I’m just back from an off-the-record meeting with group of a couple of dozen senior Pentagon and intelligence community folks with academics, think-tankers and industry spokesmen. The meeting was convened by a major Ivy League university with the aim of talking through some significant policy issues that are emerging from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The function was done under those irksome Chatham House rules that make it very difficult to quote from or use, but one thing amazed me: after six hours or so of discussion in a big round-table seminar setting, we broke into small groups to try to put pen to paper to define the problems, their causes and the solutions needed. When this happened, there was almost instant unanimity in terms of identifying problems, causes and solutions. Remember that was among academics, senior military professionals, defense and intelligence analysts, think-tankers and gadflys like me. It was an impressive demonstration of the ability of serious minds operating in an environment of good will and mutual respect to grapple with a problem and construct an answer, especially once the Kabuki theater of formal institutional confines and policy debate is ripped away.
But another thing that occurred at this meeting – on its periphery – was a lot of discussion about Iraq, where it was headed and what had gone wrong. It struck me immediately that this is a point which we haven’t really had enough discussion of in the American media, and it’s essential that we have it. The military call it “lessons learned,” it’s something that may be undertaken after any operation and is a basic staple of planning. At its best, this discussion will occur divorced from partisan politics and any sense of retribution (though in a democracy those things are inescapable, they do tend to cloud the exercise). But here are some of the points made by the senior military personnel, all of which struck me as right on point:
The lead-up to the war in Iraq was marked by hyperventilation and gross distortion of available intelligence. They point out that to some extent this is a constant in democratic societies on the way to war. That there is a public debate is essential to the qualification of a society as democratic. But the debate will always be subject to the weaknesses inherent in democratic institutions – for instance, the press always includes a war party which uses strident advocacy for essentially commercial purposes (William Randolph Hearst and the rise of yellow journalism, for instance). This needs to be offset by intelligence and defense professionals exercising sober, careful judgment. So far it doesn’t really look like there was a gross failure in intelligence or intelligence analysis by the professionals. The failure occurred in the distortion of that analysis as it was transmitted to other decision-makers and then to the public.
The definition of the war was flawed. From the outset, the joint chiefs pushed for a war defined in clear, simple and easily achievable terms. For instance: an Afghan War against the Taliban, and an Iraq War to topple Saddam. The advantages of this approach are obvious: it leaves little ambiguity as to the mission, its accomplishment is subject to ready measure, and the United States is then in a more convincing position to claim victory. For a sole superpower, the importance of the “appearance of victory” is critical, because its absence is judged as defeat. However, the military professionals were consistently overridden on this point by the political judgment emanating from the White House. It wanted a broad, unfocused concept of “war on terror,” as a “generational war into the twilight” without clearly defined objectives. And some of the declared objectives – like “spreading democracy in the Middle East” – are vague and probably unachievable using the tools at the military’s disposal. Said one senior Army officer: “This approach had obvious domestic political advantages to the White House, especially in terms of elections, but it was a horrible burden to force on the military.”
- Criticism can be a good thing, especially constructive criticism of tactics employed. In an extended conflict, it is essential that the performance of the armed forces against their adversary be continually reassessed and regeared so that the proper tactics and forces are being employed to achieve the mission given. In the current conflict, the Administration’s defense of its conduct of the war was so loud, so strident, and so devastating with respect even to constructive criticism that it materially contributed to the major failing of the war: the inability of the Baghdad Command to reconfigure forces and redesign tactics as necessary to confront an adversary that went through a process of rapid metamorphosis. (“Everything became political. It became essential to the White House to portray every aspect of the struggle as a success and to deny the problems that were emerging. When political lock-in occurred on this, then the White House refused to accept recommendations from the field commanders because they conflicted with a political position that had been staked out. This is a nightmare scenario for a democracy, demonstrating all the things that can go wrong when you proceed to war without a bipartisan consensus and try to use the war as a club to silence your political adversaries.”) The historical solution to this problem has been: avoiding the partisan manipulation of war issues – appointing for instance a secretary of defense from the opposition party, giving substantial autonomy to the field commanders and professional staff in operating a war, and recognizing that well-intended criticism from those sharing broad national objectives is a good thing that can lead to smarter conduct of the war and better buy-in at home.
- Planning is essential. Several people said that the Iraq War was in its essence a planning failure – the war that emerged was not the war for which they prepared. Eisenhower gets quoted, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” However, the problem is certainly not a lack of planning capacity or skills. It was a decision at the top to block professional planning, putting all confidence instead of a small cadre of political ideologues who did not have the essential planning skills and who had a dangerously illusory conception of what would transpire. In essence, therefore, the planning failure was a failure to place confidence in the trained uniformed professionals – putting politics ahead of professionalism.
- Now, with Petraeus in command, the professionals are back in charge, but it might be too late. Said one: “I’m not convinced that it’s about force strength any more. I’m not convinced that 500,000 men could accomplish the mission. In fact, I’m not sure I really know what the mission is.” Now that’s a dilemma.
These things can and should have a political consequence. We should take a careful look at pundits and analysts through these tools – did they contribute to the problem or to the solution? But the first priority must be on putting partisan differences to the side and salvaging the best that can be salvaged from an extremely bleak situation. I wish I could see easy answers. The fact is that I don’t. But I did emerge from these meetings with a high sense of confidence in the professionalism of the career military. They’re a sober, earnest and committed lot. They’re firmly planted in the reality-based community.
I kept thinking back to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film, “Dr. Strangelove.” The film was filled with trigger happy, lunatic military men, and politicians struggling to put a cap of reality on things. In the topsy-turvy world of the Bush Administration, it’s the career military who embody reason and sobriety, and their political bosses who are, put starkly, unhinged and a threat to life on earth. And that was my major lesson learned from this encounter.