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Doyle McManus: Lessons U.S. learned in Iraq may not endure

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Friday, March 22, 2013, at 6:25 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, March 22, 2013, at 6:26 p.m.

Ten years have passed since the United States invaded Iraq, a decision that almost everyone now ranks as one of the worst foreign policy blunders of our time. Why “almost”? Former President Bush and his top aides still maintain that the invasion was a good idea, even though the premise on which the war was based – that Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction – proved false, and even though the ensuing war claimed the lives of more than 4,500 Americans and an estimated 127,000 Iraqis.

Three big things went wrong in the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq. The first was hubris: the belief that a U.S. invasion could not only topple Saddam quickly (as it did), but also produce a swift, low-cost transition to democracy (which it didn’t). The second failing was flawed intelligence: the assumption, abetted by bad information, that because Saddam had been working on weapons of mass destruction before, he must have been doing it still. The third was misuse of intelligence: the hyping of the case against Saddam by the advocates of war.

When it comes to hubris, we’ve been cured – at least for a while. There’s nothing like a decade of grinding war to teach that invasions aren’t easy and counterinsurgency isn’t short. If anything, the Obama administration has overlearned the lesson, hesitating long and hard before backing even indirect military aid to insurgents in Syria. But no lesson lasts forever.

When it comes to intelligence, the CIA and other agencies have made earnest efforts to ensure that they don’t make the same mistakes again. For many analysts, the Iraq episode was a crushing professional failure. “You cannot make excuses for the intelligence,” John McLaughlin, the CIA’s second in command at the time, told me last week.

Since Iraq, the CIA and other agencies require that top officials personally guarantee the quality of the intelligence they deliver. They’re more explicit about the reliability (or unreliability) of their sources. And they subject major judgments to “red teams,” adversarial exercises to see if other findings are reasonable.

So can an intelligence failure happen again? “Of course it can,” McLaughlin said. “You’re dealing with incomplete information, arriving incrementally, under pressure to come to definitive conclusions … and much of the information is laced with deception. You can’t ever guarantee that there won’t be a mistake.”

The most difficult problem is the politicization of intelligence information. In the run-up to the invasion, top Bush administration officials repeatedly exaggerated the case against Saddam in a determined campaign to convince Congress and the public that war was necessary.

Even when intelligence officials went public with misgivings, it didn’t always matter. At one point, McLaughlin told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the CIA didn’t think Saddam was likely to use chemical weapons against the United States. “It made no discernible impact” on the debate, he said.

Some intelligence veterans don’t think this problem has been solved at all.

In the short run, at least, we’re not likely to blunder into another land war – in Iran or anywhere else. Intelligence judgments are likely to get more scrutiny from Congress, the media and the public. Intelligence officers will be less hesitant to blow the whistle, too.

But will those lessons be remembered 15 or 20 years from now? If history is a guide, don’t count on it.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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