Thursday, November 19, 2015

Who Were the Deciders?

I wrote last week about the elder George Bush's criticism of his son W's administration, which focused on his hard-line advisers. Apropos of that I should mention this interesting article by John Hay. Hay argues that two very important decisions made early on in Iraq, to disband the army and "de-Baathify" the government, were made by mid-level staffers without any input from the President at all. The decisions were announced by Paul Bremer, the top civilian in Iraq, but Bremer did not initiate them. Coalition Provisional Authority Orders 1 and 2 were written for him by Douglas Feith, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, who developed them in discussions with Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief staff, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe, and our Iraqi friend Ahmed Chalabi.

As Hay presents the story, this was a complete reversal of Bush's own policy, which was to maintain the Iraqi army and use it to help pacify the country.
the president agreed to preserve the Iraqi army in the NSC meeting on March 12 . . .. In that meeting, Feith, at the request of Donald Rumsfeld, gave a PowerPoint presentation prepared by Garner about keeping the Iraqi army; in his own memoir, Feith writes, “No one at that National Security Council meeting in early March spoke against the recommendation, and the President approved Garner’s plan.” But this is not what happened. What happened instead was the reversal of Garner’s plan.
The Washington Post reported the origins of the de-Baathification policy like this:
The demobilization decision appears to have originated largely with Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense appointed to oversee Iraqi security forces. He believed strongly in the need to disband the army and felt that vanquished soldiers should not expect to be paid a continuing salary. He said he developed the policy in discussions with Bremer, Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz. ‘This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute and done at the insistence of the people in Baghdad. It was discussed,’ Slocombe said. ‘The critical point was that nobody argued that we shouldn’t do this.’
So the story seems to be that Feith, Wolfowitz, and Libby -- who was probably serving as a mouthpiece for his boss Cheney -- simply ignored the policy developed in the National Security Council and approved by the President. They convinced the President and Secretary Rumsfeld that Jay Garner was "hapless" -- I remember seeing that word in several press accounts -- and then got Bush to appoint their friends Bremer and Slocombe to key posts in Iraq. They then bypassed the NSC, held meetings to which they only invited people they knew were going to agree with their agenda, and persuaded Bremer to issue the fateful orders.

Later on they all skillfully evaded questions about who was responsible for all of this, and created the impression that Bush approved everything without actually saying so:
Defending himself on this point, Bremer claimed, “the policy was carefully considered by top civilian and military members of the American government.” And six months later Bremer told the paper, “It was not my responsibility to do inter-agency coordination.”
Feith and Slocombe have been similarly evasive when discussing President Bush’s awareness of the policies. The Los Angeles Times noted that “Feith was deeply involved in the decision-making process at the time, working closely with Bush and Bremer,” yet “Feith said he could not comment about how involved the president was in the decision to change policy and dissolve the army. ‘I don’t know all the details of who talked to who about that,’ he said.” 
Slocombe provided this textbook non-answer to PBS’s Frontline,
What happens in Washington in terms of how the [decisions are made]—‘Go ahead and do this, do that; don’t do that, do this, even though you don’t want to do it’—that’s an internal Washington coordination problem about which I know little. One of the interesting things about the job from my point of view—all my other government experience basically had been in the Washington end, with the interagencies process and setting the priorities—at the other end we got output. And how the process worked in Washington I actually know very little about, because the channel was from the president to Rumsfeld to Bremer.
For his part Bush said in his own memoirs that he wished the decision had been discussed more thoroughly; I wonder if he didn't remember approving the decision but assumed he must have.

Maybe it's just because I work with Federal agencies all the time, but I find this fascinating. Somehow decisions are made that are contrary to the President's public statements and issued in a way that can't be called illegitimate, without anyone ever finding out who was really responsible. People who have what seem like important jobs -- notably Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condi Rice -- can be skillfully bypassed by shrewd operators like Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Feith (or Oliver North) and left on the sidelines as the clever cabal pushes their own pet projects. It's a great lesson in how things really happen in the world.


Shadow Flutter said...

And would you consider this a conspiracy? I don't think it meets the technical definition of one, but it seems to contain the spirit of one.

John said...

I often think about this sort of thing when I hear about the Bavarian Illuminati at Bohemian Grove, or whatever. Real conspiracies are like this, or Oliver North operating his parallel foreign policy from the White House, or the restaurant owner's association setting up front groups with millions of shadowy dollars to fight health care reform, or the Koch brothers organizing with their rich friends to move the Republican party away from any compromise with people worried about climate change. Conspiracies exist, but the are not strange and magical, and mostly they are at least half in the open.

Shadow Flutter said...

Exactly. It's the grand conspiracy, the one in which true believers think they know something no one else knows, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, thus giving them a kind of intellectual superiority over nonbelievers. Perhaps people who harp these are in need of self-validation.