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It is wooden-headedness, in my view, that permeates the "comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" that the President announced on March 27, 2009. Author Tuchman points succinctly to what flows from wooden-headedness:
"Once a policy has been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it. ... Adjustment is painful. For the ruler it is easier, once he has entered the policy box, to stay inside. For the lesser official it is better not to make waves, not to press evidence that the chief will find painful to accept. Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information "cognitive dissonance,' an academic disguise for "Don't confuse me with the facts.'"
It seems only right and fitting that Barbara Tuchman's daughter, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Foundation, has shown herself to be inoculated against "cognitive dissonance."
A January 2009 Carnegie report on Afghanistan concluded, "The only meaningful way to halt the insurgency's momentum is to start withdrawing troops. The presence of foreign troops is the most important element driving the resurgence of the Taliban."
In any case, Obama explained his decision on more robust military intervention in Afghanistan as a result of a "careful policy review" by military commanders and diplomats, the Afghani and Pakistani governments, NATO allies, and international organizations.
No Estimate? No Problem
Know why he did not mention a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessing the likely effects of this slow surge in troops and trainers? Because there is none. Guess why. The reason is the same one accounting for the lack of a completed NIE before the "surge" in troop strength in Iraq in early 2007.
Apparently, Obama's advisers did not wish to take the risk that honest analysts -- ones who had been around a while, and maybe even knew something of Vietnam and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan -- might also be immune to "cognitive dissonance," and ask hard questions regarding the basis of the new strategy.
Indeed, they might reach the same judgment they did in the April 2006 NIE on global terrorism. The authors of that estimate had few cognitive problems and simply declared their judgment that invasions and occupations (in 2006 the target then was Iraq) do not make us safer but lead instead to an upsurge in terrorism.
The prevailing attitude this time fits the modus operandi of Gen. David Petraeus, who in late 2008 took the lead by default with the following approach: We know best, and can run our own policy review, thank you very much. Which he did, without requesting the formal NIE that typically precedes and informs key policy decisions.
It is highly regrettable that President Obama was deprived of the chance to benefit from a formal estimate. Recent NIEs have been relatively bereft of wooden-headedess. Obama might have made a more sensible decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan.
As one might imagine, NIEs can, and should, play a key role in such circumstances, with a premium on objectivity and courage in speaking truth to power. That is precisely why Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair appointed Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council, the body that prepares NIEs -- and why the Likud Lobby got him ousted.
Estimates on Vietnam
As one of the intelligence analysts watching Vietnam in the Sixties and Seventies, I worked on several of the NIEs produced before and during the war. Sensitive ones bore this unclassified title: "Probable Reactions to Various Courses of Action With Respect to North Vietnam."
Typical of the kinds of question the President and his advisers wanted addressed were: Can we seal off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by bombing? If the U.S. were to introduce X thousand additional troops into South Vietnam, will Hanoi quit? Okay, how about XX thousand? Our answers regularly earned us brickbats from the White House for not being "good team players." But in those days we labored under a strong ethos dictating that we give it to policymakers straight, without fear or favor. We had career protection for doing that. Our judgments (the unwelcome ones, anyway) were often pooh-poohed as negativism.
Policymakers, of course, were in no way obliged to take them into account, and often didn't. The point is that they continued to be sought. Not even Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon would decide on a significant escalation without seeking our best estimate as to how U.S. adversaries would likely react to this or that escalatory step. So, hats off, I suppose, to you, Gen. Petraeus and those who helped you elbow the substantive intelligence analysts off to the sidelines.
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