Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Brief Lives 

How many lives will be briefer because of them? Cameos of Team Bush, from an interview with James Fallows at The Atlantic Online (following upon his excellent article "Bush's Lost Year"):
FALLOWS: Every action has consequences, both pro and con. We're seeing those in Iraq now. The "pro" clearly is eliminating Saddam Hussein. No one would dispute that that was a benefit. The question is whether, in the vast scheme of things, it was worth it, given the way it was done. That's what historians will ask, and what Americans should be asking—at least in my view. But as far as I can tell, there's no available evidence that the Administration ever considered the question in a systematic way. That is, they asked "Would it be good to get rid of Saddam Hussein" but not "What will we give up if we do that?"

In the abstract, it's surprising that no one seems to have asked that question. What's not surprising is that this omission is consistent with everything we know about President Bush's style of deliberation. As he often points out, he makes a decision—and he sticks with it. He doesn't revisit it. But as far as one can tell from all the available evidence, the decision was, Let's get Saddam Hussein. The decision was not, If we do this, what will be the effect on America's interests, the world's interests, or our overall situation with terrorism? As far as I can tell, after looking very hard, that conversation did not occur.

THE ATLANTIC: Based on what I've read, it sounds like dissent did exist at the time; it's just that those dissenting opinions weren't reaching the president. Is that correct?

FALLOWS: Yes. My own personal judgment is that for decades into the future, political scientists and historians will study the decision-making process that led to the Iraq war as a case study in failure. Or at least deliberative disfunction.

You have a president who has made a point of neither inviting challenge on points of detail nor himself seeking out significant facts. John Kennedy was famous for picking up the phone and calling a third-level person in the State Department to ask, "What's really going on in Laos?" Bush has never shown an inclination to do that kind of thing and, in fact, has prided himself on not being bogged down by the details.

The team surrounding him has apparently conformed to those wishes. There is little evidence that the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, has been able to surface the latent and important disagreements within the government, such as those between the State Department and the Defense Department. If she had done this, the President would have—or at least in principle could have—recognized that there were fundamental differences of viewpoint. The factual basis for those viewpoints could—again, in principle—have been aired so that the strengths and weaknesses of each side could be examined. But there's no evidence that she has independently fought to make sure the president was aware of facts that didn't fit the prevailing vision. The two clear examples of this are the apparent torpidness with which she presented the information in August of 2001—"Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States"—and the failure to consider the idea that post-war Iraq might be difficult to govern, even though much of the U.S. government was practically shouting out warnings to that effect. Based on what's known now, the national security advisor was simply not doing two of the basic duties of her job—surfacing deep disagreements within the government so that they can be resolved, and bringing to the President's attention points of fact that might have had important long-term policy implications.

Then there's the Vice President. As far as I can tell, he has been the one who has insistently pushed points of view for which there is no apparent factual basis. He's the one who still says, "We haven't found weapons of mass destruction—yet." He still says there is evidence of links between al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and the September 11 attacks, a year after President Bush disavowed this claim.

I would argue that the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State are, each in their own way, tragic figures. Colin Powell's whole previous life was spent avoiding exactly the kind of circumstance that his administration has now created and embraced. He has tried to avoid committing the military to jobs it can't really do—where the backing, logistical, political, and other kinds, was less than it should be. For various reasons, he was not able to win the battles inside the Administration that would have prevented that situation. But he decided to stay in and be a good soldier rather than a dissenter.

As for the Secretary of Defense, he was clearly experienced enough in the ways things can go wrong to have some idea of what might happen. 'Rumsfeld's Rules'—his book—is all about the need to foresee the worst and to speak up honestly. And those are the very things that he appeared not to encourage within the Pentagon, nor to do himself within the Administration in challenging the war plans. He, too, was a good soldier.

The result of all this is a kind of path of folly where the people who could say, "Wait a minute, is this a good idea?" were systematically excluded from the decisions, and a smaller and smaller group of people reassured each other on the basis of hope rather than evidence. As a procedural matter, it started with the president's own personality and intellectual traits and radiated out from there.

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