Friday, March 19, 2004

The Fog Of War


Back when I was in law school, a classmate challenged a professor about a long-standing rule of law, suggesting that it was bad policy. The professor wrote the number "50" on the blackboard, and commented, "When fifty states, fifty jurisdictions...", then added a "1" below the "50", "and the District of Columbia", paused momentarily, added another "1", "and the federal courts disagree with you, you have to ask yourself if the problem is with their reasoning or with yours." (The professor took some comeuppance in good graces a couple of weeks later, when he proposed his own rather unique legal theory and the classmate asked, "How many jurisdictions agree with you on that, Professor?")

Last night, I saw The Fog of War, which outlines various lessons Robert S. McNamara learned through his life, particularly in relation to his wartime experiences and mistakes. The film was perhaps a bit soft on McNamara, permitting him to cast his past pretty much as he saw fit, and permitting him to avoid some tough questions or areas of inquiry. However, I was left with the impression of a very bright and capable man who has now spent decades analyzing mistakes by his nation - mistakes in which he played a central role - and has drawn a set of conclusions which should be heeded by world leaders. I can't imagine Rumsfeld sitting through this film as, despite the comparisons between his and McNamara's management styles, Rumsfeld does not appear to have the type of mind that is capable of introspection and of learning from history. But I wish he would at least try.

McNamara has recently expressed dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration's approach to Iraq:
"We're misusing our influence," he said in a staccato voice that had lost none of its rapid-fire engagement. "It's just wrong what we're doing. It's morally wrong, it's politically wrong, it's economically wrong."

While he did not want to talk on the record about specific military decisions made Mr. Rumsfeld, he said the United States is fighting a war that he believes is totally unnecessary and has managed to destroy important relationships with potential allies. "There have been times in the last year when I was just utterly disgusted by our position, the United States' position vis-à-vis the other nations of the world."
Having viewed the film, salient rules that the Bush Administration is breaking include:

Failure To Listen To Our Allies - McNamara, like my law professor, believes that we need to be cautious when our allies disagree with our actions, as they did in Vietnam. He argues that if we cannot convince nations with similar values to support our cause, we need to take a step back and examine our own reasoning. The Bush Administration has proudly taken the opposite approach - expressing open contempt for our long-term allies when they disagree with it, and insisting upon unilateral action even where it might be possible to achieve multilateral action with a bit more time and diplomacy. When you insist upon going in a direction your allies view as foolish, you may end up holding the bag. We need our allies' support for the post-war reconstruction and democratization of Iraq, yet Bush's tactics have frustrated our efforts to bring our allies on board. (And we're now in danger of seeing the withdrawal of nations from our so-called "coalition of the willing".) In McNamara's words:
And if we can't persuade other nations with comparable values and comparable interests of the merit of our course, we should reconsider the course, and very likely change it. And if we'd followed that rule, we wouldn't have been in Vietnam, because there wasn't one single major ally, not France or Britain or Germany or Japan, that agreed with our course or stood beside us there. And we wouldn't be in Iraq.
Failure to Empathize with the Enemy - McNamara recounted how the Vietnamese believed their war against the U.S. was a war to end a century of colonialization and, while dismissing that belief as absurd from our standpoint, observes that the Vietnamese perceptions played an enormous role in their willingness to fight and die in staggering numbers. We believed that we were fighting for their freedom, yet they believed we were fighting for their enslavement to a brutal colonial master. We believed we were blocking the influence of communism, particularly through Vietnam's neighbor, China. They had been fighting China for, in the words of one former leader, 1,000 years, and had no intention of living under China's influence. Similar misconceptions appear to exist between what we intend through our occupation of Iraq, and what many of the locals (and people in neighboring nations) believe we intend - and absent our breaking through the misconceptions, we will continue to fight a difficult and often uphill battle.
Our judgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.
The film also recounted Lyndon Johnson's position on appeasement versus war - and his observation that (whenever possible) we didn't want either. Isn't that still true?

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