Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lessons From a Prior War and Carrier Pigeons

"Looking back, I deeply regret that I did not force a probing debate about whether it would ever be possible to forge a winning military effort on a foundation of political quicksand. It became clear then, and I believe it is clear today, that military force – specially when wielded by an outside power – just cannot bring order in a country that cannot govern itself."

That's Robert McNamara in p.261 of his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. In p.333, he writes: "External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by the people for themselves." The book was published by Random House in 1995, eight years before our incursion into Iraq.

Mr. McNamara listed eleven major causes for our disaster in Vietnam; substitute Vietnam with Iraq and you get your pilomotor reflex really going. Absent a real combat experience in a war zone ("war" experience in politics does not count) I think this book should be required reading for anyone running for public office. In item #4 (p.322), he writes:

"Our misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders. We might have made several misjudgments regarding the Soviets during our frequent confrontations – over Berlin, Cuba, the Middle East, for example – had we not had the advice of Tommy Thompson, Chip Bohlen, and George Kennan. These senior diplomats had spent decades studying the Soviet Union, its people and its leaders, why they behave as they did, and how they would react to our actions. Their advice proved invaluable in shaping our judgments and decision. No Southeast Asian counterparts existed for senior officials to consult when making decisions on Vietnam."

Rummy could not make the same claim when it comes to advisers on Iraq. Although this is often lost in the web of facts, there were senior diplomats who knew the region like the back of their hands in the tradition of the old Soviet experts. But I supposed their advice were not valued in a meaningful way or the blunders would not be this breathtaking. Last year in an article published in the Washington Post, Robin Wright writes:

"In late 2002, as the Bush administration prepared for war, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tasked Ryan Crocker and Assistant Secretary of State William Burns with exploring the risks of military intervention. The result was a six-page memo they entitled "The Perfect Storm," according to an account in Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung's biography "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell.

The memo bluntly predicted that toppling Hussein could unleash long-repressed sectarian and ethnic tensions, that the Sunni minority would not easily relinquish power, and that powerful neighbors such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia would try to move in to influence events. It also cautioned that the United States would have to start from scratch building a political and economic system because Iraq's infrastructure was in tatters."

Unlike "armchair diplomats," these officers did not just look into a glass bowl and predicted "a cake walk;" their insight came from years of experience in the region and I suspect, from a healthy respect for the area's history. Upon being asked about how changing administrations and changes within administrations impact the job of a diplomat, Ambassador Crocker gave the following reply:

"Each administration has its own priorities and style. The job of the career foreign service office is to offer his best advice … our elected leaders needs to have confidence that we will carry out policies to the best of our ability."

The best advice, even if it's not the one the leadership wants to hear…to the best of their abilities… even when supporting and defending actions/policies that they may personally disagree with. All Foreign Service professionals swear to this when they join the Service.

And here too, is an important lesson to learn – we don't know what we don't know; if elected leaders do not listen to the dedicated messengers who bring bad news, why, we might as well raise carrier pigeons (they were used in Baghdad as far back as the 12th century). As far as I know, pigeons deliver their messages almost without fail, and they have not yet been known to verbalize an opinion, good or otherwise.


C.C. said...

We just watched "Bush's War" on PBS and caught ourselves repeatedly shaking our heads in disbelief. The key players were/are like stubborn children - they don't want to hear what they don't to hear.

TSB said...

This is the first time I've agreed with something written by Robert McNamara. All too true.