Lessons Learned

It seems to me that a characteristic of a healthy decision making process is that it rewards good predictions and planning and penalizes bad work. In today’s media/policy landscape the entities producing the work can be government institutions, NGOs/thinktanks and/or individuals (either acting alone or working for an institution), but talking heads and the punditocracy – individuals – dominate the national discussion of big issues (though the blogosphere is becoming a bit of a countervailing force to conventional wisdom®). One of the things that’s amazed me, as the disaster in Iraq has played out, is how the folks who were consistently wrong have continued to command attention, while the people whose judgment time has revealed as more accurate are marginalized or ignored. Some recent events that really brought this home:

Via The Washington Note, Jeff Stein’s Congressional Quarterly article on Pat Lang’s encounter with Doug Feith.

In early 2001, his [Lang’s] name was put forward as somebody who would be good at running the Pentagon’s office of special operations and low-intensity warfare, i.e., counterinsurgency. Lang had also been a Green Beret, with three tours in South Vietnam.

One of the people he had to impress was Feith, the Defense Department’s number three official and a leading player in the clique of neoconservatives who had taken over the government’s national security apparatus.

Lang went to see him, he recalled during a May 7 panel discussion at the University of the District of Columbia.

“He was sitting there munching a sandwich while he was talking to me,” Lang recalled, “ which I thought was remarkable in itself, but he also had these briefing papers — they always had briefing papers, you know — about me.

“He’s looking at this stuff, and he says, ‘I’ve heard of you. I heard of you.’

“He says, ‘Is it really true that you really know the Arabs this well, and that you speak Arabic this well? Is that really true? Is that really true?’

“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s really true.’

‘That’s too bad,” Feith said.

Feith, who Gen. T. Franks famously referred to as “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet” , is now teaching a course on the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policy at Georgetown. Seems like a course that matches well with his intelligence…

Wolfowitz’s latest follies at the World Bank are well known – who could have predicted that he might have trouble there, given his recent brilliant track record (that was sarcasm)?

In his testimony, Mr. Wolfowitz ticked off several reasons why he believed a much smaller coalition peacekeeping force than General Shinseki envisioned would be sufficient to police and rebuild postwar Iraq. He said there was no history of ethnic strife in Iraq, as there was in Bosnia or Kosovo. He said Iraqi civilians would welcome an American-led liberation force that “stayed as long as necessary but left as soon as possible,” but would oppose a long-term occupation force. And he said that nations that oppose war with Iraq would likely sign up to help rebuild it. “I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq in reconstruction,” Mr. Wolfowitz said. He added that many Iraqi expatriates would likely return home to help. *

The massive underestimation of the size of the occupation and nationbuilding tasks in Iraq – who could have guessed estimates were so far off? Dr. Conrad Crane at the US Army War College in February of 2003 for one. Via This Amercan Life’s excellent Lessons Learned show (here and here) – Crane and others produced Recontructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges and Missions for Military Forces in a Post Conflict Scenario (pdf link). Listen to ‘Act 1: Cassandra’ of the TAL Lessons Learned show – I’m still shaking my head.

If the war is rapid with few civilian casualties, the occupation will probably be characterized by an initial honeymoon period during which the United States will reap the benefits of ridding the population of a brutal dictator. Nevertheless, most Iraqis and most other Arabs will probably assume that the United States intervened in Iraq for its own reasons and not to liberate the population. Long-term gratitude is unlikely and suspicion of U.S. motives will increase as the occupation continues. A force initially viewed as liberators can rapidly be relegated to the status of invaders should an unwelcome occupation continue for a prolonged time. Occupation problems may be especially acute if the United States must implement the bulk of the occupation itself rather than turn these duties over to a postwar international force. Regionally, the occupation will be viewed with great skepticism, which may only be overcome by the population’s rapid progress toward a secure and prosperous way of life.

What are my take-aways (lessons learned, if you will)?

  • Wishful thinking is appropriate if you’ve just bought a lottery ticket. It’s not the thing do do if you are planning for retirement. It is a horrible thing to do when other’s lives are at stake. Transparency – ‘show your work’ – is crucial when big issues are up for debate; standing around maintaining that things will go your way is not sufficient.
  • We need to get this right. I disagree with the “War on Terror” formulation (war on a tactic?), however there are specific state and non-state actors who wish the developed world ill. Figuring out how to neutralize these entities is not optional.

To hand-wave away the botched decision-making process in the run up to the Iraq war is not acceptable – a CF of this magnitude has a lot to teach. Our adversaries are learning from it – will we?

Our enemies are going to make us fight these kind of wars until we get them right. – David Kilcullen, quoted by Conrad Crane (TAL at approx minute 29)

1 thought on “Lessons Learned

  1. Who would’ve thought it? Of course… many of us did.

    This comment …. who Gen. T. Franks famously referred to as “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet” just blows me away. It speaks of the quality (or lack thereof) of the Bush Administration.


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