Written by: Chris Petkus - Vidette blogger & ISU graduate student

As of March 20, exactly 10 years had passed since the U.S. had decided to invade Iraq with the stated purpose of ousting the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, particularly due to their possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Due to the often rogue nature of the regime, the heads of government in the U.S. and U.K. claimed it was justifiable and necessary to oust it in the interests of national security. Less than a month after invasion, the Baathist regime was toppled and President Bush stood on board and aircraft carrier in a now-infamous photo-op in which a banner reading “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” hanged draped above his head. The irony here of course stems from the fact that what happened in actuality was that the war had drawn on for eight-and-a-half more years, with a nearly 4500 American lives lost, along with a total death toll among coalition forces death toll of around 4800 and an Iraqi security force death toll of just over 16,600, yielding a total non-civilian death toll of over 24,000. On top of this, we saw well over 100,000 service members from all allied parties wounded and aggregate death toll of up to 189,000. [1] Financially, the war placed the U.S. some $4 trillion in debt that it presumably would not otherwise have to contend with. [2] All of this occurred despite the lack of evidence that the stated rationale – the presence of WMD – was even valid in the first place. It occurred despite the fact that we would be dealing with a country that has a history of sectarian strife, likely due to the fact that various factions were effectively pushed into the country when its borders were drawn by European colonialists.

To be sure, other facts of the matter are that Iraq is now a democracy and has been rid of an extremely brutal despot (although corruption is among the highest in the world – reference http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2012/results/ ). These facts would not have been possible, or at the very least it would not have happened nearly as quickly, without the aid of the thousands of men and women in uniform who sacrificed for it. The main lesson that I find to be most important in all of this, however, harkens back to the failed rationale behind the initial invasion. Why was it so apparently easy for us to carry the invasion out in the face of countervailing facts?

In a nutshell, the answer is groupthink. Groupthink is a phenomenon in which minority opinions are effectively silenced by insularity and condescension, giving way to a feedback loop of atmospheric intimidation that discourages minority voices from speaking out in the first place. In a comprehensive, straightforward model presented here by GWU Ph.D. candidate Alison McQueen (http://www.iar-gwu.org/files/2005/FW05_Groupthink.pdf - see p. 56), we can see that cohesiveness or “chumminess” within a decisionmaking body coupled with high stress are often the antecedents to decisions that are the product of groupthink. This leads to a heightened tendency to seek out agreement and confirmation, which in turn increases the probability that decisionmakers will feel invulnerable, entitled, and will self-censor when perceived minority opinions surface. As a result, there is a much higher likelihood that the decisionmaking body will pass on re-evaluating their preferred choices or the methods employed to get there, as well as selective information processing and failing to develop contingency plans. After all is said and done, we would probably have to count ourselves lucky if a remotely favorable outcome were produced. In applying the model in question, McQueen noted that at best, there was an incomplete search for alternatives to war, despite insistence to the contrary by Bush administration officials. This could well be demonstrated by the fact that officials sometimes preferred to rely on conservative opinion pieces from notable columnists such as George Will or William Safire over actual intelligence analysis. As we might conclude, the high pressure placed on decisionmakers likely led to concurrence-seeking, rushed outcomes, and silenced dissent. There was one notable dissenting voice throughout the process – Colin Powell – who pressed the administration to place war on the back burner and instead persuade the U.N. Security Council to enact a resolution to comb Iraq for WMD. However, Powell ultimately failed due mainly to the lack of room for debate with regards to the threats allegedly presented by Iraq’s possession of WMD. More broadly speaking, both the administration and the media consensus at the time saw the case for invading Iraq as grounded in a fundamentally sound moral framework. As such, it would therefore be immoral to so much as question such a decision, hence the continued cycle of self-censorship.

As McQueen herself states in the conclusion of her article, there likely ought to be policy introduced so as to help curb the antecedents and effects of groupthink-like situations. Indeed, the lead-up to the war in Iraq is not the only incident in which this proved to be an issue – the issues that resulted in the oversight of what caused the Challenger to explode likely stemmed from similar issues, as did some of the worst decisions made during the war in Vietnam and the decisions that led to the downfall of Enron. Although policy tools could at least conceivably be useful, there are much broader forces at play, i.e. the media and the powers of opinion leaders, among other issues. As such, regardless of what policy might be drafted to combat more disastrous situations such as a disastrous and costly invasion based on false pretenses in the future, it will be partly up to us amongst the general populace to hold leaders accountable. Even more broadly, if there is any one lesson to take from reflecting on the war in Iraq, it is that we must do all we can to avoid repeating history.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_war

[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/14/us-iraq-war-anniversary-idUSBRE92D0PG20130314

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