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July 19, 2007

Bush's Wooden-Headedness Kills


by Ray McGovern

President George W. Bush is convinced, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that he is on the right course in the war in Iraq and the struggle against terrorism. He says he will not change his mind. Thus, we are at an historic moment; and we would be well advised to see what light historians might shed on our current predicament in Iraq and the basic (but unanswered) question as to why so many people resort to terrorism against us.

Historian Barbara Tuchman addressed the kind of situation we face at this juncture in our country’s history in her best-selling book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. (Had she lived, she surely would have updated the book to take Iraq into account).

Tuchman wrote:

"Wooden-headedness...plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts."

Tuchman referred in this context to 16th century Philip II of Spain as the Nobel-laureate (so to speak) woodenhead of all time: "No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence." Comparisons, I know, can be invidious, but Philip amassed too much power and drained state revenues by failed adventures overseas, leading to Spain’s decline. Sadly, Tuchman, who died in 1989, cannot opine as to whether history will see George W. Bush as having displaced Philip as supreme woodenhead. Bush would have a good shot at it, it seems to me.

In her book, Tuchman emphasized that courtiers can reinforce the ruler’s certitude, as was the case with Philip, and is the now the case with George. And if the courtiers are really good at it, they are awarded the Medal of Freedom – as was the case with former CIA director George Tenet, former Army General Tommy Franks, and former U.S. proconsul in Baghdad Paul Bremer – each of whom richly deserved a Heck of a job, Brownie-type salute. As Tuchman pointed out:

"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.'"

Bush’s genius is that he knows this instinctively – without having to take Tuchman’s book to read in Crawford. And, by all signs, he likes it that way. That is why he has assembled a truly amazing array of sycophants around him, whose only pedigree is loyalty to George W. Bush.

And that is precisely why we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), in our first Memorandum for the President (Feb. 5, 2003), closed with this admonition:

"After watching Secretary Powell today [giving his speech at the U.N.], we are convinced that you would be better served if you widened the discussion beyond violations of Resolution 1441, and beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic."

Our views, and those of others – like Scott Ritter, who knew more about what had happened to Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" than virtually anyone – made no dent in the wooden head. Not that the president really believed there were such weapons there. If he did, he was badly misled by Vice President Dick Cheney, who was well aware that the "evidence," such as it was, was bogus. Senior White House officials told my former colleagues at CIA eight months before the war that they needed to focus on "regime change," not WMD. And the White House did not wish to hear any more about WMD from CIA’s super-source – the Iraqi foreign minister, whom CIA operations officers had "turned" to work in place for the U.S. rather than Saddam.

The Attack on Iraq and Terrorism

In the same 5 Feb. 03 Memorandum, we strongly warned the president (as did many others) of the consequences, should he order our troops to invade Iraq:

"It is our view that an invasion of Iraq would ensure overflowing recruitment centers for terrorists into the indefinite future. Far from eliminating the threat it would enhance it exponentially."

We cited a CIA study done the previous fall that pointed out:

"The forces fueling hatred of the U.S. and fueling al-Qaeda recruiting are not being addressed...the underlying causes that drive terrorists will persist."

And we noted that that CIA report cited a 2002 Gallup poll of almost 10,000 Muslims in nine countries in which respondents described the United States as "ruthless, aggressive, conceited, arrogant, easily provoked and biased." We hoped against hope that someone could break through the coterie around President George W. Bush and give him a chance to hear why "they hate us." Someone, for example, from the U.S. Defense Science Board, a panel established to provide independent advice to the secretary of defense, which on Sept. 23, 2004 completed on an unclassified study on "Strategic Communication." With little risk to their day-jobs, that distinguished board directly contradicted the line taken by the president:

"Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States. Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy..."

It is hard to guess whether such straight talk might make a dent in presidential wood. The pity is that the palace guard around him headed by centurion-in-chief Cheney can, and does, keep such information from getting through. Even if the president were to read the New York Times, as many of us still do, he would have had to wait two months for the "paper of record" to put this story on the record and, even then, he would have been shortchanged.

Times writer Thom Shanker, to his credit, wrote a story on the findings of the Defense Science Board panel on Nov. 24, 2004 (better two months late than never). Shanker, too, cited the paragraph immediately above, but only the first and last sentences survived. To someone’s discredit, the offending middle sentence was surgically removed before the paper went to press.

NIE Ducks Key Issues

The latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) titled "The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland," is a disappointment, at least judging from its declassified Key Judgments that were made public on July 17. The judgments caused a stir by describing a "persistent and evolving terrorist threat" and pointing out that al-Qaeda has secured safe haven in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And then came the "mushroom-cloud" warning:

"Al-Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient capability."

Now that I’ve got your attention, I must tell you there is in the Key Judgments absolutely no hint as to how likely it might be that al-Qaeda will be able to acquire such material. The message seems to be simply: Be afraid. Let us "assess" and "judge," but don’t ask us about sources or provenance.

The Unaddressed Why of It All

Worse still, the Key Judgments throw no light at all on why al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups would want to use such weapons against the U.S. With this key element missing, the paper reads like a long police bulletin: Be alert; heightened threat; terrorists want to do bad things to us. We don’t know if they can; but "we assess" they will try to do very bad things...and don’t ask us why. They’re evildoers; is that not enough for you?

The estimate bears the earmarks of having been drafted originally by law enforcement agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, whose portfolio include terrorist threats to the U.S., and the FBI. There are pitfalls here. There is a tendency to inflate the threat, when one has a parochial interest in building up one’s capacity to deal with it

In the past, the Pentagon would routinely magnify external threats by writing what we disdainfully called "budgetary intelligence" to justify burgeoning budgets. There is more than a whiff of that in the Key Judgments. The National Intelligence Council, which has purview over NIEs, is supposed to monitor this. But there is no sign in the Key Judgments that judicious restraint has been applied.

So, even if the president and Cheney wished to know what actually fuels all this terrorism, they would receive little if any help from this estimate.

Help Needed

And since 9/11, the Michael "Heck-of-a-Job-Brownie" Browns have proliferated in the national security apparatus almost as quickly as lapel flag-pins.

Ms. Fran Townsend, the young woman with the portfolio for terrorism at the National Security Council seems ill suited to the job. She confessed to being frustrated at al-Qaeda’s success in rebuilding its infrastructure and links to affiliates and the fact that Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants have found safe haven, as the estimate makes clear.

And she was far from comfortable responding to journalists’ questions, as can be seen from her answer to this one:

Q. The president was warned before the war that this was actually going to help al-Qaeda gain influence...Isn’t that something the president ignored?

A. But you’re assuming this is a zero-sum game, which is what I don’t understand. The fact is, we are harassing them in Afghanistan. We’re harassing them in Iraq. We’re harassing them in other ways non-militarily around the world. And the answer is, every time you poke the hornet’s nest, they are bound to come back and push back on you. That doesn’t suggest to me that we shouldn’t be doing it.

Is this what passes for a strategic plan to counter terrorists? If so, it certainly highlights the need for adult supervision in the White House....and for creating the capability to prepare honest, sophisticated estimates, which in turn can enable policies of some vision and imagination.

But all this matters little, if wooden-headedness continues to prevail with the president and Cheney. As long as they are permitted to preside over keystone-cops law enforcement operations, with an occasional military surge here and there, the men and women in our armed forces, and the rest of us, will be in greater danger.

In the end, though, wood is not difficult to drill through with the proper tools.

Thanks to the prescience and courage of those who crafted our Constitution, a wood-tool is available. It is a precision tool that, with some courage, can be employed almost immediately. It is called impeachment, the orderly political process the Founders left to us for use when the president and/or vice president or other high official needs to be removed to save the Republic.

Let the members of Congress, who enjoy calling one another "distinguished," distinguish themselves by rising to the occasion. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us at another such juncture, that there is such a thing as too late. Too-late has already come to more than 3,600 young men and women in our armed forces, as well as thousands now missing limbs and other once functional parts of their bodies and minds. Not to mention the carnage visited on hundreds of thousands more whose only sin is that they are Iraqis.

This article appeared originally on Consortiumnews.com.


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  • Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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