Tuesday, April 20, 2004

On Monday, the New York Times reported growing numbers of conservatives are turning against President Bush on Iraq. This follows an inarticulate defense of the Iraq operation by him in a press conference last week and growing attacks on our troops. It is now becoming increasingly clear 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 policymaking and decisionmaking process.

I have to say 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 (WMDs) in Iraq. With that country ruled by a lunatic dictator with known ties to terrorist groups, I felt President Bush deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Since then, I have been very disturbed by the lack of WMDs. I am not yet convinced Mr. Bush manufactured evidence for their existence as a pretext for war. But I do believe he has fostered a White House culture that contributes to error, by stifling internal debate, a decisionmaking process that seems to shortcircuit research and analysis, and an obsession with loyalty and secrecy that makes the Nixon White House appear 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 Mr. Bush often makes key decisions with little if any analysis or discussion among those who are to carry out the 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 Mr. Suskind and Mr. O’Neill’s characterization of its domestic policy operation rings true. While it is conceivable 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 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 up invented facts to justify the Iraq war. Rather, I think there was a great deal of what economists call self-selection bias. Facts that confirmed what Mr. 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 unusually weak. As a consequence, there was no way of leveling the playing field, with the result decisions were 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 decisionmaking felt 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 is, self-admittedly, not a big consumer of news from outside sources. Consequently, alternate ways 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 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.

Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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