bad outcomes.  The authors cite Brian Villa’s study of the Dieppe raid during World War II as a good example of how bad outcomes occur, so-called “‘orphan’ actions”.  They quote a section from Villa’s book:

“[A]n unrecorded decision may well be, indeed should be, considered as a sure sign that something fundamental has gone wrong with the decision-making process; that one should also look for the presence of schemers who can impose projects on those who should know better; that one should also look for powerful external pressures reverberating through the decision-making process–pressures that cannot be resisted and lead to decisions for which there is no real acceptance of responsibility (and are therefore unrecorded).  All of this serves to underline a point that is not stressed enough in the political-science literature:  decision-making is fundamentally a process for assuming responsibility for a proposed action.

A better description of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and its execution of the invasion and occupation could not be fit into a paragraph. The first things I thought of when reading “an unrecorded decision…” were the disastrous decisions to disband the Iraqi Army and de-Baathify the government, taken in May 2003, at the beginning of the 13-month reign of Paul Bremer and the CPA.  The decision to do so is generally credited to Bremer, but responsibility for such a crucial decision has generally been difficult to pin down, with reports that Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith from their posts at the Defense Department played roles in the decision.  That these two decisions were not even discussed or approved by the Executive branch is symptomatic of the more general failure of leadership during Bush’s tenure.

That the neoconservative influence was instrumental in directing the response to 9/11 into an attack on Iraq is by now a forgone conclusion.  Neocon “schemers” were spread throughout the relevant cabinet-level agencies, and exercised their influence to a considerable extent.  New offices were created to compile raw intelligence, which were “stovepiped” directly to the executive branch.  The effect of this was that of the five purported Iraqi threats presented by the Bush administration (uranium purchases in Niger, mobile bioweapon labs, UAV’s as WMD delivery vehicles, aluminum tubes for uranium centrifuges, and an Iraqi connection to al Qaeda), all of them could have been and indeed were disproven before the March 20, 2003 invasion.  Cheney’s unprecedented trips to CIA in the months leading up to the war were instrumental in pressuring the analysts to reach the accepted conclusions in the October 2002 NIE.  Not to mention the fact that Hans Blix’s UNMOVIC had free rein throughout Iraq in early 2003, and, despite earlier administration claims to know where WMD facilities were located, and despite coordination between the administration and UNMOVIC, none could be found at this most critical juncture.

Which brings me to Jeffrey Record’s Wanting War:  Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq.  Record, a perennial contrarian, professor at the Air War College, and author of two previous books on the quixotic American experiences in Iraq, maintains that the 2003 war in Iraq was “irresistible” for a Bush administration drunk with hubris arising from its perceptions of American military power.  That there were “irresistible” pressures from the administration’s unprecedented close ties to the oil industry, hawkish elements in the Defense Department, and close ties to Israel’s Likud Party are given as a matter of course.

Record points out the reason behind Bremer’s hurried orders, namely a complete lack of planning for the post war.  His view is that neither Rumsfeld nor Cheney shared neoconservative plans for democracy and transformation of the Middle East, and used their power to limit planning.  Also noted are Rumsfeld’s plans to transform the military, which ran completely counter to the force requirements and duties necessary for a post-war occupation.  For Record, this rift is ultimately what explains the lack of a post-war plan planning.  According to Record, “Rumsfeld didn’t want any plan for post-Baathist Iraq, and because President Bush had granted Rumsfeld complete authority over the entire American enterprise in Iraq, there was no plan.  Rumsfeld wanted a ‘hit-and-run invasion,’ and he got it”.  Record continues:

Rumsfeld created a fundamental contradiction between the war plan and the critical objectives of quickly securing Iraq’s suspected WMD sites and the provision of security necessary for Iraq’s political reconstruction…Rumsfeld’s obsession with the technological transformation of the U.S. military into a lighter and more agile instrument that could quickly win wars and do so on the human cheap, irrespective of political policy and context…Rumsfeld either did not understand the disconnect between his invasion plan and the war’s political objective, or he did understand it but simply chose to ignore it because he had no intention of prolonging the U.S. military’s stay in Iraq beyond the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  In either case, he subverted President Bush’s purpose in Iraq.

I think this is mostly right, but I can’t readily dismiss the explanation given in David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s Hubris:  The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.  The authors maintain that the neoconservatives were themselves not receptive to sufficient post-war planning because doing so would reveal the utter nightmare of a US invasion of Iraq.  Corn and Isikoff quote a military analyst:  “They felt arguments that it would be hard were actually designed to cause people to rethink whether the war was worth doing in the first place.  This was appalling.  They were trying to rig the cost-benefit analysis.  So they ended up not properly planning for the aftermath of the invasion because that might interfere with getting the war they wanted.”


So, I began Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism and was so thoroughly disappointed that I didn’t make it past the introduction.  Having read little of his previous work (a couple of articles but none of his books), I expected something in line with the realism of a Stephen Walt but with the added credibility and gravitas one expects from a retired Army colonel–someone who recognizes the unsustainability of the current US imperial project and who advocates realistic ways to extricate our forces from the trap into which we stumbled.

I was surprised at his errors in logic.  After the usual talk of the US as the sole superpower with responsibilities and prerogatives, and the US facing 3 crises (economic/cultural, political, and military) I began to lose him.  Bacevich seems to think that the GWOT is being waged on behalf of the freedoms and lifestyles of most Americans:

“…especially since the 1960’s, the reinterpretation of freedom has had a transformative impact on our society and culture.  That transformation has produced a paradoxical legacy.  As individuals, our appetites and expectations have grown exponentially…The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand.  As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders.  Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.”

So, Bacevich cites the “paradoxical legacy” of the “reinterpretation of freedom” that the US underwent in the 1960’s as the underlying cause of the flailing US response to 9/11 and the GWOT.   So, rising living standards, civil rights, the woman’s movement, the environmental movement have had the unintended effect of inuring Americans to having its soldiers dying in far-off lands fighting for the expansion of their freedoms.  He goes on to say that “heightened claims of individual autonomy have eviscerated the concept of citizenship” that Americans find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of consumption, which fuels the need of politicians to support Americans habit of overconsumption by, it is assumed, invading defenseless Muslim nations.

Bacevich sticks with the freedom theme:

“The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy.  Simply put, as the American appetite for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire.  The connection between these two tendencies is a causal one.  In an earlier age, Americans saw empire as the antithesis of freedom.  Today, as illustrated above all by the Bush administration’s efforts to dominate the energy-rich Persian Gulf, empire has seemingly become a prerequisite of freedom.”

Bacevich goes on to say “[t]hat President Bush is waging his global war on terror to preserve American freedom is no doubt the case.”

While I agree that the American people are basically politically illiterate and overly vegged out, and that they are also fed on a steady diet of overconsumption, I do not for one moment believe that the imperial actions of the US are taken for the benefit of the general populace or that US imperial action is taken on behalf of the citizenry.  That overconsumption is, to the contrary, what provides the cover or distraction for Bush to go on his imperial adventure.

Bacevich seems to be conflating Bush’s perceived strategic encirclement of the Persian Gulf as being an outgrowth of Americans’ freedom.  And  his lumping rising standards of living and consumer goods with civil rights and freedom is highly problematic.  Maybe Bacevich just needs to choose his words more carefully.  Freedom is one thing; consumption is another.

But the things is, even if we were to take freedom out of the equation and try to assume that he simply means Americans’ abililty to consume, it’s not at all clear that the outcome of the war in Iraq will be that US consumers are better off than they were before.   After all, in the long term the US will spend $3 trillion dollars on the war in Iraq, largely at the expense of programs that actually benefit the broad swath of Americans.  Bacevich certainly has made some personal sacrifices for the war in Iraq, but lashing out at the greatest achievements our society has produced in the last century is not the way to set things straight.

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