December 29, 2006
A decorated World War II Navy veteran, President Gerald Ford led a rich life with love of family and service to his country. His pardon of Richard Nixon was a thoughtful exercise in healing and moving on. It was controversial at the time, but allowed the country to rapidly move forward. He weighed the advantages and disadvantage of the pardon of President Nixon. Richard Nixon, for all his scandalous political behavior, was also a leader who weighed risk and benefit. In foreign policy, he moved us forward. He weighed advantage and disadvantage and risk, including risk of reaching out to China, risk of implementing "Vietnamization", which would decrease U.S. trooop involvement in Vietnam, and the risk of cutting U.S. troop levels, as he did in 1972. Before President Nixon, President Johnson's administration had great difficulty prioritizing risk, in part due to disorganization, according to his defense secretary in his retrospective analysis. But the Johnson Administration weighed relative risk and decided that thwarting the perceived great risk of Communism spread was worth the cost of the escalating Vietnam War.
In December 1967, with over 485,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and 15,979 killed in action, CIA reports indicated bombing in the North would not force North Vietnam to stop, given U.S. inability to turn back the enemy in South Vietnam.
Former Defense Secretary McNamara conceded (pg. 320-321, In Retrospect) three prior occasions where the SVN inability to defend itself, even with U.S. training and support, justified withdrawal. Instead, the administration insisted on increasing troops. Over the next five years, more than 40,000 additional U.S. troops were killed in action. In the conclusion to his 1995 "In Retrospect" McNamara speaks of the Johnson Administration's judgments: "...hindsight proves us wrong. We both overestimated the effect of South Vietnam's loss on the security of the West and failed to adhere to the fundamental principle that, in the final analysis, if the South Vietnamese were to be saved, they had to win the war themselves. Straying from this central truth, we built a progressively more massive effort on an inherently unstable foundation. External military force cannot substitute for the political order and stability that must be forged by a people for themselves."
Can the U.S. withdraw from Iraq now? Yes. Let the decision makers save face. Let's just say we won, and leave.
In the absence of a perfect world and perfect solutions, decision makers must weigh relative risk of staying or leaving.
But we have an extraordinary situation where the vice president has been publicly and repeatedly quoted as refusing to prioritize risk of terroristic attack. He maintains a huge mental barrier against assigning relative levels to risk and prioritizing by various criteria, including severity of consequences. And the President seeks advice from only those who will agree with a course of increasing, not decreasing troops. He is not a risk-assessor.
This is not a case of stubbornness any more than it is some manly resolve or honest political/military assessment. This is a psychological problem of immense proportion. It's a me-centered child's view mediators often see in negotiations involving powerful people who are accustomed to limitless resources. "Our resources are infinite and we will throw our efforts at each and every risk or problem." No limits, no priorities. Thus, a fraction of one percent risk receives the resources that a clear and present 95 or even 100 percent risk deserves. The greater risk, (in probability and in severity) was not noticed before the smaller risk. In the child's mind, the first problem deserves all attention, all resources at hand, with the hopeful child-like optimism that more resources will always be available. This is a perfect world, Pollyanna view of infinite resources. Perhaps, as children, the decision makers received everything they ever wanted with little struggle or resource allocation.
Reassessing risk is just as important. When new or rising risk is ignored, receiving a zero rating (impending hurricane, terror rise in Somalia) and the dreadful event then comes about, leaders who cannot make initial risk assessments are reluctant to reassess. Child like, they always see reassessment as acknowledging a mistake. They don't wish to admit fallibility. They find it difficult to say I was wrong, failing to understand that changed conditions warrant changed assessments, regardless of blame or mistake.
1. Get the attention of the actors who make decisions. They won't change their thinking, ingrained from childhood.
Since they won't assess relative risk of actual conditions and debate the assignment of priorities, use attention getting devices. In the current political world, the attention getting devices are polls, media and contributions. These dovetail nicely with our democracy. Political activism, responding to polls, voting and letting the media know opinions are not the fruitless endeavors so many people envision. Teach our children activism while teaching them that resources are limited. Public financing of campaigns would diminish the effect of those who buy favorable risk assessment.
2. Let them save face.
Once a decision is affected, guarantee the decision maker his ability to save face. Declare that the reassessment of risk is due to changed conditions, not mistake. If an actor doesn't wish to ever admit mistakes, don't make him. Just let him entertain the notion that conditions have changed, so the risk must be assessed. Or, allow him the declaration of condition that allows the decision change. Historians in the future can take care of the accuracy of those declarations.
So, let's just say we won and withdraw from Iraq. Declare there are no WMD. Declare that successful democratic elections were held. Declare that the deposed leader has been convicted and sentenced.
And as we leave, watch as the tensions and differences emerge between forces, kept at bay before we invaded. Use our withdrawal to bring together the potentially powerful coalition and partners who've been calling for withdrawal.
3. Teach our children and grandchildren how to assess risk.
How can every citizen push to elect leaders who are willing to assess, and reassess risk? For our children and their children, we recognize the world is forever changed by millions of people whose lives have now been affected by the U.S. invasion and presence in Iraq. And the risk must be continuously reassessed. How will we raise a crop of new leaders who understand risk assessment? Let's teach our children and grandchildren that resources are limited. The rest will follow: a generation of ethical decision makers who can make rational, risk based decisions.
Barbara Ann Radnofsky