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War on Iraq: Fast-Forward to 2012 - the question then will be: "How could America's leaders have been so weak and ill-informed?"
1 September 2002
Ten years from now, will we be looking back asking: "How could the U.S. have thought that an unprovoked preventative war on Iraq could succeed? The signs of danger were so clear and ominous.
"How could America's leadership not have seen that the impossibility of accomplishing the mission through air power would lead to levels of American casualties not seen since the Vietnam War? How could our leaders have failed to anticipate that an oil shock and deficit spending for war would plunge the U.S. and world economies into a major recession? How could the Bush administration be so focused on getting rid of Saddam Hussein that it failed to create a workable policy to shape a post-Hussein Iraq?"
The most compelling way to answer these questions will be to apply the late Irving Janis' insights on "groupthink." Looking back on the disastrous Bay of Pigs, Janis, one of the world's leading authorities on decision-making, asked, "How could bright, shrewd men like John F. Kennedy and his advisers be taken by the CIA's stupid patchwork plan?"
Drawing on psychological studies of group decision-making, Janis argued that the pressures of like-minded people deciding as a group lead to a deterioration of mental reasoning, reality testing and moral judgment. In short, groupthink leads to a complete breakdown of critical thinking. The Bush administration's foreign policy team manifests all the symptoms of groupthink that Janis identified:
- illusions of invulnerability leading to the taking of extreme risks;
- collective efforts to rationalize, leading decision-makers to discount warnings that might otherwise force them to reconsider;
- stereotyped views of enemy leaders as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, and as too weak or stupid to counter an attack against them, leading to miscalculations;
- an unquestioned belief in the group's inherent morality, inclining group members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions;
- advocates of the consensus view, putting pressure on those who express strong arguments against any of the group's commitments, making clear that dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members;
- self-appointed mind guards emerging to protect the group from advice, information and views that might shatter the shared complacency about the effectiveness or morality of their decisions;
- self-censorship by people with views deviating from the apparent group consensus, creating an illusion of unanimity within the group.
Candidate Bush ran for office by arguing that America cannot be the world's policeman, that the U.S. must avoid entanglements in the world, and most of all, avoid anything that resembles "nation-building." But Bush's conversion to war with Iraq will obliterate all those arguments with nation-building certain to follow.
President Bush is no foreign-policy expert. So how could he decide not to go to war when his most trusted advisers--the head of the National Security Council, the secretary of defense, the vice president--all say that the threat of nuclear proliferation makes removing Saddam Hussein unavoidable? Once Saddam Hussein is gone, they argue, Iraq will no longer be a dangerous problem for us.
Bush's mistake will have been to surround himself with advisers sharing an ideological cohesiveness and radical views. Of course, war was neither unavoidable nor inevitable.
The real question to consider is: How could the rest of America's leadership have let this happen? The extreme nature of Bush's advisers and their pathological distaste for Saddam Hussein was well-known. The drumbeat leading up to war was prolonged and extremely transparent. Why did America let this disaster unfold when it knew better?
As soon as President Bush starts making his case to the American public, the decision for war will have been made. In essence that will be the United States' declaration of war. Already the Bush administration is preparing, inviting proposals for humanitarian aid projects in Iraq and for Iraqi refugees in surrounding countries.
It is time for those who are still thinking clearly to ratchet up the rhetoric. An unprovoked "preventative" war with Iraq is insane.
Before the administration creates a flimsy pretext to go in, Congress must insist that Bush not wage war without its assent. Members of the administration who disagree with a war in Iraq must publicly voice their opposition, to lend support to those outside with serious reservations. The people who have supported George Bush, and on whom he is counting for re-election, must also make it known that they do not support war with Iraq. It is better to voice your opposition now, when backing down is still relatively easy, than to reflect 10 years from now upon how this fiasco happened.
Karen J. Alter