Inquiries and their processes are often bone dry. While in the abstract we might agree that detail is important, most of us aren’t that interested. And when it comes down to politics, as expressed through government action, we are most often tribal and regardless of the detail follow our tribe’s point-of view.
On Sunday August 15th Afghanistan fell; President Biden ordered the removal of the structure and troops that had held off the insurgency. He had long ago decided Americans should leave Afghanistan and his predecessor had made a deal with the Taliban to do just that. He anticipated, perhaps, some sort of bi-partisan ownership of the withdrawal. But, he was seven months into his Presidency and had reversed much of what his predecessor did by executive action and, of course, we don’t live in bi-partisan times.
Authors are now busily researching and beginning books about what the international magazine, The Economist, called “Biden’s Debacle.” Yet, while the interested will buy one or more books that will be disguised as history, at most a million or so books will be bought in the next year or so. We will have moved on.
So at the risk of getting it wrong, this is my skeletal summary.
President Biden wanted out regardless of what former President Trump had done. He had telegraphed that fact many times over the years. His aides knew; indeed they were hired, in part, because they shared his goal. In short, the intelligence process was short-circuited. When the circuits fail, the lights go out.
America has too often in recent decades elected points-of-view. In each case a man, whose resume would not put them on a top candidates list of an executive search firm, is elected to shoulder the most complicated leadership challenge in the world. The result: Vietnam, 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq. We often cite our assets, but “humint” is needed to win the day. Yes, we have the strongest military in the world, a magnetic set of governing principles and are near the top of most economic measurements. What we lack is “humint” in our politics and thus in the White House and crucial national security agencies.
Humint is shorthand for human intelligence. What is now apparently a word is most frequently used in counter-intelligence. What, intelligence professionals ask, is the “story on the ground?” And what are the human sources of the information, their credibility, the timing of the intelligence and on and on.
If you want to read a compelling book on the subject, I would recommend “The Spymaster of Baghdad” by Margaret Coker. It is not bone dry. Ms. Coker dug deep and writes a harrowing story about how humint turned the war against ISIS for the Iraqi government.
Retreating to a political scandal in the summer of 1972, the Watergate Hearings began the eventual end of the Richard Nixon presidency. One senator, Howard Baker, a Republican from Tennessee, kept asking of each witness “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
George W. Bush’s strong views on the need to get rid of Saddam Hussein led to war in Iraq to rid the world of its weapons of mass destruction. But when Americans went to Iraq to find the weapons, they didn’t find any.
President Biden, when asked about the his decision on when and how to leave Afghanistan, said the best intelligence suggested the U.S. would have at least a month or more to extract troops and allied Afghans before the Taliban controlled the country. Was this opinion held up to a rigorous debate or did it lean to confirmation bias? Did the President hear what his aides thought he wanted to hear or did he reject their advice because of a hardened and long held point-of-view?
As I write, we struggle to get out. We struggle to repair our historic alliances. And we will find it difficult to reverse an image of international indifference to both alliances and facts on the ground.
Interestingly two Members of Congress, both war veterans and from opposite parties, just took a trip to Kabul to see for themselves what was going on. The Washington Post headline framed the partisan reaction by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi: “Pelosi assails two lawmakers who made unauthorized trip to Kabul.” She didn’t approve. She wanted to make sure that whatever information the electorate might receive was filtered through the same agencies that misinformed the President.
Moments of failure are to be expected. We are human. No nation or set of national leaders are without failures. But, when in the months that preceded 9/11 intelligence on the ground didn’t overcome our inability to conceive an attack on the homeland, a very large and quite kinetic domino fell. It is going to take strong and able leadership to reverse this perilous and often self-inflicted cascade. We lost more than citizens and buildings on 9/11.
I do not generally end a column with a parenthetical thought, but I cannot fail to cite the constitutional guarantee of free speech that protects one of our most important institutions—the news media. When the media becomes enraptured by an ideology or a political leader or party, it becomes the unwitting agent of bad decisions. It is the media’s job to add an important and objective layer to what is happening “on the ground.”
Personal Note on Process
Before becoming Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I had served as the principal advisor on telecommunications and information policy to the White House. This fact was both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing and the curse had an identical source—I had strongly held views. And, as a practical matter, my key aides either shared my views or were at least not uncomfortable with them.
But, I headed a Commission. Each of the four other Commissioners had also been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They were there to assert themselves and quickly learned that dissenting from my direction brought a lot more attention to them.
In short, there was not a single important decision made by the Commission that was not fully and often publicly vetted. The legislated structure did not assure optimal decisions, but it did assure active thinking, advocacy and eventual reconciliation of views.
Profoundly, Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of engaging different points of view. This was the text of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Lincoln was faced with the disintegration of America and the need to rid it of slavery. He knew success required a well informed and forceful center of gravity. He brought important political rivals into his cabinet.
But and here is the saddest fact of all. We know this. Lincoln, our most celebrated President and the subject of untold books taught us. So here we are in the 21st Century congratulating ourselves on all the progress we have made when in reality much of our political leadership has regressed. And, in our democracy, that is a bipartisan fact.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.