Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What McNamara Learned

Anyone interested in the study of human error can benefit from reading the powerfully written obituary of Robert McNamara that appears in today’s New York Times.

McNamara was a former secretary of defense and the primary architect of the Vietnam War. President Kennedy once called him the smartest man he ever met. Yet McNamara came to consider the Vietnam War as a colossal mistake – confessing in a 1995 memoir that it was “wrong, terribly wrong.”

It’s instructive to compare McNamara’s view of the Vietnam War with George Bush’s view of the war in Iraq.

The roots of both wars share a striking similarity: an overconfidence in the precision of intelligence. In the case of Vietnam, Congress authorized war after President Johnson contended that American warships had been attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. But, as a 2005 report by National Security Agency showed, the attacked never happened. Instead, American ships had been firing at radar shadows on a dark night. At the time, however, the agency’s experts in signals intelligence told McNamara that the evidence of the attack was iron-clad.

That phrase bears an eerie similarity to a more recent expression of war-time certainty. Remember when George Bush asked then-CIA director George Tenet how confident he was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction?

“Don’t worry,” Tenet reportedly replied. “It’s a slam-dunk.”

Slam-dunk. Iron-clad. In both case men were certain, and in both cases men were wrong. What’s informative is how McNamara and Bush responded to being wrong. McNamara spent the rest of his life analyzing (and agonizing over) where and why he erred. Bush hasn’t.

McNamara’s conclusions were distilled in Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.” The greatest of those lessons, McNamara said, was to know one’s enemy. “We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes,” he said.

When McNamara did that, he explained in an oral history, he concluded that we failed to grasp the nature of the threat of communism. “What went wrong was a basic misunderstanding or misevaluation of the threat to our security represented by the North Vietnamese,” he said. “I am certain we exaggerated the threat.”

That line caught my eye because just last week, the Times ran a story saying, essentially, that we had repeated that error in Iraq. In a series of interrogations before his execution, Saddam Hussein told an F.B.I. agent that on the eve of the 2003 American invasion, Iraq was trapped between United Nations orders to demonstrate that it had disarmed and a fear that appearing too weak would invite attack from its powerful neighbor and foe, Iran.

In fact, Saddam so feared Iran that he told the F.B.I. that if United Nations sanctions against his country had been lifted, Iraq would have sought a security agreement with the United States to protect it from Iran. (Italics mine.)

“We did not appreciate how large the threat of Iran loomed in his thinking,” said Charles A. Duelfer, a veteran intelligence official who led the hunt for unconventional weapons in Iraq in 2004. He called the United States’ understanding of Iraq in 2003 “cartoonish.”

The interviews, noted the article, “underscore once again both Mr. Hussein’s striking miscalculation of the risks he faced and the United States’ mistaken estimate of the threat Iraq really posed.”

In his oral history at Berkeley, McNamara predicted as much. “We didn’t understand the Chinese; we didn’t understand the Vietnamese, particularly the North Vietnamese. So the first lesson is to know you opponents.

“I want to suggest to you that we don’t know our potential opponents today.”

One man learned from history; the other has not.

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