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Mar 20, 2018 | www.counterpunch.org
The war on Iraq won't be remembered for how it was waged so much as for how it was sold. It was a propaganda war, a war of perception management, where loaded phrases, such as "weapons of mass destruction" and "rogue state" were hurled like precision weapons at the target audience: us.
To understand the Iraq war you don't need to consult generals, but the spin doctors and PR flacks who stage-managed the countdown to war from the murky corridors of Washington where politics, corporate spin and psy-ops spooks cohabit.
Consider the picaresque journey of Tony Blair's plagiarized dossier on Iraq, from a grad student's website to a cut-and-paste job in the prime minister's bombastic speech to the House of Commons. Blair, stubborn and verbose, paid a price for his grandiose puffery. Bush, who looted whole passages from Blair's speech for his own clumsy presentations, has skated freely through the tempest. Why?
Unlike Blair, the Bush team never wanted to present a legal case for war. They had no interest in making any of their allegations about Iraq hold up to a standard of proof. The real effort was aimed at amping up the mood for war by using the psychology of fear.
Facts were never important to the Bush team. They were disposable nuggets that could be discarded at will and replaced by whatever new rationale that played favorably with their polls and focus groups. The war was about weapons of mass destruction one week, al-Qaeda the next. When neither allegation could be substantiated on the ground, the fall back position became the mass graves (many from the Iran/Iraq war where the U.S.A. backed Iraq) proving that Saddam was an evil thug who deserved to be toppled. The motto of the Bush PR machine was: Move on. Don't explain. Say anything to conceal the perfidy behind the real motives for war. Never look back. Accuse the questioners of harboring unpatriotic sensibilities. Eventually, even the cagey Wolfowitz admitted that the official case for war was made mainly to make the invasion palatable, not to justify it.
The Bush claque of neocon hawks viewed the Iraq war as a product and, just like a new pair of Nikes, it required a roll-out campaign to soften up the consumers. The same techniques (and often the same PR gurus) that have been used to hawk cigarettes, SUVs and nuclear waste dumps were deployed to retail the Iraq war. To peddle the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell and company recruited public relations gurus into top-level jobs at the Pentagon and the State Department. These spinmeisters soon had more say over how the rationale for war on Iraq should be presented than intelligence agencies and career diplomats. If the intelligence didn't fit the script, it was shaded, retooled or junked.
Take Charlotte Beers whom Powell picked as undersecretary of state in the post-9/11 world. Beers wasn't a diplomat. She wasn't even a politician. She was a grand diva of spin, known on the business and gossip pages as "the queen of Madison Avenue." On the strength of two advertising campaigns, one for Uncle Ben's Rice and another for Head and Shoulder's dandruff shampoo, Beers rocketed to the top of the heap in the PR world, heading two giant PR houses: Ogilvy and Mathers as well as J. Walter Thompson.
At the State Department Beers, who had met Powell in 1995 when they both served on the board of Gulf Airstream, worked at, in Powell's words, "the branding of U.S. foreign policy." She extracted more than $500 million from Congress for her Brand America campaign, which largely focused on beaming U.S. propaganda into the Muslim world, much of it directed at teens.
"Public diplomacy is a vital new arm in what will combat terrorism over time," said Beers. "All of a sudden we are in this position of redefining who America is, not only for ourselves, but for the outside world." Note the rapt attention Beers pays to the manipulation of perception, as opposed, say, to alterations of U.S. policy.
Old-fashioned diplomacy involves direct communication between representatives of nations, a conversational give and take, often fraught with deception (see April Glaspie), but an exchange nonetheless. Public diplomacy, as defined by Beers, is something else entirely. It's a one-way street, a unilateral broadcast of American propaganda directly to the public, domestic and international, a kind of informational carpet-bombing.
The themes of her campaigns were as simplistic and flimsy as a Bush press conference. The American incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq were all about bringing the balm of "freedom" to oppressed peoples. Hence, the title of the U.S. war: Operation Iraqi Freedom, where cruise missiles were depicted as instruments of liberation. Bush himself distilled the Beers equation to its bizarre essence: "This war is about peace."
Beers quietly resigned her post a few weeks before the first volley of tomahawk missiles battered Baghdad. From her point of view, the war itself was already won, the fireworks of shock and awe were all after play.
Over at the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld drafted Victoria "Torie" Clarke as his director of public affairs. Clarke knew the ropes inside the Beltway. Before becoming Rumsfeld's mouthpiece, she had commanded one of the world's great parlors for powerbrokers: Hill and Knowlton's D.C. office.
Almost immediately upon taking up her new gig, Clarke convened regular meetings with a select group of Washington's top private PR specialists and lobbyists to develop a marketing plan for the Pentagon's forthcoming terror wars. The group was filled with heavy-hitters and was strikingly bipartisan in composition. She called it the Rumsfeld Group and it included PR executive Sheila Tate, columnist Rich Lowry, and Republican political consultant Rich Galen.
The brain trust also boasted top Democratic fixer Tommy Boggs, brother of NPR's Cokie Roberts and son of the late Congressman Hale Boggs of Louisiana. At the very time Boggs was conferring with top Pentagon brass on how to frame the war on terror, he was also working feverishly for the royal family of Saudi Arabia. In 2002 alone, the Saudis paid his Qorvis PR firm $20.2 million to protect its interests in Washington. In the wake of hostile press coverage following the exposure of Saudi links to the 9/11 hijackers, the royal family needed all the well-placed help it could buy. They seem to have gotten their money's worth. Boggs' felicitous influence-peddling may help to explain why the references to Saudi funding of al-Qaeda were dropped from the recent congressional report on the investigation into intelligence failures and 9/11.
According to the trade publication PR Week, the Rumsfeld Group sent "messaging advice" to the Pentagon. The group told Clarke and Rumsfeld that in order to get the American public to buy into the war on terrorism, they needed to suggest a link to nation states, not just nebulous groups such as al-Qaeda. In other words, there needed to be a fixed target for the military campaigns, some distant place to drop cruise missiles and cluster bombs. They suggested the notion (already embedded in Rumsfeld's mind) of playing up the notion of so-called rogue states as the real masters of terrorism. Thus was born the Axis of Evil, which, of course, wasn't an "axis" at all, since two of the states, Iran and Iraq, hated each other, and neither had anything at all to do with the third, North Korea.
Tens of millions in federal money were poured into private public relations and media firms working to craft and broadcast the Bush dictat that Saddam had to be taken out before the Iraqi dictator blew up the world by dropping chemical and nuclear bombs from long-range drones. Many of these PR executives and image consultants were old friends of the high priests in the Bush inner sanctum. Indeed, they were veterans, like Cheney and Powell, of the previous war against Iraq, another engagement that was more spin than combat .
At the top of the list was John Rendon, head of the D.C. firm, the Rendon Group. Rendon is one of Washington's heaviest hitters, a Beltway fixer who never let political affiliation stand in the way of an assignment. Rendon served as a media consultant for Michael Dukakis and Jimmy Carter, as well as Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Whenever the Pentagon wanted to go to war, he offered his services at a price. During Desert Storm, Rendon pulled in $100,000 a month from the Kuwaiti royal family. He followed this up with a $23 million contract from the CIA to produce anti-Saddam propaganda in the region.
As part of this CIA project, Rendon created and named the Iraqi National Congress and tapped his friend Ahmed Chalabi, the shady financier, to head the organization.
Shortly after 9/11, the Pentagon handed the Rendon Group another big assignment: public relations for the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Rendon was also deeply involved in the planning and public relations for the pre-emptive war on Iraq, though both Rendon and the Pentagon refuse to disclose the details of the group's work there.
But it's not hard to detect the manipulative hand of Rendon behind many of the Iraq war's signature events, including the toppling of the Saddam statue (by U.S. troops and Chalabi associates) and videotape of jubilant Iraqis waving American flags as the Third Infantry rolled by them. Rendon had pulled off the same stunt in the first Gulf War, handing out American flags to Kuwaitis and herding the media to the orchestrated demonstration. "Where do you think they got those American flags?" clucked Rendon in 1991. "That was my assignment."
The Rendon Group may also have had played a role in pushing the phony intelligence that has now come back to haunt the Bush administration. In December of 2002, Robert Dreyfuss reported that the inner circle of the Bush White House preferred the intelligence coming from Chalabi and his associates to that being proffered by analysts at the CIA.
So Rendon and his circle represented a new kind of off-the-shelf PSYOPs , the privatization of official propaganda. "I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician," said Rendon. "I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager."
What exactly, is perception management? The Pentagon defines it this way: "actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives and objective reasoning." In other words, lying about the intentions of the U.S. government. In a rare display of public frankness, the Pentagon actually let slip its plan (developed by Rendon) to establish a high-level den inside the Department Defense for perception management. They called it the Office of Strategic Influence and among its many missions was to plant false stories in the press.
Nothing stirs the corporate media into outbursts of pious outrage like an official government memo bragging about how the media are manipulated for political objectives. So the New York Times and Washington Post threw indignant fits about the Office of Strategic Influence; the Pentagon shut down the operation, and the press gloated with satisfaction on its victory. Yet, Rumsfeld told the Pentagon press corps that while he was killing the office, the same devious work would continue. "You can have the corpse," said Rumsfeld. "You can have the name. But I'm going to keep doing every single thing that needs to be done. And I have."
At a diplomatic level, despite the hired guns and the planted stories, this image war was lost. It failed to convince even America's most fervent allies and dependent client states that Iraq posed much of a threat. It failed to win the blessing of the U.N. and even NATO, a wholly owned subsidiary of Washington. At the end of the day, the vaunted coalition of the willing consisted of Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia, and a cohort of former Soviet bloc nations. Even so, the citizens of the nations that cast their lot with the U.S.A. overwhelmingly opposed the war.
Domestically, it was a different story. A population traumatized by terror threats and shattered economy became easy prey for the saturation bombing of the Bush message that Iraq was a terrorist state linked to al-Qaeda that was only minutes away from launching attacks on America with weapons of mass destruction.
Americans were the victims of an elaborate con job, pelted with a daily barrage of threat inflation, distortions, deceptions and lies, not about tactics or strategy or war plans, but about justifications for war. The lies were aimed not at confusing Saddam's regime, but the American people. By the start of the war, 66 per cent of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 and 79 per cent thought he was close to having a nuclear weapon.
Of course, the closest Saddam came to possessing a nuke was a rusting gas centrifuge buried for 13 years in the garden of Mahdi Obeidi, a retired Iraqi scientist. Iraq didn't have any functional chemical or biological weapons. In fact, it didn't even possess any SCUD missiles, despite erroneous reports fed by Pentagon PR flacks alleging that it had fired SCUDs into Kuwait.
This charade wouldn't have worked without a gullible or a complicit press corps. Victoria Clarke, who developed the Pentagon plan for embedded reports, put it succinctly a few weeks before the war began: "Media coverage of any future operation will to a large extent shape public perception."
During the Vietnam War, TV images of maimed GIs and napalmed villages suburbanized opposition to the war and helped hasten the U.S. withdrawal. The Bush gang meant to turn the Vietnam phenomenon on its head by using TV as a force to propel the U.S.A. into a war that no one really wanted.
What the Pentagon sought was a new kind of living room war, where instead of photos of mangled soldiers and dead Iraqi kids, they could control the images Americans viewed and to a large extent the content of the stories. By embedding reporters inside selected divisions, Clarke believed the Pentagon could count on the reporters to build relationships with the troops and to feel dependent on them for their own safety. It worked, naturally. One reporter for a national network trembled on camera that the U.S. Army functioned as "our protectors." The late David Bloom of NBC confessed on the air that he was willing to do "anything and everything they can ask of us."
When the Pentagon needed a heroic story, the press obliged. Jessica Lynch became the war's first instant celebrity. Here was a neo-gothic tale of a steely young woman wounded in a fierce battle, captured and tortured by ruthless enemies, and dramatically saved from certain death by a team of selfless rescuers, knights in camo and night-vision goggles. Of course, nearly every detail of her heroic adventure proved to be as fictive and maudlin as any made-for-TV-movie. But the ordeal of Private Lynch, which dominated the news for more than a week, served its purpose: to distract attention from a stalled campaign that was beginning to look at lot riskier than the American public had been hoodwinked into believing.
The Lynch story was fed to the eager press by a Pentagon operation called Combat Camera, the Army network of photographers, videographers and editors that sends 800 photos and 25 video clips a day to the media. The editors at Combat Camera carefully culled the footage to present the Pentagon's montage of the war, eliding such unsettling images as collateral damage, cluster bombs, dead children and U.S. soldiers, napalm strikes and disgruntled troops.
"A lot of our imagery will have a big impact on world opinion," predicted Lt. Jane Larogue, director of Combat Camera in Iraq. She was right. But as the hot war turned into an even hotter occupation, the Pentagon, despite airy rhetoric from occupation supremo Paul Bremer about installing democratic institutions such as a free press, moved to tighten its monopoly on the flow images out of Iraq. First, it tried to shut down Al Jazeera, the Arab news channel. Then the Pentagon intimated that it would like to see all foreign TV news crews banished from Baghdad.
Few newspapers fanned the hysteria about the threat posed by Saddam's weapons of mass destruction as sedulously as did the Washington Post. In the months leading up to the war, the Post's pro-war op-eds outnumbered the anti-war columns by a 3-to-1 margin.
Back in 1988, the Post felt much differently about Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction. When reports trickled out about the gassing of Iranian troops, the Washington Post's editorial page shrugged off the massacres, calling the mass poisonings "a quirk of war."
The Bush team displayed a similar amnesia. When Iraq used chemical weapons in grisly attacks on Iran, the U.S. government not only didn't object, it encouraged Saddam. Anything to punish Iran was the message coming from the White House. Donald Rumsfeld himself was sent as President Ronald Reagan's personal envoy to Baghdad. Rumsfeld conveyed the bold message than an Iraq defeat would be viewed as a "strategic setback for the United States." This sleazy alliance was sealed with a handshake caught on videotape. When CNN reporter Jamie McIntyre replayed the footage for Rumsfeld in the spring of 2003, the secretary of defense snapped, "Where'd you get that? Iraqi television?"
The current crop of Iraq hawks also saw Saddam much differently then. Take the writer Laura Mylroie, sometime colleague of the New York Times' Judy Miller, who persists in peddling the ludicrous conspiracy that Iraq was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
How times have changed! In 1987, Mylroie felt downright cuddly toward Saddam. She wrote an article for the New Republic titled "Back Iraq: Time for a U.S. Tilt in the Mideast," arguing that the U.S. should publicly embrace Saddam's secular regime as a bulwark against the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran. The co-author of this mesmerizing weave of wonkery was none other than Daniel Pipes, perhaps the nation's most bellicose Islamophobe. "The American weapons that Iraq could make good use of include remotely scatterable and anti-personnel mines and counterartillery radar," wrote Mylroie and Pipes. "The United States might also consider upgrading intelligence it is supplying Baghdad."
In the rollout for the war, Mylroie seemed to be everywhere hawking the invasion of Iraq. She would often appear on two or three different networks in the same day. How did the reporter manage this feat? She had help in the form of Eleana Benador, the media placement guru who runs Benador Associates. Born in Peru, Benador parlayed her skills as a linguist into a lucrative career as media relations whiz for the Washington foreign policy elite. She also oversees the Middle East Forum, a fanatically pro-Zionist white paper mill. Her clients include some of the nation's most fervid hawks, including Michael Ledeen, Charles Krauthammer, Al Haig, Max Boot, Daniel Pipes, Richard Perle, and Judy Miller. During the Iraq war, Benador's assignment was to embed this squadron of pro-war zealots into the national media, on talk shows, and op-ed pages.
Benador not only got them the gigs, she also crafted the theme and made sure they all stayed on message. "There are some things, you just have to state them in a different way, in a slightly different way," said Benador. "If not, people get scared." Scared of intentions of their own government.
It could have been different. All of the holes in the Bush administration's gossamer case for war were right there for the mainstream press to expose. Instead, the U.S. press, just like the oil companies, sought to commercialize the Iraq war and profit from the invasions. They didn't want to deal with uncomfortable facts or present voices of dissent.
Nothing sums up this unctuous approach more brazenly than MSNBC's firing of liberal talk show host Phil Donahue on the eve of the war. The network replaced the Donahue Show with a running segment called Countdown: Iraq, featuring the usual nightly coterie of retired generals, security flacks, and other cheerleaders for invasion. The network's executives blamed the cancellation on sagging ratings. In fact, during its run Donahue's show attracted more viewers than any other program on the network. The real reason for the pre-emptive strike on Donahue was spelled out in an internal memo from anxious executives at NBC. Donahue, the memo said, offered "a difficult face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's motives."
The memo warned that Donahue's show risked tarring MSNBC as an unpatriotic network, "a home for liberal anti-war agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity." So, with scarcely a second thought, the honchos at MSNBC gave Donahue the boot and hoisted the battle flag.
It's war that sells.
There's a helluva caveat, of course. Once you buy it, the merchants of war accept no returns.
This essay is adapted from Grand Theft Pentagon.
Feb 03, 2020 | www.amazon.com
The men and women walking the hushed corridors of the Executive Office Building do not look like warriors. Most are middle-aged professionals with penchants for dark business suits and prestigious graduate degrees, who have spent their lives serving their country in windowless offices, on far-off battle-fields, or at embassies abroad. Before arriving at the NSC, many joined the military or the nation's diplomatic corps, some dedicated themselves to teaching and writing about national security, and others spent their days working for the types of politicians who become presidents. By the time they joined the staff, each had shown the pluck -- and the good fortune -- required to end up staffing a president.
When each NSC staffer first walks up the steps to the Executive Office Building, he or she joins an institution like no other in government. Compared to the Pentagon and other bureaucracies, the staff is small, hierarchically flat with only a few titles like directors and senior directors reporting to the national security advisor and his or her deputies. Compared to all those at the agencies, even most cabinet secretaries, the staff are also given unparalleled access to the president and the discussions about the biggest decisions in national security.
Yet despite their access, the NSC staff was created as a political, legal, and bureaucratic afterthought. The National Security Council was established both
to better coordinate foreign policy after World War II and as part of a deal to create what became known as the Defense Department. Since the army and navy only agreed to be unified under a single department and a civilian cabinet secretary if each still had a seat at the table where decisions about war were expected to be made, establishing the National Security Council was critical to ensuring passage of the National Security Act of 1947. The law, as well as its amendments two years later, unified the armed forces while also establishing the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as the CIA.
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Fans of television's the West Wing would be forgiven for expecting that once in the Oval Office, all a staffer needs to do to change policy is to deliver a well-timed whisper in the president's car or a rousing speech in his company. It is not that such dramatic moments never occur, but real change in government requires not just speaking up but the grinding policy work required to have something new to say.
A staffer, alone or with NSC and agency colleagues, must develop an idea until feasible and defend it from opposition driven by personal pique, bureaucratic jealousy, or substantive disagreement, and often all three.
Granted none of these fights are over particularly new ideas, as few proposals in war are truly novel. If anything, the staffs history is a reminder of how little new there is under the guise of national security. Alter all, escalations, ultimatums, and counterinsurgency are only innovative in the context of the latest conflicts. The NSC staff is usually proposing old ideas, some as old as war itself like a surge of troops, to new circumstances and a critical moment.
Yet even an old idea can have real power in the right hands at the right time, so it is worth considering how much more influence the NSC brings to its fights today.
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A larger staff can do even more thanks to technology. With the establishment of the Situation Room in 1961 and its subsequent upgrades, as well as the widespread adoption of email in the 1980s, the classified email system during the 2000s, and desktop video teleconferencing systems in the 2010s, White House technology upgrades have been justified because the president deserves the latest and the fastest. These same advances give each member of the staff global reach, including to war zones half a world away, from the safety of the Executive Office Building.
The NSC has also grown more powerful along with the presidency it serves. The White House, even in the hands of an inexperienced and disorganized president like Trump, drives the government's agenda, the news media's coverage, and the American public's attention. The NSC staff can, if skilled enough, leverage the office's influence for their own ideas and purposes. Presidents have also explicitly empowered the staff in big ways -- like putting them in the middle of the policymaking process -- and small -- like granting them ranks that put them on the same level as other agency officials.
Recent staffers have also had the president's ear nearly every day, and sometimes more often, while secretaries of state and defense rarely have that much face time in the Oval Office. Each has a department with tens of thousands (and in the Pentagon's case millions) of employees to manage. Most significantly, both also answer not just to the president but to Congress, which has oversight authority for their departments and an expectation for regular updates. There are few more consequential power differences between the NSC and the departments than to whom each must answer.
Even more, the NSC staff get to work and fight in anonymity. Members of Congress, journalists, and historians are usually too busy keeping track of the National Security Council principals to focus on the guys and gals behind the national security advisors, who are themselves behind the president. Few in Washington, and fewer still across the country, know the names of the staff advising the president let alone what they arc saying in their memos and moments with him.
Today, there arc too many unnamed NSC staffers for anyone's good, including their own. Even with the recent congressional limit on policy staffers, the NSC is too big to be thoroughly managed or effective. National security advisors and their deputies are so busy during their days that it is hard to keep up with all their own emails, calls, and reading, let alone ensure each member of the staff is doing their own work or doing it well. The common law and a de tacto honor system has also struggled to keep staff in check as they try to handle every issue from war to women's rights and every to-do list item from drafting talking points to doing secret diplomacy.
Although many factors contribute to the NSC's success, history suggests they do best with the right-size job. The answer to better national security policy and process is not a bigger staff but smaller writs. The NSC should focus on fewer issues, and then only on the smaller stuff, like what the president needs for calls and meetings, and the big, what some call grand strategic, questions about the nation's interests, ambitions, and capacities that should be asked and answered before any major decision.
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Along the way, the staff has taken on greater responsibilities from agencies like the departments of state and defense as each has grown more bureaucratic and sclerotic. Starting in the 1960s, the NSC dethroned the State Department in providing analysis, intelligence, and even some diplomacy to the diplomat in chief. In the years after September 11th, the staff also began to take greater responsibility, especially for planning, from the military and the rest of the Pentagon. Both departments have struggled and often failed to reclaim lost ground and influence in Washington.
As a result, today the NSC has, regretfully, become the strategic engine of the government's national security policymaking. The staff, along with the national security advisor, determine which issues -- large and small -- require attention, develop the plans for most of them, and try to manage day-to-day the implementation of each strategy. That is too sweeping a remit for a couple hundred unaccountable staffers sitting at the Executive Office Building thousands of miles from war zones and foreign capitals. Such immense responsibility also docs not make the best use of talent in government, leaving the military and the nation's diplomats fighting with the White House over policies while trying to execute plans they have less and less ownership over.
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Although protocol still requires members of the NSC to sit on the backbench in National Security Council meetings, the staff s voice and advice can carry as much weight as those of the principals sitting at the table, just as the staff has taken on more of each department's responsibilities, the NSC arc expected to be advisors to the president, even on military strategy. With that charge, the staff has taken to spending more time and effort developing their own policy ideas -- and fighting for them.
Yet war is a hard thing to try to manage from the Executive Office Building. Thousands of miles from the frontlines and far from harm, the NSC make recommendations based on what they come to know from intelligence reports, news sources, phone calls, video-teleconferences, and visits to the front. Even with advice based only on this limited and limiting view, the NSC staff has transformed how the United States fights its wars.
The American way of war, developed over decades of thinking and fighting, informs how and why the nation goes to battle. Over the course of American history and, most relevantly, since the end of World War II, the US military and other national security professionals have developed, often through great turmoil, strategic preferences and habits, like deploying the latest technology possible instead of the largest number of troops. Despite the tremendous planning that goes into these most serious of undertakings, each new conflict tests the prevailing way of war and often finds it wanting.
Even knowing how dangerous it is to relight the last war, it is still not easy to find the right course for a new one. Government in general and national security specifically are risk-averse enterprises where it is often simpler to rely on standard operating procedures and stay on a chosen course, regardless of whether progress is slow and the sense of drift is severe. Even then, many in the military, who often react to even the mildest of suggestions and inquiries as unnecessary or even dangerous micromanagement, defend the prevailing approach with its defining doctrine and syndrome.
As Machiavelli recommended long ago, there is a need for hard questions in government and war in particular. He wrote that a leader "ought to be a great askcr, and a patient hearer of the truth." 7 From the Executive Office Building, the NSC staff, who are more distanced from the action as well as the fog of war, have tried to fill this role for a busy and often distracted president. They are, however, not nearly as patient as Machiavelli recommended: they have proven more willing, indeed too willing at times, to ask about what is working and what is not.
Warfighters are not alone in being frustrated by questions: everyone from architects to zookeepers believes they know how best to do their job and that with a bit more time, they will get it right. Without any of the responsibility for the doing, the NSC staff not only asks hard questions but, by avoiding implementation bias, is willing to admit, often long before those in the field, that the current plan is failing. A more technologically advanced NSC, with the ability to reach deep into the chain of command and war zones for updates, has also given the staff the intelligence to back up its impatience.
Most times in history, the NSC staff has correctly predicted that time is running against a chosen strategy. Halperin. and others on the Nixon NSC, were accurate in their assessments of Vietnam. Dur and his Reagan NSC colleagues were right to worry that diplomacy was moving too slowly in Lebanon. Haass and Vershbow were correct when they were concerned with how windows of opportunity for action were shrinking in the Gulf and Balkans respectively, just as O'Sullivan was right that things needed to change relatively soon in Iraq.
Yet an impatient NSC staff has a worse track record giving the president answers to what should come next. The NSC staff naturally have opinions and ideas about what can be done when events and war feel out of control, but ideas about what can be done when events and war feel out of control, but the very distance and disengagement that allow' the NSC to be so effective at measuring progress make its ideas less grounded in operational realities and more clouded by the fog of Washington. The NSC, often stridently, wants to do something more, to "go big when wc can," as one recent staffer encouraged his president, to fix a failing policy or win a w r ar, but that is not a strategy, nor does that ambition make the staff the best equipped to figure out the next steps."
With their proposals for a new plan, deployment, or initiative, the staff has made more bad recommendations than good. The Diem coup and the Beirut mission are two examples, and particularly tragic ones at that, of NSC staff recommendations gone awry. The Iraq surge was certainly a courageous decision, but by committing so many troops to that country, the manpower w r as not available for a war in Afghanistan that was falling off track. Even the more successful NSC recommendations for changes in US strategy in the Gulf War and in Bosnia did not end up exactly as planned, in part because even good ideas in war rarely do.
Although presidents bear the ultimate responsibilities for these decisions, the NSC staff played an essential, and increasing, role in the thinking behind each bold move. In conflict after conflict, a more powerful NSC staff has fundamentally altered the American way of war. It is now far less informed by the perspective of the military and the view from the frontlines. It is less patient for progress and more dependent on the clocks in the Executive Office Building and Washington than those in theater. It is far more combative, less able to accept defeat, and more willing to risk a change of course.
And it is characterized by more frequent and counterproductive friction between the civilian and military leaders.
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Through it all, as the NSC's voice has grown louder in the nation's war rooms, the staff has transformed how Washington works, and more often does not work. The NSC's fights to change course have had another casualty: the ugly collapse of the common law' that has governed Washington policymaking for more than a generation. The result today is a government that trusts less, fights more, and decides much slower.
National security policy- and decision-making was never supposed to be a fair fight. Eliot Cohen, a civil-military scholar with high-level government experience, has called the give-and-take of the interagency process an "unequal" dialogue -- one in which presidents are entitled to not just make the ultimate decision but also to ask questions, often with the NSC's help, at any time and about any topic.* Everyone else, from the secretaries of state and defense in Washington dow r n to the commanders and ambassadors abroad, has to expect and tolerate such presidential interventions and then carry out his orders.
Even an unfair fight can have rules, however. The NSC common law's kept the peace in Washington for years after Iran-Contra. The restrictions against outright advocacy and outsized operational responsibilities were accepted by those at the White House as well as in the agencies during Republican and Democratic administrations. Yet as many in Washington believed the world grew more interconnected and the national security stakes increased, especially after September 11th, a more powerful NSC has given staffers the opportunity to bend, and occasionally break, the common laws, as they have been expected to and allowed to take on more responsibilities for developing strategies and new r ideas from those in the bureaucracy and military.
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...Meanwhile, others, including the anonymous author of the infamous September 2018 New York Times opinion piece, believe government officials who comprise a "steady state" amid Trump's chaotic presidency are "unsung heroes" resisting his worst instincts and overreaches. 13 Thus, it is no surprise that more and more Americans are concerned: a 2018 poll found that 74 percent of Americans feel a group of officials arc able to control government policy without accountability.
In an era when Americans can see on reality television how their fish are caught, meals arc cooked, and businesses are financed, it is strange that few have ever heard the voice of an NSC staffer. The Executive Office Building is not the only building out of reach: most of the government taxpayers' fund is hard, and getting harder, to see. With bigger security blockades, longer waits on declassification, and more severe crackdowns on leaks, it is no wonder some Americans have taken to assuming the worst of their public servants.
The American people need to know the NSC's war stories if for no other reason than each makes clear that there is no organized deep state in Washington. If one existed, there would be little need for the NSC to fight so hard to coordinate the government's various players and parts. However, this history also makes plain that though the United States can overcome bad decisions and survive military disasters, a belief in a deep state is a threat to the NSC and so much more.
... ... ...
Each member of the NSC staff needs to remember that their growing, unaccountable power has helped give evidence to the worries about a deep state. Although no one in Washington gives up influence voluntarily, the staff, even its warriors, need to remember it is not just what they fight for but whether a fight is necessary at all. Shortcuts and squabbles may make sense when every second feels like it counts, but the best public servants do what is necessary for the president even as they protect, for years to come, the health of the institutions and the very democracy in which they serve. As hard as that can be to remember when the clock in the Oval Office is ticking, doing things the right way is even more important than the latest crises, war, or meeting with the president.
... ... ...
... Too many in Washington, including at the Executive Office Building, have forgotten that public service is a privilege that bestows on them great responsibility. Although the NSC has long justified its actions in the name of national security, the means with which its members have pursued that objective have made for a more aggressive American way of war, a more fractious Washington, and more conspiracies about government.
Centuries ago, Plato argued that civilians must hope for warriors who could be trusted to be both "gentle to their own and cruel to their enemies." At a time when many doubt government and those who serve in it, the NSC staff s history demonstrates just what White House warriors arc capable of. The question is for what and for whom they will fight in the years and wars ahead.
... ... ...
The legendary British double agent Kim Philby wrote: "just because a document is a document it has a glamour which tempts the reader to give it more weight than it deserves An hour of a serious discussion with a trustworthy informant is often more valuable than any number of original documents. Of course, it is best to have both."
Alexandra Jones , September 15, 2019The Untold History of the NSC
A must-read for anyone interested in history or foreign policy. Gans pulls back the curtain on arguably the most powerful yet opaque body in foreign policy decision-making, the National Security Council. Each chapter recounts a different administration -- as told through the work of an NSC staffer. Through these beautifully-written portraits of largely unknown staffers, Gans reveals the chilling, outsized influence of this small, unelected institution on American war and peace. From this perspective, even the policy success stories seem more luck than skill -- leaving readers concerned about the NSC's continued unchecked power.
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[Feb 07, 2020] How They Sold the Iraq War by Jeffrey St. Clair Published on Mar 20, 2018 | www.counterpunch.org
[Feb 03, 2020] White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War Published on Feb 03, 2020 | www.amazon.com
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