The March of Folly
Robert Manis, Ph.D The Manis Report
March 17, 2003
War will start around the first day of spring 2003. Historians will record, that despite a year of planning, the war started without all the troops in place, with allies balking, and with the world’s condemnation.
How could things have come to this pass? Two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, author Barbara Tuchman tackled the pervasive presence of folly in governments through the ages in her book The March of Folly. Defining folly as the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives, she traced folly from the Trojan war to Vietnam. An anonymous reviewer on Amazon.com writes the following:
“One of the most interesting, and currently relevant, observations from Tuchman is prompted by a remark made at the time by Governor Nelson Rockefeller: ‘We ought all to support the President. He is the man who has all the information and knowledge of what we are up against.’ That, she says, ‘is a comforting assumption ... usually invalid, especially in foreign affairs.’ When pursuing liberty, America will wave its flag and invest its heart. But the current administration would do well to follow the second part of John Quincy Adams's dictum: ‘... but [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ ... Where is Barbara Tuchman, now that we need her?”
A more specific answer to how we got here was provided by Irving Janis in his social psychology classic Groupthink. Irving Janis compared evidence regarding three fiascoes, the Bay of Pigs invasion, Pearl Harbor, and the United States' invasion into North Korea, with those with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marshall Plan. The bottom line is that the first three incidents were examples of what he called groupthink, while the last two were able to avoid this problem. Janis defined groupthink as the "deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment" in the interest of group solidarity. When small leadership groups begin to value their cohesiveness over other qualities, formal and informal attempts are made to discourage discussion of divergent views. The group exerts great pressure on individual members to conform. Opposing ideas are dismissed. Any individual or outside group that criticizes or opposes a decision receives little or no attention from the group. Group members tend to show strong favoritism toward their own ideas in the manner by which information is processed and evaluated, thus guaranteeing that their ideas will win out. “You are either with us or against us” is a classic phrase of groupthinking. Add to it the Bush circle's born-again certainty and their penchant for secrecy and the gamut is complete.
In hindsight, it is clear that the defining moment of the march to folly and war occurred last summer, after Colin Powell criticized the administration’s Iraq plans. A meeting was held in Crawford, TX and Powell was not invited. Powell apparently realized he was about to be permanently excluded, and consciously or unconsciously modified his thinking to be able to remain a player.
By October, it was apparent to many that an Iraqi war was a fait accompli.
The sad thing is that it was avoidable. If the administration had even considered a process whereby inspections could occur in order to succeed rather than simply provide an excuse for war, the outcome would have been different. Depending on Saddam’s behavior, the outcome could have been either successful disarmament or war in the fall, but this time with UN backing.
Why the administration had to have war now as opposed to later is simply unexplainable. After a winter of discontent, we will just have to write it off, I suppose, as another "March" of folly.