My misgivings

Posted: Apr 21, 2004 12:00 AM

 On Monday, The New York Times reported that growing numbers of conservatives are turning against President Bush on Iraq. This follows an inarticulate defense of the Iraq operation by Bush in a press conference last week and growing attacks on our troops. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the basic rationale for the war was not well thought through and that postwar planning was deeply flawed at a minimum. These may result from a basic weakness in this White House's policy-making and decision-making processes.
I have to say that my own feelings on the war parallel those of many others who previously supported the war but now feel deep misgivings. Although I don't often write on foreign policy, I felt I had an obligation to take a stand on Iraq before the war started. In a February 2003 column, I reluctantly supported the war because at the time I thought there was credible evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. With that country being ruled by a lunatic dictator with known ties to terrorist groups, I felt that President Bush deserved the benefit of a doubt.

 Since then, I have been very disturbed by the lack of WMD's. I am not yet convinced that President Bush manufactured evidence for their existence as a pretext for war. But I do believe that he has fostered a White House culture that contributes to error with a stifled internal debate, a decision-making process that seems to short circuit research and analysis, and an obsession with loyalty and secrecy that makes the Nixon White House appear as a model of openness and transparency.

 In this respect, I have been strongly influenced by Ron Suskind's recent book, "The Price of Loyalty," which was based on interviews with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and thousands of internal documents provided by him. That book paints a picture of an administration in which it appears that President Bush often makes key decisions with little if any analysis or discussion among those with the job of implementing those decisions.

 In short, President Bush often seems to operate like the character from "Alice in Wonderland" who declared, "Sentence first -- verdict afterwards." Instead of figuring out why and how things should be done before acting, the White House seems to act first and then create ex post facto rationalizations for that decision in lieu of serious deliberation.

 Although I claim no inside knowledge of the national security process in this administration, I do know that Suskind and O'Neill's characterization of its domestic policy operation rings true. While it is conceivable that a completely different process operates in the national security arena, I think that is highly unlikely. Presidents establish a style and tone for their White House staff operations, and it operates across the board. Therefore, I have every reason to believe that the same weaknesses that exist on the domestic side exist within the national security operation, as well.

 Contrary to what conspiracy theorists imagine, I don't think President Bush ever ordered facts to be invented to justify the Iraq war. Rather, I think there was a great deal of what economists call self-selection bias. Facts that confirmed what President Bush wanted to believe tended to filter up to him, while conflicting facts tended to be sidelined.

        This sort of thing happens on every issue in every White House. But in this White House, the system of deliberation, debate, analysis and discussion seems to be unusually weak. As a consequence, there was no way of leveling the playing field, with the result that decisions end up being made on the basis of biased presentations rather than objective analysis.

        In previous administrations, one safety valve has been the press. When participants in the decision-making process felt that the president was not fully taking into account certain facts or views, they would be leaked. At least then there was a chance that they would come to his attention. But in this administration, there is very little of that, with loyalty and secrecy being enforced to an amazing degree that appears unprecedented. Moreover, President Bush, by his own admission, is not a big consumer of news from outside sources. Consequently, alternate methods of communicating facts and views to him are shut down.

        Of course, one cannot know whether a more open and honest debate on Iraq would have led to a different result. But I for one would not have supported the war if I thought that its principal justification was the liberation of the Iraqi people, which is what the White House now says was its primary mission. Our military exists to defend the nation, not be the world's policeman. If there is a linkage, President Bush has yet to make it.