Six Lessons for Washington’s Elite

I hesitate to write this column, because it goes to the heart of what is wrong with Washington today – how truth is regularly reshaped by the self-impressed, often eager academics or defenders of a policy. Left aside is reality, seen and frustratingly lived – by those there.

Issue of the day: Aftermath of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld invasion of Iraq, 20 years on. Stunning is how confident modern “experts” are about things they did not live through. In Washington, I just sat through an intellectual account by three “experts,” brilliant, none ever in uniform, none at National Security Council meetings in 2003 or 2004, pivotal years – yet all cocksure.

Looking at documents, talking with each other, quick with compliments, short on real life exposure to decisions in those years, they have tidy theories, solutions to mistakes by others, lessons learned because they say so – lots of postgame play – calling from the bleachers.

This is what ails the nation, a sense that everyone is an expert about everyone else’s life, sure they could have done it better, sure their wisdom defines what was, and will cure what will be.

Only the people who really know all the good, bad, and ugly, mixed intensions, interpersonal relationships, acts of willfulness, level of conflict – who saw it every day, are often silent.

As someone who managed the messy post-conflict US stabilization of Iraq for Colin Powell, was in the NSC three days a week, sat with Powell in Washington for 450 days, and was a military intelligence officer for ten years overlapping the period – here are things no one will tell you, if they even know.

First, getting good data matters. Powell and his team did all they could to get every last shred of counter-evidence, data to sustain peace and forestall war in Iraq. They could not get their hands on enough evidence from the intelligence community to offset the seemingly inevitable stumble to war.

Second, people have hidden agendas. As early as mid-2002, perhaps years earlier, a group around President Bush, who was initially agnostic, were zealously pushing war. They had written plans and were angling to find “intelligence” that might support their venture.

Third, cultural awareness is vital. The level of cultural awareness and actual exposure to Iraq – or Middle East from living there – by most of those at the top in Washington was zero. They had read books, papers, seen the elder President Bush rescue Kuwait, stop at Baghdad, and thought they could do better.

Many seemed to see Reagan in – themselves. They would put democracy in the Middle East by war, the way Reagan’s powerful moral persuasion toppled the Soviet Union. Missing, of course, was any sense of how culturally unprepared Iraq – and the region – was for instant democracy. The Middle East was not Europe, nor Christian Russia; the notion that peace would breakout was ill-informed, naïve.

Missing too was the perspective of combat, an appreciation for the ugliness of war, the impact on thousands, the likely incredible loss of American lives – and quality of life for the wounded. The only two who had combat experience were Colin Powell and Rich Armitage, both heavily decorated, a former seasoned Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the latter three tours in Vietnam. They knew the cost and destruction of war, and worked to avert it, but eventually lost that internal battle.

Cheney and Bush, by contrast, had five military deferments between them, ducked Vietnam. Cheney got his last one because his wife was pregnant. Rumsfeld had never seen combat. Condoleezza Rice had never worn a uniform, never seen Iraq. Cultural blindness, minimization, no combat – everywhere.

Fourth, intelligence is not magic. People do not realize how the intelligence community can be coaxed, intimidated, counseled, or led toward political supportive briefs by powerful, insistent political actors – like Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who made clear what he wanted, and VP Cheney, who did the same.

Outsiders to operations, or who have never been intelligence analysts or officers, think intelligence professionals are all-knowing, and worse – immune from political pressure. As the recent history of “politicized” National Intelligence Estimates corroborates, this is not so. 

Not only are intelligence providers not all-knowing, subject to errors like circular reporting, but they can – at the higher levels and below – be subject to intense political pressure, and they were in that time.

Fifth, blind spots exist. Parts of our federal government which could have put brakes on shifting from Afghanistan to war in Iraq were ill-equipped to do so. Beyond intimidation by those eager for war – led by Rumsfeld and Cheney – there were other problems.

One was that State was strangely weak on indigenous Arabists, somehow unwilling to understand that Americans – diehard patriots of Arab extraction – were vital to understanding what would happen after any invasion, how it would resonate. The sense was – despite patriotism, depth, and cultural affinity – that post-9/11, non-Arab Arabists knew better. They obviously did not.

Finally, powerful personalities can save the day, or tank the mission. Missing in neat theories about how not to blunder is a core fact. Policies, books, and theories do not make the world go around, people do. If a Defense Secretary and VP – and I watched them at arm’s length – are cocksure, intimidating, insufferably impatient, or content to think they have it all figured out, that affects everything.

George Washington, famously and thank God, listened to his generals, so did George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Colin Powell as the Chairman. That was not the prevailing sensibility, personality, or way Rumsfeld or Cheney thought. Reality trumps theory every day – did then, will again. Here is the kicker – these lessons apply across official Washington, not just to war waging or Iraq.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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