Anatomy of a National Security Fiasco: The George W. Bush Administration, Iraq, and Groupthink.

Author:Henderson, Phillip G.
 
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These were people who were selectively picking and then emphasizing pieces of intelligence, I believe, in order to support their larger purpose, which was to bring in a way that they thought possible, to bring democracy to Iraq, and through Iraq to transform the Middle East. I thought that was far-fetched. I didn't think it was going to happen, but that was their real purpose. They thought that this was going to be a transforming event in history. My frustration is that there was never a national security decisionmaking process in the administration where people such as me really had a chance to take that on. Richard Haass, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department 2001-2003, Interview with Chris Matthews on "Hardball," May 6, 2009 In February 2002, one year before the U.S. military intervention in Iraq began, neoconservative writer Ken Adelman predicted that demolishing Saddam Hussein's regime and liberating Iraq would be a "cakewalk." (1) At a town hall meeting at the American air base in Aviano, Italy, on February 7, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld added that, if force were to be used in Iraq, the war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months." (2) On October 31, 2010, nearly eight years after the U.S. military intervention in Iraq commenced, the Iraq War seemingly came to an end for the United States. Saying it was "time to turn the page," President Barack Obama declared in a nationally televised address: "Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended." (3)

The cost of the war was far greater than policymakers expected.

In the intervening seven and a half years, the "cakewalk" that Adelman predicted had resulted in the loss of 4,487 U.S. troops and the wounding of over 32,223 others--20% with serious brain or spinal injuries. (4) The cost of the war, at its peak, reached $10 billion per month with the total cost of the war estimated at $806 billion, through fiscal year 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). (5) In 2013, the Costs of War project of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University put the total cost of the Iraq War at $1.7 trillion, over double the earlier CRS estimate, with an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans. (6)

According to an April 2008 National Defense University study titled Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and its Aftermath, Iraqi civilian casualties by fall 2007 were estimated to have reached 82,000, with over 7,500 Iraqi soldiers and police officers killed. (7) The National Defense University (NDU), an arm of the Pentagon, estimated that 15% of Iraqis had become refugees or displaced persons. A central finding of the 2008 NDU study was that "U.S. efforts in Iraq were hobbled by a set of faulty assumptions and a flawed planning effort." (8) The NDU study stated: "Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle." (9)

Bush's insular advisory meetings were heavily influenced by Rumsfeld and Cheney.

It is an understatement to say that the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 will have broad and decisive implications for how the administration of former President George W. Bush will be evaluated by historians. The observations of many former Bush administration insiders, including the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department Richard Haass, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, among others, raise important questions on the extent to which decision-making on Iraq was being driven by a flawed process and inaccurate predispositions. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served for 27 months as Secretary of State Colin Powell's top aide at the State Department, has stated that, in reality, there were two decision-making processes at work within the administration. The traditional National Security Council was used sparingly, and mostly for show. Behind the facade of the formal NSC, a much smaller and more informal decision-making group, which was "insular and secret" in its work, called the shots on Iraq. (10) In this more insular setting, President Bush "gave over much of the critical decision-making to his vice president and his secretary of defense." (11) Much like Lyndon Johnson's famous "Tuesday Luncheon Meetings," Iraq War decision-making was largely confined to and dominated by a small group of like-minded Bush administration insiders, weighted heavily in favor of a cadre of neoconservatives who believed that military intervention in Iraq was essential to the nation's security. Below, evidence will be presented that the closed decision-making environment of the Bush administration created the conditions conducive to groupthink.

Key elements of Groupthink were present in the Bush advisory process.

Characteristics of Groupthink

The word groupthink was first popularized by psychologist Irving Janis in his book by the same title. (12) Groupthink not only fosters an assumed consensus about an adversary that displaces critical analysis and reality-testing; it also fosters pressures to conform to the predominant group's agenda and sense of purpose through the suppression of personal doubts. Groupthink engenders a smugness or moral certitude about the correctness of the actions that the cohesive "inner group" advocates, and a resistance to any opposing viewpoints. Other symptoms of groupthink identified by Janis include an incomplete survey of alternatives, incomplete survey of objectives, failure to examine risks of the preferred course of action, and an illusion of invulnerability. (13) The belief that the policies being pursued are morally imperative is often accompanied by buoyant or excessive optimism concerning the likelihood and ease of success. Groupthink also tends to foster selective perception and biased processing of information in a manner that reinforces the predispositions of the inner group. (14)

Most, if not all, of the symptoms that Janis associated with groupthink were present in the Bush administration as the stage was set for the war in Iraq. Bush's inner circle of advisors on Iraq had pronounced neoconservative views and personal ties which shaped powerful preconceptions on the need to go to war with Iraq, remove Saddam Hussein from power, and eliminate Saddam's purported stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Several members of Bush's inner circle had signed a January 26, 1998, letter to President Bill Clinton urging the Clinton administration to "implement a strategy" for "removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power." (15) The letter went on to say that the administration must act decisively "to end the threat of weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. or its allies. ..." The signatories stated, quite clearly, that the U.S. had authority under "existing U.N resolutions to take necessary steps, including military steps, to protect our vital interests in the Gulf." The letter was signed by influential neoconservative pundits Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, as well as several individuals who would become part of George W. Bush's inner circle three years later, including Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Elliott Abrams. The latter three, like Kristol and Kagan, were well-known neoconservative thinkers. The 1998 letter is remarkable for showing that a predisposition to use military force against Iraq had formed among Bush's eventual advisors long before the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. targets that took place on September 11, 2001.

The neoconservative predisposition for war with Iraq was pervasive before 9/11.

By the time George W. Bush had taken office in January 2001, the neoconservative mindset that had led several of Bush's top advisors to encourage Bill Clinton to go to war in 1998 was pervasive among the policymakers that constituted Bush's dominant inner circle. The belief that Saddam Hussein must be removed from power was so firmly formed among Bush's top advisors that scant attention was given to the pros and cons of the pre-ordained option of military intervention, and almost no discussion was devoted to alternative courses of action, including tougher sanctions, increased arms inspections, and continued containment of Saddam--this despite the fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni believed strongly that containment of Saddam was working. (16) Moreover, little thought was given to the possible negative consequences of intervention in Iraq, including the scenarios of protracted conflict or possible civil war. Perhaps more importantly, the Bush administration paid little attention to the arguments made by White House counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, and others, who pointedly stated that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 or tied to Al Qaeda "despite repeated intimations and claims by the president and others to the contrary." (17)

There is striking evidence of internal pressures within the administration to force skeptics to conform to the dominant pro-war mindset on Iraq or face the prospect of losing influence in the administration. There also is strong evidence of optimism about the ease of transforming Iraq from a non-democratic state into a democracy. Finally, as the processing of intelligence from CIA and other intelligence agencies indicates, key players in the Bush administration had a clear bias in the selection and interpretation of information concerning the purported threat posed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Intelligence was manipulated, politicized, and stretched beyond acceptable limits to build and reinforce the rationale for war with Iraq.

Iraq and the Bay of Pigs Compared:

The Lack of Sound Process

As with other notable examples of groupthink, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco of the Kennedy administration and the decisions on escalation of the Vietnam War during the Johnson administration, the decision to...

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