By Ray McGovern
July 18, 2007
President George W. Bush is convinced, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that he is on the right course in the war in Iraq and the struggle against terrorism. He says he will not change his mind.
Thus, we are at an historic moment; and we would be well advised to see what light historians might shed on our current predicament in Iraq and the basic (but unanswered) question as to why so many people resort to terrorism against us.
Historian Barbara Tuchman addressed the kind of situation we face at this juncture in our country’s history in her best-selling book, “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” (Had she lived, she surely would have updated the book to take Iraq into account.)
Tuchman wrote: “Wooden-headedness…plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”
Tuchman referred in this context to Philip II of Spain (who ruled in the 16th century) as the Nobel-laureate woodenhead of all time: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”
Comparisons, I know, can be invidious, but Philip amassed too much power and drained state revenues by failed adventures overseas, leading to Spain’s decline.
Sadly, Tuchman, who died in 1989, cannot opine as to whether history will see George W. Bush as having displaced Philip as supreme woodenhead. Bush would have a good shot at it, it seems to me.
In her book, Tuchman emphasized that courtiers can reinforce the ruler’s certitude, as was the case with Philip, and is the now the case with George.
And if the courtiers are really good at it, they are awarded the Medal of Freedom—as was the case with former CIA director George Tenet, former Army General Tommy Franks, and former U.S. proconsul in Baghdad Paul Bremer—each of whom richly deserved a Heck of a job, Brownie-type salute.
As Tuchman pointed out: “Once a policy has been adopted and implemented, all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it…Adjustment is painful. For the ruler it is easier, once he has entered the policy box, to stay inside. For the lesser official it is better…not to make waves, not to press evidence that the chief will find painful to accept. Psychologists call the process of screening out discordant information ‘cognitive dissonance,’ an academic disguise for ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts.’”
Bush’s genius is that he knows this instinctively—without having to take Tuchman’s book to read in Crawford. And, by all signs, he likes it that way. That is why he has assembled a truly amazing array of sycophants around him, whose only pedigree is loyalty to George W. Bush.
And that is precisely why we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), in our first Memorandum for the President (Feb. 5, 2003), closed with this admonition: “After watching Secretary Powell today [giving his speech at the U.N.], we are convinced that you would be better served if you widened the discussion beyond violations of Resolution 1441, and beyond the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.”
Our views, and those of others—like Scott Ritter, who knew more about what had happened to Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” than virtually anyone—made no dent in the wooden head.
Not that the president really believed there were such weapons there. If he did, he was badly misled by Vice President Dick Cheney, who was well aware that the “evidence,” such as it was, was bogus.
Senior White House officials told my former colleagues at CIA eight months before the war that they needed to focus on “regime change,” not WMD. And the White House did not wish to hear any more about the absence of WMD from CIA’s super-source, who happened to be the Iraqi foreign minister, whom CIA operations officers had “turned” to work in place for us.