Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Iraq and the Bay of Pigs

Posted by David Kassel on March 17, 2008

Looking back on this five-year anniversary of our occupation of Iraq and its catastrophic cost in American and Iraqi blood and treasure, one can only hope that our future leaders draw some lessons from it.

But will they?

Whoever among the three remaining candidates is elected president in November, he or she might start by reading a book that I’m pretty sure George W. Bush never read.

That book, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, was published in 1986.  Its recommendations remain timely and common sensical, particularly the central recommendation that presidents should carefully examine the historical and political presumptions on which they base their decisions. 

Had Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld read Thinking in Time after 9/11 and taken its recommendations about presumptions seriously, it seems to me we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today in Iraq.  They might, first of all, have come to realize that some of their presumptions about Iraq resembled presumptions in the Kennedy administration that led to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961.

Neustadt and May conclude that the Bay of Pigs was perhaps the classic case of unexamined presumptions by American presidents.  One of those presumptions that Kennedy and his advisers held was that there would be prompt uprisings against Castro throughout Cuba once the Cuban exiles who were recruited for the invasion landed on the beach there and proclaimed a rebel government.

There were high-level officials within the CIA who would have scoffed at the notion that the Cuban population would have welcomed the American-sponsored invasion.  But Neustadt and May note that Kennedy wasn’t even aware that the organizers of the invasion had walled themselves off from colleagues who might have challenged their presumptions.  They add that most of those whose comment or advice Kennedy asked were too inhibited to question his underlying presumptions or to spell out theirs.

The Kennedy administration’s presumption that the Cuban people were waiting for deliverance from Castro in the form of American-style democracy may have been more far-fetched than the the presumption of the Bush administration 40 years later that the Iraqi people were waiting for the Americans to deliver them from Saddam Hussein.  Hussein was a far more despotic ruler than Castro.  But the Bush administration was equally wrong in assuming that American-style democracy would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq.

As Rajiv Chandrasekaran notes in his own 2006 book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Bush and his advisors, and some top officials in the Pentagon, also wrongly presumed that the Iraqis would “quickly undertake responsibility for running their country and rebuilding their infrastructure.”

Chandrasekaran further points out that there was little coordination in pre-war planning between the State Department and the CIA or even with post reconstruction experts within the Pentagon, and there was “an aversion to dwelling on worst-case scenarios that might diminish support for the invasion.”

Neustadt and May contend that presidents facing difficult decisions should:

…pause to define their concerns.  They should take precautions to avoid being misled by analogies of one stripe or another.  Then to the extent possible, they should try to see their concerns in historical context…

The invasion at the Bay of Pigs was clearly not directly analogous to the invasion of Iraq.  There were many significant differences between the two events.  But it seems that had Bush, Cheney et al. stopped to “see their concerns in historical context” before acting, they might have realized they were basing their projections about the aftermath of the Iraq invasion on some very faulty presumptions.

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2 Responses to “Iraq and the Bay of Pigs”

  1. Ben Clark said

    You are supposing that the our current leaders actually are able to accept critical thought on Iraq… so far that just doesn’t seem possible.

  2. I still have some hope for our next set of leaders who will take office in January 2009.

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