Chickenhawk Groupthink

In a 1972 book, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychology Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Irving Janis identified the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba as particularly compelling examples of how very smart people can collectively make very stupid decisions.

In studying the Bay of Pigs, for example, Janis noted that the group around President John Kennedy made a series of assumptions – that Cubans would welcome the invasion and rise up against Fidel Castro and that the U.S. could credibly deny involvement in the invasion, if necessary – that were fundamentally deluded.

As in Iraq, many of those assumptions were based largely on the accounts of exiles and defectors, but the group dynamics involved in decision-making also played a key role in rallying the administration of the “best and the brightest” behind an adventure that proved disastrous, according to Janis.

A great deal more is known about group dynamics within the Bush administration foreign-policy apparatus today – as a result of leaks, memoirs, and books, such as Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Jim Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans – than was known at the time about the Kennedy administration.

And what is known suggests the existence of two major groups – an “in-group” of hawks whose captain is Vice President Dick Cheney and which has had a decisive influence on Bush himself, and an “out-group” of “realists” headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage.

While the out-group, which ironically boasts men, including Powell, Armitage, ret. Gens. Anthony Zinni and Brent Scowcroft, with real war experience, the in-group is dominated by individuals, particularly Cheney and virtually the entire civilian leadership of the Pentagon, who have none at all.

Hence the moniker “chickenhawks,” defined as individuals who favour military solutions to political problems but who themselves avoided military service during wartime. Cheney, who received five different deferments from the military draft during the Vietnam War, famously told an interviewer once that he ”had other priorities” in the 1960s than military service.

What also makes the in-group so remarkable is its very small size, the long history it has shared together, and its close personal relationships.

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney, for example, worked together under Richard Nixon and have been the very best of friends ever since. Their neo-conservative aides and advisers, such as Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Defence Policy Board (DPB) chairman Richard Perle, and DPB member Kenneth Adelman, likewise have been close for more than three decades and have personally mentored other top aides and advisers, such as Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Defence Undersecretaries for Policy and Intelligence, Douglas Feith and Stephen Cambone, respectively, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, to name just a few.

The sense of kinship that unites the group is illustrated in part by a dinner hosted by Cheney shortly after U.S. troops took Baghdad 13 months ago. The guests included Wolfowitz, Libby, and Adelman; the atmosphere, warm and celebratory as they recounted their defeat of the “realists.” Someone mentioned Powell, and there were chuckles around the table,” Woodward noted. And then “They turned to Rumsfeld, the missing brother,” and told affectionate stories about their past associations with the crusty Pentagon chief.

When Adelman said he had been surprised U.S. troops had not yet found weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he was assured by Wolfowitz, “We’ll find them,” and by Cheney, “It’s only been four days really. We’ll find them.”

Students of Groupthink list a number of symptoms of the phenomenon that can lead the group into disaster, among them:

  • believing in the group’s inherent morality;
  • sharing stereotypes, particularly of the enemy;
  • examining few alternative or contingency plans for any action;
  • being highly selective in gathering information;
  • avoiding expert opinion;
  • protecting the group from negative views or information that would contradict their basic assumptions;
  • and – having an illusion of invulnerability.

From what is now known about planning for Iraq, each of these factors obviously played a role, and they continue to inform U.S. policy not only against perceived enemies, but even against out-groups in the administration or in Congress. And, because the in-group was so small, many of these characteristics were unusually pronounced.

The notion that the chickenhawks were morally superior, not just to Saddam Hussein or the “terrorists” or “Ba’athist dead-enders” whom they’ve been fighting since the war ended, extended even to the “realists,” who were denounced in internal battles as “appeasers” or worse. As Cheney was recently quoted as declaring with regard to State Department proposals to engage North Korea, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.”

Middle East experts at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were likewise scorned and excluded from both planning and the immediate aftermath of the invasion, while the creation in Feith’s office of ad hoc intelligence analysis groups that “stovepiped” evidence of Iraqi WMD and ties to Al Qaeda was a classic illustration of selective intelligence gathering that would confirm pre-existing stereotypes.

Similarly, the total failure to prepare contingency plans to deal with looting, or even with the emergence of an insurgency against the occupation, displayed a confidence that turned out to be completely unwarranted. Likewise, former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki’s prediction that more than 200,000 troops would be needed to occupy Iraq in order to ensure security had not only to be rejected in order to protect the group from negative views; it had to be publicly ridiculed by Wolfowitz as “wildly off the mark.”

In his latest exposé on the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, New Yorker correspondent Seymour Hersh noted that Rumsfeld’s penchant for “secrecy and wishful thinking” – characteristics that also apply to Groupthink – resulted in the Pentagon’s failure to do anything about it or about the many other problems they have encountered.

And whenever Powell or Armitage tried to bring to the attention of the highest levels in the administration the growing concern about prisoner abuse, according to a source recently cited in the Nelson Report, an insider Washington newsletter, they were forced to endure from the chickenhawks what an eyewitness source characterised as “around-the-table, coarse, vulgar, frat-boy bully remarks about what these tough guys would do if THEY ever got their hands on prisoners…”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.