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March 04, 2007

Iraq: Wishing there had been Whistleblowers
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

A piece yesterday in the NYT about an ex-British diplomat who parted ways with his country's foreign service after testifying to intelligence lapses over Iraq's weapons program got me thinking: what would have happened if, two or three years ago, a chorus had arisen among the sitting military leadership, State Dep't and Pentagon policymakers and others in government decrying the direction of our policies to try to stabilize Iraq?  Would we be in a better position now and, if so, are there ways to ensure such silence doesn't hobble the effectiveness of our policymaking going forward?

The most famous example of official heresy concerning the occupation of Iraq came from General Erik Shinseki, former Army Chief of Staff, who was criticized and snubbed by his Pentagon superiors for telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003 that the mission would require several hundred thousand US servicemembers to be done right.  Three and a half years later, in November, 2006, General John Abizaid admitted that Shinseki had gotten it right. 

Shinseki's fall from grace was widely cited as having a chilling effect on other military and Administration personnel.  While retired generals have spoken out loudly against the course of the war, those still in uniform have been mostly silent.  Accounts suggest that the retired generals were motivated in part by their conviction that the mistakes of Vietnam-and the silence of top military officers as those errors unfolded-must not be repeated.  But to the extent that avoiding a pattern of silent acquiescence in a failed and deadly war requires cultural change in the military, Iraq suggests that the transformation hasn't yet happened.

It's impossible to measure the Shinseki effect, or to know what information or opinions might have come to light had the Administration better tolerated dissent.  What is certain is that years of Iraq policy have been made in an environment of remarkable opacity as far as how well the effort was going, the motives and strength of the insurgency, and the efficacy of various US tactics.   

With more than 130,000 US troops on the ground, its hard to imagine the American public would not have gotten a straighter story had our military men and women (as well as civilian counterparts) felt able to speak more freely.  Had we known that Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal of the insurgents as an isolated core of "bitter-enders" was wishful thinking, we might have mounted more aggressive counter-insurgency tactics years ago, before the militias had grown as sophisticated as they now are.  Had we mounted the battle for Baghdad and the surge years ago, it might have stood a chance to succeed.  While its true that the failings of the war effort have been evident for quite some time, only recently has the bleak picture been so unmistakable to push the Administration's reassurances and gambits over the edge of perceived plausibility. 

Apart from Shinseki, its hard to name a single other military official who broke ranks to offer an alternative assessment of the war effort.  It is almost certain that there were some, maybe many, who privately disagreed with the Administration's approach but were afraid to speak.  The "fog of war" in Iraq proved so thick that no one could penetrate it with a clear-eyed assessment of the folly (even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara - the ultimate hawk of his era - resigned in in 1968 once he became convinced Vietnam was unwinnable).  At this point, its hard to believe that more people involved along the way in Iraq policymaking and execution don't wish they had chosen to speak out way back when.

What would it take to create an environment in the military and the policymaking apparatus that invited contrarian views and truth-telling in the face of official positions?  This matters not just to help avoid future Vietnams and Iraqs, but more generally in terms of ensuring that we properly interpret the many challenges that confront us, rather than convincing ourselves of truths that are politically convenient for those in power.  When I worked at a management consulting firm, one of the principles espoused was the "obligation to dissent," although even there, in practice, bucking your superiors wasn't necessarily easy. 

After the Iraq WMD debacle, there's increasing emphasis on the importance of dissent in intelligence circles.  Some of the methods being adopted reportedly include an ombudsman to hear out dissenters and various parallel processes aimed to avoid groupthink.  Maybe some of these merit wider application within the military brass, State Department, and NSC.  Offering Congressional oversight committees more direct access to personnel at various levels in the hierarchy might also help. 

The next Administration will also send critical signals in choosing how to deal with the first few dissenters who come forward in any arena - be it foreign policy, budgets or any kind of official fraud.  It will be critical to send a message that reasoned dissent will be not only tolerated, but invited in the interest of better policymaking.


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It's good to see that liberal hawks have finally discovered the value of dissent, now that their pet war has gone rabid. For the past 5 years the primary occupation of the liberal hawks has been to marginilize anyone who criticized the Washington consensus on the "war on terror." (Just last week Joe Klein published a long list of thought crimes, including the idea that the US gov't might have encouraged the growth of Islamic extremism..)

IMO, you don't really want dissent, at least not on strategy. What you seem to be after is technical, tactical dissent. (How can we surge into Baghdad more effectively? Do we have the proper force ratios and the right list of nation building advisers?) But if the strategy is wrong, none of this will help you.

Even after 4 years of calamity you seem unwilling to question your basic assumptions. One of those assumptions is the pernicious idea of American exceptionalism, which closes your mind to history and "anti-American" viewpoints. (The British experience in Iraq in the 1920's is often strikingly similar to our own, and yet how many people in Washington are even aware of that history?) In effect, the idea of American exceptionalism has made Washington stupid -- almost proudly ignorant.

Professor Michael May touched on many of these same points in a Los Angeles Times piece last month.

When the collection of politicians and pundits we call "Washington" makes predictions about countries in which the U.S. has "vital interests" (and especially about countries with which we have had bad relations), the predictions — even when they contradict one another! — are almost always wrong....

That's because Washington debates tend to be narrow; they fall within a range of acceptable conventional wisdom and close out anything that seems to go out on a limb. We wonder: Is the Soviet Union trying to build a first-strike capability or not? Is Vietnam a tool of Red Chinese expansion? Does Saddam Hussein have nukes? Intelligence is asked to cast light on just those acceptable questions. The assumptions underlying those debates are seldom challenged.

I don't think we want, nor do I expect ever to see, a lot of public dissent from this or any administration's foreign policy by serving military officers. In any event dissent of that kind is not necessary to check unwise policies, providing senior officers are oriented toward war-fighting -- that is, toward making sure that possible conflicts can be won at a reasonable cost in lives, money and time -- rather than toward routine management.

Phil Carter has on his blog laid out recently the unfortunate problem with this idea: most senior officers in all four services are now oriented toward routine management -- in other words, toward management the quality of which can be quantified. This approach is fine for approaching logistical issues. It is anywhere from substantially inappropriate (for example, with respect to procurement) to wildly inappropriate (with respect to actually fighting and winning wars) for most of the other things the military is called upon to do.

Why were the counter-insurgency tactics now being initiated in the Baghdad area not employed three-odd years ago, when they might have had a chance for success? The obvious answer is that Gen. Petraeus was not in command. According to the Army's rules, he wasn't ready; he'd commanded nothing larger than a division, while higher-ranking generals who had managed larger commands were available. So General Sanchez and General Casey were rotated in, and out, of Iraq, mostly because it was their turn, and Petraeus was left in subordinate commands until the situation had deteriorated past all hope.

Managers like Sanchez and Casey are strongly inhibited from dissenting from policy decisions; their orientation toward managing for quantifiable outcomes leads them to think of policy decisions as someone else's province. Generals oriented toward warfighting, on the other hand, tend not to reach a rank high enough for their dissents from policy decisions to matter. There aren't any guarantees that changing the services' (or at least the Army's) approach toward promoting senior officers will result in better decisions in the national security sphere. However, we have seen the result of the current approach in Iraq: one ground commander who was utterly out of his depth, and another who did no better than tread water for two years.

The problem here is bigger than promotion in the army. The problem is that peacetime generals don't generally know how to be wartime generals. They have to get that experience in wartime, and when we don't have wartime generals at the start of a war then we have to get by with peacetime generals until somebody has that experience.

To obvious solution is to do away with peace. If we always start fighting the next hot war before the last hot war is over, we will have the wartime generals we need.

Washington - John Riggs spent 39 years in the Army, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during the Vietnam War and working his way up to become a three-star general entrusted with creating a high-tech Army for the 21st century. But on a spring day last year, Riggs was told by senior Army officials that he would be retired at a reduced rank, losing one of his stars because of infractions considered so minor that they were not placed in his official record.

He was given 24 hours to leave the Army. He had no parade in review, no rousing martial music, no speeches or official proclamations praising his decades in uniform, the trappings that normally herald a high-level military retirement. Instead, Riggs went to a basement room at Fort Myer, Va., and signed some mandatory forms. Then a young sergeant mechanically presented him with a flag and a form letter of thanks from President Bush.

"That's the coldest way in the world to leave," Riggs, 58, said in a drawl that betrays his rural roots in southeast Missouri. "It's like being buried and no one attends your funeral."

So what cost Riggs his star?

His Pentagon superiors said he allowed outside contractors to perform work they were not supposed to do, creating "an adverse command climate." But some of the general's supporters believe the motivation behind his demotion was politics. Riggs was blunt and outspoken on a number of issues and publicly contradicted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld by arguing that the Army was overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan and needed more troops.

"They all went bat s- - when that happened," recalled retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, a one-time Pentagon adviser who ran reconstruction efforts in Iraq in the spring of 2003. "The military part of [the defense secretary's office] has been politicized. If [officers] disagree, they are ostracized and their reputations are ruined."

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