WASHINGTON - In a 1972 book, 'Victims of Groupthink: A
Psychology Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes', Irving Janis
identified the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba as
particularly compelling examples of how very smart people can collectively
make very stupid decisions.
In studying the Bay of Pigs, for example, Janis noted that the group around
President John Kennedy made a series of assumptions -- that Cubans would
welcome the invasion and rise up against Fidel Castro and that the U.S.
could credibly deny involvement in the invasion, if necessary -- that were
As in Iraq, many of those assumptions were based largely on the accounts of
exiles and defectors, but the group dynamics involved in decision-making
also played a key role in rallying the administration of the ''best and the
brightest'' behind an adventure that proved disastrous, according to Janis.
A great deal more is known about group dynamics within the Bush
administration foreign-policy apparatus today -- as a result of leaks,
memoirs, and books, such as Bob Woodward's 'Plan of Attack' and Jim Mann's
'Rise of the Vulcans' -- than was known at the time about the Kennedy
And what is known suggests the existence of two major groups -- an
''in-group'' of hawks whose captain is Vice President Dick Cheney and which
has had a decisive influence on Bush himself, and an ''out-group'' of
''realists'' headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy,
While the out-group, which ironically boasts men, including Powell,
Armitage, ret. Gens. Anthony Zinni and Brent Scowcroft, with real war
experience, the in-group is dominated by individuals, particularly Cheney
and virtually the entire civilian leadership of the Pentagon, who have none
Hence the moniker ''chickenhawks'', defined as individuals who favor
military solutions to political problems but who themselves avoided military
service during wartime. Cheney, who received five different deferments from
the military draft during the Vietnam War, famously told an interviewer once
that he ”had other priorities'' in the 1960s than military service.
What also makes the in-group so remarkable is its very small size, the long
history it has shared together, and its close personal relationships.
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney, for example, worked together
under Richard Nixon and have been the very best of friends ever since. Their
neo-conservative aides and advisers, such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz, former Defense Policy Board (DPB) chairman Richard Perle, and DPB
member Kenneth Adelman, likewise have been close for more than three decades
and have personally mentored other top aides and advisers, such as Cheney's
chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, Defense Undersecretaries for Policy and
Intelligence, Douglas Feith and Stephen Cambone, respectively, and Weekly
Standard editor William Kristol, to name just a few.
The sense of kinship that unites the group is illustrated in part by a
dinner hosted by Cheney shortly after U.S. troops took Baghdad 13 months
ago. The guests included Wolfowitz, Libby, and Adelman; the atmosphere, warm
and celebratory as they recounted their defeat of the ''realists. ''Someone
mentioned Powell, and there were chuckles around the table'', Woodward
noted. And then ''They turned to Rumsfeld, the missing brother'', and told
affectionate stories about their past associations with the crusty Pentagon
When Adelman said he had been surprised U.S. troops had not yet found
weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he was assured by Wolfowitz, ''We'll find
them'', and by Cheney, ''It's only been four days really. We'll find them''.
Students of Groupthink list a number of symptoms of the phenomenon that can
lead the group into disaster, among them:
- believing in the group's inherent morality;
- sharing stereotypes, particularly of the enemy;
- examining few alternative or contingency plans for any action;
- being highly selective in gathering information;
- avoiding expert opinion;
- protecting the group from negative views or information that would
contradict their basic assumptions;
- having an illusion of invulnerability.
From what is now known about planning for Iraq, each of these factors
obviously played a role, and they continue to inform U.S. policy not only
against perceived enemies, but even against out-groups in the administration
or in Congress. And, because the in-group was so small, many of these
characteristics were unusually pronounced.
The notion that the chickenhawks were morally superior, not just to Saddam
Hussein or the ''terrorists'' or ''Ba'athist dead-enders'' whom they've been
fighting since the war ended, extended even to the ''realists'', who were
denounced in internal battles as ''appeasers'' or worse. As Cheney was
recently quoted as declaring with regard to State Department proposals to
engage North Korea, ''We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it''.
Middle East experts at the State Department and the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) were likewise scorned and excluded from both planning and the
immediate aftermath of the invasion, while the creation in Feith's office of
ad hoc intelligence analysis groups that ''stovepiped'' evidence of Iraqi
WMD and ties to Al Qaeda was a classic illustration of selective
intelligence gathering that would confirm pre-existing stereotypes.
Similarly, the total failure to prepare contingency plans to deal with
looting, or even with the emergence of an insurgency against the occupation,
displayed a confidence that turned out to be completely unwarranted.
Likewise, former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's prediction that
more than 200,000 troops would be needed to occupy Iraq in order to ensure
security had not only to be rejected in order to protect the group from
negative views; it had to be publicly ridiculed by Wolfowitz as ''wildly off
In his latest expose on the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, New Yorker
correspondent Seymour Hersh noted that Rumsfeld's penchant for ''secrecy and
wishful thinking'' -- characteristics that also apply to Groupthink --
resulted in the Pentagon's failure to do anything about it or about the many
other problems they have encountered.
And whenever Powell or Armitage tried to bring to the attention of the
highest levels in the administration the growing concern about prisoner
abuse, according to a source recently cited in the ''Nelson Report'', an
insider Washington newsletter, they were forced to endure from the
chickenhawks what an eyewitness source characterized as ''around-the-table,
coarse, vulgar, frat-boy bully remarks about what these tough guys would do
if THEY ever got their hands on prisoners...''
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