Most of what has been written about this week's Iraq Study Group report has concentrated on Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton's big policy critique of America's historic humiliation. And quite right too. It was a shatteringly critical verdict and it left George Bush looking more than ever out of his depth at his White House press conference on Thursday.
Less attention has been focused on an important subtext of the report. Consider this example: "The US military has a long tradition of strong partnership between the civilian leadership of the department of defence and the uniformed services. Both have long benefited from a relationship in which the civilian leadership exercises control with the advantage of fully candid professional advice, and the military serves loyally with the understanding that its advice has been heard and valued. That tradition has frayed, and civil-military relations need to be repaired."
Or take - and reflect on the full implication of - this one-sentence observation a little further on: "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimises its discrepancy with policy goals." Or this: "A lack of coordination by senior management in Washington still hampers US contributions to Iraq's reconstruction."
The ISG report is a repudiation of the Bush administration's foreign policy. But it also repudiates the way the Bush administration works internally. Nowhere is this more resonant than in what it says about the Pentagon. For it was the Pentagon that ran the administration's Iraq policy, and the senior civilian officials - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith - who did things their own way and marginalised any service chiefs who disagreed with them.
But the Pentagon ran the policy because the president allowed and encouraged them to do so. This was a huge disfigurement of the traditional inter-agency way of doing things, in which the president, as commander-in-chief, was supposed to make the decisions after taking advice from the inter-agency policy-making apparatus coordinated by the national security adviser. It was institutional failure on the epic scale.
As a number of recent books describe, notably Bob Woodward's State of Denial and Ron Suskind's The One-Percent Doctrine, this has been a recipe for bad decisions. As Suskind puts it: "Sober due diligence, with an eye to the way previous administrations have thought through a standard array of challenges facing the United States, creates, in fact, a kind of check on executive power and prerogative."
But Bush has never wanted that kind of check or balance. He is suspicious of officials, bureaucrats and departments. He is impatient with policy intellectuals. He doesn't want information. He prides himself on his certainties. As Woodward says, Bush has a "distrust of the inter-agency". That instinct became even more pronounced after 9/11. And as the challenges of Iraq grew more daunting, he wanted a process even less.
The important American commentator Mark Danner sums it up this way in the current New York Review of Books: "What is striking is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the president and his highest officials looking on."
It is a terrible indictment of the way the Iraq policy was generated and maintained. Baker-Hamilton is in part a revolt against this broken form of government. In its recommendation 46, the ISG calls on the new defence secretary, Bob Gates (who just happens to have been a member of the group), to do what he can to rebuild the old pre-Bush/Rumsfeld system, so that the senior military "feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the president and the national security council".
The sound of stable doors banging shut after the horses have bolted is deafening. Nevertheless it is hard not to hear also, in the distance, echoes of our own local difficulties. For broken processes have helped to produce broken policies towards Iraq in Britain too.
The Hutton inquiry in 2003 revealed the system of so-called "sofa government" - unminuted semi-permanent huddles between the prime minister and a small group of officials - through which Tony Blair then governed. A year on, the Butler report criticised the way a small group of ministers and officials drove the Iraq policy. As papers were not circulated to other ministers in advance it became difficult for those not directly involved to play a meaningful part. Cabinet government faltered here, as inter-agency government failed in Washington. The former Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Sir Michael Quinlan subsequently speculated - exaggeratedly in my view - that Britain might be becoming an elective dictatorship.
It is not just Quinlan who needs to be a little careful. Hindsight is a great thing. The Bush administration and the Blair government are by no means unique in getting big things wrong. Even Canada messes up occasionally. There is no certainty that proper process will always produce proper decisions. But the absence or the subordination of proper process makes it more difficult to prevent bad decisions from being challenged and scrutinised. It puts too much weight on fallible individuals.
In short, a crucial lesson of the entire Iraq war has been that bad forms of government contribute significantly to bad decisions. Bush has been unforgivably incompetent. Blair has centralised and personalised too much. Both men came into office suspicious of the systems they inherited and eager to change them. This was understandable but in retrospect mistaken. It meant there were fewer effective ways for reasoned objections to affect the decision-making process. The obvious lesson for any successor is to try to avoid such hubris. But will the suspicious and centralising Gordon Brown submit his decisions to a more collegiate and rigorous system of scrutiny, giving equal weight to the views of all departments and officials? I leave the answer to you.
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