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Return of the best and the brightest?

Many years ago, David Halberstam wrote a book about the Vietnam war called The Best and the Brightest. In it he pointed out how the architects of the Vietnam war under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were considered brilliant thinkers and strategists, successful in many other fields before they entered government. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara came from being the head of General Motors and was supposed to be a real genius, brilliant with numbers and having a reputation as a formidable thinker and strategist in the corporate world. Others like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow were also seen as the very smart people.

And yet, as Halberstam pointed out, this did not prevent Vietnam from becoming a total debacle. It seemed that all the brilliant minds and their strategizing could not prevent the US from sliding slowly and painfully into defeat. The problem was, of course, that strategy cannot save you when the underlying political decisions are bad. In Vietnam, that bad decision consisted in sending in forces to prop up a corrupt minority government in the face of an insurgency that was determined to oust the foreign US forces and had already defeated the French colonial power. The insurgents even had the support of a substantial fraction of the local population, as well as the backing of the significant standing army of North Vietnam, which in turn was headed by the wily General Giap. This combination of factors almost certainly doomed the US to a bad end. In such a situation, all that strategizing can do is perhaps determine what is the best way to leave.

I was reminded of those days in the current breathless speculation around the Iraq Study Group (ISG), the body headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton whose report on what to do about Iraq is eagerly anticipated within establishment circles and is due to be released on Wednesday, December 6, 2006.

What struck me is this extraordinary situation in which the US government is seemingly outsourcing an important policy and military decision to a group of people outside the government. As Robin Wright of the Washington Post reports: “In the history of U.S. foreign policy, there’s been nothing like it: a panel outside the government trying to bail the United States out of a prolonged and messy war.” What does it say about the level of competence of this administration when the president, asked about what he plans to do about Iraq, says that he is waiting to see the recommendations of outside groups like the ISG?

The composition of the ISG is also interesting. It was formed by a hitherto obscure outfit called the US Institute of Peace which says on its website that it is an “independent, nonpartisan, national institution established and funded by Congress.” The ISG group membership seems to be composed of your standard issue, run-of-the-mill politicians (one could even label them political hacks), except for former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. None of them seem to have any expertise with the Middle East.

Robin Wright says that “The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate.” This sheds an interesting light on the Washington mindset which venerates “centrism” or “moderates,” without those words having any operational meaning other than simply standing for a very narrow range of opinions around the status quo.

Exactly what, for example, might constitute an “extreme” antiwar view? Since no one is seriously suggesting that the US government surrender to the Iraqi insurgents or re-installing Saddam Hussein as the Iraqi leader (even though an increasing number of people, including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, are saying that average Iraqis are worse off now than they were before the invasion), one can only conclude that what the ISG considers an “extremist” view is that calling for a complete withdrawal of US troops beginning immediately. Thus the deck has already been stacked to produce a report that will not disturb the status quo, since it has eliminated one option that is widely supported.

The ISG group has supposedly listened to ‘expert’ advice given by four ‘Expert Working Groups’ and a Military Senior Advisor Panel.. But there is some cynicism as to whether the expert panels are just window dressing for a pre-ordained conclusion. As one member of one of the expert groups says: “[The ISG] doesn’t have to take any of our recommendations. . .They can come up with something entirely different. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they do.”

In fact, although George Bush has said that he is looking forward to hearing what the commission is going to recommend, the very fact that he has been so outspoken in what he will and will not do seems to have caused the ISG group to try and tailor its recommendations to what they think that Bush may consider accepting, rather than what the expert groups might suggest are the best options.

One of the curious things about the ISG is the murkiness of its origins. It suddenly appeared in March of this year. Its website says that this “effort is being undertaken at the urging of several members of Congress and the White House welcomes it.” Who are these members of Congress? It does not exactly say and I have been unable to pinpoint exactly how and why the ISG came into existence. The only person I could find who is named as an initiator is congressman Frank Wolf (R-Virginia).

One possibility is that this murkiness is deliberate in order to hide one of two possibilities. The first is that the White House, despite its public statements of confidence about how well things are going in Iraq, privately agrees with those who say it is a disaster and is now seeking a face-saving mechanism to extricate itself from the mess without actually admitting they have blundered. This means that they have already decided what they want to do and the ISG will provide them with those options, but the White House does not want to admit that the ISG is merely a front group.

The second possibility is that the White House is still in such a state of denial, and that this detachment from reality has so alarmed even those people close to the administration (such as Bush’s father), that they cobbled together this commission to put further pressure on the White House to try and get them to face the facts rather than continue to wallow in delusions.

My guess (and it is only that) is that it is the second option. This is because the latest leak from the ISG says that they will “recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis.” Support for my guess comes from the harsh pre-emptive attack on the ISG from the most fervent and last-ditch supporters of the Iraq war, such as the Weekly Standard, the National Review and assorted columnists.

Given that Bush seems to think that leaving Iraq would mean that he has failed, that he has said that it will be up to future presidents to decide when and whether to withdraw all US troops, and “I will not withdraw even if Laura and Barney are the only ones supporting me”, I predict that after the ISG presents their report to him he will say, “Thanks, but no thanks” and go on doing whatever he wants. Of course there is a little wiggle room between “all troops” and “nearly all U.S. combat units” to allow him to reverse course but, as Bush has famously said, he “doesn’t do nuance” and I doubt whether he will exploit that particular loophole.

Perhaps the last best hope for this country is that Barney looks like a smart dog. If he can be persuaded to turn against Bush, Bush might finally realize that his Iraq policy has been a failure.

POST SCRIPT: The God Delusion

Watch an excellent interview of Richard Dawkins talking about his new book The God Delusion on the BBC show Newsnight.

It is so refreshing to see a low-key interview in which the interviewer is thoughtful and quietly tries to probe the author about ideas, rather than engaging in a debate. There is no interrupting and no crosstalk and no grandstanding, and yet the questions posed were challenging. It was so unlike a lot of talk shows where the host sees the show as a vehicle for expounding his or her own views, rather than having the guest elaborate on their ideas.


  1. says

    You may also be interested in Dawkin’s appearance on the BBC’s radio show, In Our Time. He was part of a 3 person panel discussing the topic of altruism and whether people developed altruistic tendencies through evolution or for other reasons. While there was occasional disagreement between panelists, it was pretty interesting.

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