Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Monday, July 12, 2004

Feigning groupthink

In today's International Herald Tribune, a story about a Senate committee's report on that supposedly massive supposed failure of supposed intelligence that took us into a war, a war that has committed American GIs to fighting in 125 degree heat this summer, even as the people shooting at them are being offered amnesty by Iraq's recently-installed president.

The diagnosis? "Collective groupthink." Shrug. Hey, y'know? It can happen to the best of us. It was just this highly infectious blog-style meme that was, like, going around that year. All the kids were doing it. I mean, getting it. I mean - well, you know what I mean, and so does everyone else, and if you don't get it, what the hell's wrong with you anyway?


Pardon a nitpick before I get down to substance: that 'collective' part. "Collective groupthink"? Is there such a thing as individual groupthink? Or do they mean that, somehow, telepathically, several groups fell prey to groupthink at the same time? Well, if you have to resort to the groupthink diagnosis, telepathy would explain a lot about the sheer scale of harmony within this administration on the trumping up of WMD 'evidence' and the supposed Saddam/Al Qaeda cooperation.

In any case, I think it's a whitewash. The diagnosis emerged from a bipartisan committee in an election year, so a certain amount of whitewashing, just to get consensus on the report, was to be expected. And I wasn't surprised about the groupthink diagnosis in particular - I predicted just such a formal diagnosis quite a while back.

One suspicious thing in this groupthink diagnosis is that it's well known that Rummy et al. were opinion-shopping for a casus belli to go to war in Iraq. The Senate report made no reference to CIA analysts being put under pressure, but this was yet another bipartisan-consensus horse-trade.

More reason to suspect this diagnosis: Rummy of all people is a very unlikely candidate for groupthink. Why? Because he's a minor star in the very book that introduced the term "groupthink" into the language: Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, by Irving Janis. Janis looked at several American foreign policy crises - Rummy appears in his analysis of the Mayaguez Incident, and it's not like that episode in his career has slipped his memory - he was referring to it as late as March 23rd of this year. Nor is it credible that Rumsfeld was unaware of a best-selling political science book that coined a popular term for a common social afflication, using him (albeit in a minor role) as an example.

What hypotheses does Rummy's biography leave us with?

(1) "I forgot to get my tetanus booster shot."

Rummy et. al simply forgot that groupthink might operate. This seems improbable, especially given how much open questioning of his style was going on in the press at the time, and how he was answering those expressions of suspicion. He all but said that they were taking countermeasures against groupthink.

(2) "I can quit any time."

Rummy et. al kept groupthink in mind, but fell into denial about symptoms, the way an alcoholic can fall off the wagon saying, "It's OK, I can drink in moderation." I.e., they wanted to spin the intelligence maybe only a leetle bit, but didn't want to be seen as deluded, or self-deluded, later. However, pretty soon they were chugging the hard stuff. Well, I just don't think Rummy was that stupid.

(3) "Our brains will need an alibi down the road."
Rummy et. al realized that they were engaged in Groupthink Classic, but we're doing so consciously, precisely so that any followup investigation would tend to conclude that they'd fallen prey to groupthink unconsciously.

Me, I go with #3. Rummy's a smart guy, with a long memory. He realizes that whenever you're given a choice between being seen as stupid or being seen as conniving, go with being seen as stupid. As long as you achieve your goals and don't end your own career, what do you care?


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