Pentagon Study? Current Events in Iraq? Not so Fast... (Updated)

Today's Miami Herald carries a story on page 3 titled Pentagon Study: War is `Debacle' by Jonathan Landay and John Walcott.

The war in Iraq has become ''a major debacle'' and the outcome ''is in doubt'' despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces, according to a highly critical study published Thursday by the Pentagon's premier military educational institute.

The report released by the National Defense University raises fresh doubts about President Bush's projections of a U.S. victory in Iraq just a week after Bush announced that he was suspending U.S. troop reductions.

The report carries considerable weight because it was written by Joseph Collins, a former senior Pentagon official, and was based in part on interviews with other former senior defense and intelligence officials who played roles in prewar preparations. It was published by the university's National Institute for Strategic Studies [SWJ Note: Institute for National Security Studies], a Defense Department research center...

The Miami Herald piece on a NDU "occasional paper" (Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath), quoted alternately as a Pentagon or NDU study, raised some flags here at SWJ. So we asked the author, Joseph Collins, to provide some context. His reply:

The Miami Herald story ("Pentagon Study: War is a 'Debacle' ") distorts the nature of and intent of my personal research project. It was not an NDU study, nor was it a Pentagon study. Indeed, the implication of the Herald story was that this study was mostly about current events. Such is not the case. It was mainly about the period 2002-04. The story also hypes a number of paragraphs, many of which are quoted out of context. The study does not "lay much of the blame" on Secretary Rumsfeld for problems in the conduct of the war, nor does it say that he "bypassed the Joint Chiefs of Staff." It does not single out "Condoleeza Rice and Stephen Hadley" for criticism.

Here is a fair summary of my personal research, which formally is NDU INSS Occasional Paper 5, "Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath."

This study examines how the United States chose to go to war in Iraq, how its decision-making process functioned, and what can be done to improve that process. The central finding of this study is that U.S. efforts in Iraq were hobbled by a set of faulty assumptions, a flawed planning effort, and a continuing inability to create security conditions in Iraq that could have fostered meaningful advances in stabilization, reconstruction, and governance. With the best of intentions, the United States toppled a vile, dangerous regime but has been unable to replace it with a stable entity. Even allowing for progress under the Surge, the study insists that mistakes in the Iraq operation cry out in the mid- to long-term for improvements in the U.S. decision-making and policy execution systems.

The study recommends the development of a national planning charter, improving the qualifications of national security planners, streamlining policy execution in the field, improving military education, strengthening the Department of State and USAID, and reviewing the tangled legal authorities for complex contingencies. The study ends with a plea to improve alliance relations and to exercise caution in deciding to go to war.

SWJ Editors Note: Unfortunately this is not the first instance - nor will it be the last -- of highly selective use of source quotes and excerpts as well as distortion of context by members of the "mainstream media" in reporting on recent events and trends in Iraq...

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Update 1: The Herald article is a McClatchy News item picked up by the former (H/T Charles Bird).

Update 2: SWJ Editors' Links

The "NDU" Report - Abu Muqawama

Miami Herald's "Major Debacle": a Lack of Journalism - Hot Air

Distorted Antiwar Propaganda from McClatchy - Protein Wisdom

'Classic Case Of Failure' - Think Progress

Liberal Narrative on Iraq Might Not Be Going Official Yet! - Washington Independent

Not So Fast With That "Pentagon Study" - Outside the Beltway

The McClatchy Narrative on Iraq - Red State

McClatchey Misreports Iraq War Report - Flopping Aces

Less Than Meets the Eye in "Pentagon Story" - The Glittering Eye

Small Wars Has the Details - Argghhh!

Misrepresentation at the Miami Herald - Instapundit

Iraq War "A Major Debacle," Outcome "Is In Doubt" - The Huffington Post

MSM Distorts War Report - The Jawa Report

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Comments

Noway:

"In short, reading the entirety of his report leads me to the conclusion that we aren't now, nor will we ever, ''win,'' in Iraq; a military victory is an impossibilty."

One should not have to read his article; a 'military victory' in an insurgency or any irregular warfare situation is always impossible unless one is willing to use the G. Khan method, patently not possible today. The best that can be obtained is an acceptable outcome.

One could argue that a 'military victory' was obtained in the downfall of the Saddam Hussein government and the disbandment of the remnants of the Iraqi Army but that would be a semantic quibble that was overcome by post facto events.

Lastly and more importantly, when I see Iraqis, willing to defend their nation-state, as opposed to their religion or tribe; then, maybe, I'll believe they have a chance at stability; unfortunately, we'll be long gone by that time, imo."

That's wise. Don't expect more than the ME can -- or will -- give. Or more than we need...

Good name selection, BTW...

First, while I fully understand the difficult position Col. Collins has inevitability placed himself in, vis-a-vis the current resident of the White House and the Pentagon, I find it difficult to accept his missive -- given the entirety of his report.

Second, it is no secret how this administration has treated any officer expressing a view with respect to Iraq, less rosy than their own propaganda, i.e., the list of early retirements of fine officers -- is both long and frankly, quite distinguished.

Unfortunately, I think there is more evidence of a ''debacle'' in Iraq, than any active duty officer could, or would, admit -- so, methinx Collins' backtracking is directly proportional to the static he has encountered since the study's release.

In short, reading the entirety of his report leads me to the conclusion that we aren't now, nor will we ever, ''win,'' in Iraq; a military victory is an impossibilty.

Lastly and more importantly, when I see Iraqis, willing to defend their nation-state, as opposed to their religion or tribe; then, maybe, I'll believe they have a chance at stability; unfortunately, we'll be long gone by that time, imo.

A cursory Internet search:

Debacle:

# a sudden and violent collapse
# flooding caused by a tumultuous breakup of ice in a river during the spring or summer
# thrashing: a sound defeat

With the exception of a violent collapse of Saddam's formal regime in 2003, or a sound defeat of the Iraqi Army in 2003, I'd have a hard time matching that definition with anything since. Even those have to be arbitrarily qualified, so that would be a subjective call.

Every planning process is flawed to some degree. They are largely analytical, and if you start with bad assumptions you wind up with a inadequate plan. From the high end, this one started off with some major assumptions that equated a material defeat with a moral one, and failed to consider planning for how post invasion conditions could facilitate a war of a different character then the one that was planned for. Arguably as a result, during execution, we did not have the pieces (resources and the right questions) in place that would have allowed us to recognize that the nature of the war was changing, and enable us to adapt faster at the operational and strategic levels to retain the initiative.

I'd argue that with regard to Iraq right now we have now positioned ourself so that a debacle is mostly a matter of political choice. I can think of several significant policy ends that could die a thrashing death if we compound the lack of political foresight shown in 2003 with the same in 2008/2009.

The stakes have changed. Irrespective of how that occurred we have to reconcile our lack of vision in 2003 with the need for one now.

I'm sure if one looks hard enough they can find a definition that suits their point of view, one that is yet more subjective and ambiguous - but its largely a matter of point of view, the inherent bias we all have, and the lens we are looking through.

Best Rob

"Just because a fool says the sun is shining doesn't make it dark outside."

While the Miami Herald may well be guilty as charged, is anyone seriously going to argue that the Iraq war was NOT based on flawed assumptions and is currently a debacle?

Is anyone going to argue that the planning process was not "Flawed"?

Wolfboy said "...no, I don't see any significant distortion in the use of 'debacle' in the headline or the lead sentence. The sentence from the study you cite (''Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle") is in fact reproduced in full in the article..."

Thank you for acknowledging that the 'grabber' headline is a distortion. Most reporters report; it is the minor editors who cut and paste and produce catchy headlines that distort most print journalism.

"...and no, I don't think that Collin's intent was to suggest just that some may see the war as major and a debacle, by whatever criteria they choose to apply. He says that judged by specific objective criteria (blood and treasure) it is so."

We can disagree on that. Even if you were correct, I suggest that by any objective measure the cost in blood (stupid phrase) has been minimal and that in most senses, that in treasure (equally stupid and childish) has been reasonable.

Wolfboy: We'll agree to disagree. I've read pretty much everything published on OIF policy and strategy over the past 5+ years, I have yet to see a headline that reads "Duke Attacks Administration Position." But I have seen many that read "U.S. Army Attacks Administration Position.

Count me as unimpressed by these criticisms:

Bear in mind that headlines are not written by the author of the article. It is not realistic to imagine that a five-word headline will contain the disclaimers in the original report, or even much nuance. The Miami Herald headline seems to have been "Pentagon Study: War is 'debacle'". If Mr. Metz thinks that we would not see headlines of the form "Duke Study:..." describing a study by a few researchers affiliated with Duke University, he is simply mistaken. More to the point, I expect most people who read newspapers to understand that such a 'Duke study' was not officially adopted by the Board of Trustees, and that the 'Pentagon study' was not endorsed by Secretary Gates or the JCS. I don't believe the article at issue made any such implication.

It is the job of Mr. Collins and others to examine and criticize freely. It is the job of the media to let a large general audience know about these thoughts and criticisms. If the brass gives the military analysts grief about this it is hard to see how this is the fault of the analysts or the media. Was there really an attribution of official sanction? This remains unclear to me. If the newspaper misattributes something then they should be corrected. Is it not the case that the INSS is part of the DoD (for which 'Pentagon' is appropriate headline shorthand), and the Army War College is part of the army?

To Ken White, no, I don't see any significant distortion in the use of 'debacle' in the headline or the lead sentence. The sentence from the study you cite (''Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle") is in fact reproduced in full in the article, and no, I don't think that Collin's intent was to suggest just that some may see the war as major and a debacle, by whatever criteria they choose to apply. He says that judged by specific objective criteria (blood and treasure) it is so.

To Rob Thornton, I don't think it is the job of the press to get Mr. Collins' view of how he wants his report portrayed in the media. The report is there. It's 60 pages long and contains lots of disclaimers and explanatory material. The story is pretty straightforward. It's not like a story about an event that occurred where different observers may have different accounts of what happened.

McClatchy Watch? Please... one reader with an axe to grind who does not even pretend to engage in objective analysis.

It is my experience when I read articles in my area of expertise (not military affairs) that they often contain errors or misunderstandings I find glaring. There's a bit of this here (wrong name for INSS, e.g.), but I don't see much. Look at Collin's specific criticisms - regarding blaming Rumsfeld, bypassing the JCS and singling out NSC leadership. To my reading of the report, the article's descriptions are fair and reasonable.

Collins is right that the article takes a report focused on the planning and the initial years of the war and pulls it into the debate about current conditions and prospects. I understand that it is uncomfortable as an author to see this, but current conditions and prospects are what is news, and I think it is perfectly reasonable for the article to focus on those elements, and the article did not ignore the 2002-4 stuff. It is inevitable that a newspaper article of less than 20 sentences will fail to contain the breadth and nuance of the original report. This is not grounds for criticism.

To my mind the biggest question is whether the story is even newsworthy. The broad outlines of the Collins report are well understood already. Still, I would argue that it is in the public interest to know what the considered views on the war are of those at DoD research and education institutions who have expertise and are paid to think about these things.

I appreciate the note from the SWJ Editors concerning the "highly selective use of source quotes and excerpts." As Steven Metz notes, there is a certain tension when an institution that is underwritten by DoD exercises academic freedom. The temptation by some to attribute official sanction is irresistible and therefore inevitable.

Well at least they finally stopped putting Abu Ghraib photos on the front page, above the fold, every day.

Steven's point is very well taken, i.e., that the article was attributed to the Pentagon or even the NDU when it should've been attributed solely to the author. I agree. Also, I was rather surprised to see "major war", at least without some sort of conceptualization or justification.

Good link, Charles. Good to see you also. Hope all's well on the left coast... :)

Aside from Steve's very appropriate comment, if the difference between this headline and lead in:

"Today's Miami Herald carries a story on page 3 titled Pentagon Study: War is `Debacle' by Jonathan Landay and John Walcott.

The war in Iraq has become ''a major debacle'' and the outcome ''is in doubt'' despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces, according to a highly critical study published Thursday by the Pentagon's premier military educational institute..."

and this from the opening of the study:

"Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle. As of fall 2007, this conflict has cost the United States over 3,800 dead and over 28,000 wounded."(emphasis added /kw)

don't strike you as distortions particularly with respect to the length of time involved and the extremely low, for a 'major' war, casualty count then we can differ...

Point of correction to the editors. The article was in the Miami Herald but it was written by journalists who work for McClatchy. As you can tell from this source, they have a distinct bias when it comes to all things Iraq.

Ken White! Glad to see you in the blog threads!

The war in Iraq reminds us of the role that uncertainty and friction play in both the planning and the execution of military operations.
Uncertainty and friction also apply to writing history and analyses of decisionmaking. At this juncture, there are no final truths about the war in Iraq, only early attempts to create a record. Those who demand complete
and indisputable analysis of the war should remember that in the fall of 2007, some of our best scholars are still arguing over how World
War I started.

That says it all, don't you think?

The distortion is portraying it as an official government document. If someone on the Duke faculty slams the administration the Washington Post doesn't have a headline saying, "Duke University Attacks Bush Administration." But when we wrote scholarly studies with a disclaimer, headlines did say "U.S. Army Attacks Bush Administration." And we heard about it. That's part of Joe's beef.

I dunno.

I'm not so impressed by the claims of distortion.

It's not easy to see a characterization of one's own work in the press - natually emphasis and choice of words will differ. I'm not surprised that Mr. Collins is uncomfortable with the emphasis of the news article, but that doesn't make it a distortion or irresponsible journalism.

I would have to see better argument and citation than is presented here to buy on to the claims of distortion of context or highly selective use of excerpts.

I think the words "...achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle..." are the discriminator you elide. Status is, in the sense used there, effectively in the eye of the reader.

I, for example would firmly deny that Iraq is a major war or that it has achieved such status in the eyes of anyone with even slight historical knowledge of war -- though I would acknowledge that anyone with no experience of war willing to ignore history could see it as such.

Same thing is true with achieving the status of a debacle. What constitutes a 'debacle.'

People do indeed see what they wish to see...

I greatly respect the opinions of Steven and Rob, and I agree the media are often too agenda driven or just plain lazy, and that the reporter should have contacted the report's author. However, I cannot reconcile the totality of Steven and Rob's comments and even of the author's comments quoted in this blog with the very first paragraph of the report itself. The report begins with a strong statement of the war having "achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle." Moreover, it's in the present tense, which challenges the author's assertion that the report is about 2002-04, which it is in its analysis of the early decision-making leading to war, but, again, how to reconcile the author's comments above with the very strong and present-tense statements (referencing the status in 2007 as a debacle) that launch the article is beyond me. Otherwise, it's a very useful and important report and the author is to be congratulated.
Greg

One last thought - perhaps if the Miami Herald had taken the time as SWJ had, to contact Joseph Collins to provide the context absent in their story, rather then interpreting it to suit their bent, their piece might have had a balanced nature we might expect from a profession that is supposed to hold objectivity in high regard.

Or is the pressure to produce worth sacrificing objectivity, and responsibility for?
Best, Rob

Steve, well said. When I read a MSM headline and story like the one in the Miami Herald it only reinforces my opinion that many are unable to distinguish between constructive review and criticism with toward an object of improving ourselves, vs. the type of useless and pointed criticism that is meant to further personal agendas, serve and inflame partisan position.

The National Institute for Strategic Studies and the AWC SSI reflect the former, and those of us who rely on their objectivity and commitment to professional education of the military, the Inter-Agency and our civilain leaders greatly appreciate their continued endeavors.

Perhaps I'm being to harsh on the Miami Herald and the MSM - they are after all a product of their environment; why should I expect them to consider the consequences beyond the next day's paper, or the next batch of subscriptions?

Best, Rob

I share Joe's concern. We at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute have experienced the same thing--despite the fact that we operate under a policy of academic freedom and attach a disclaimer to all of our publications stating they do not reflect official positions, unscrupulous journalists (and I won't name names) have portrayed our monographs as "a U.S. Army report," thus causing angry phone calls from the Pentagon to our commandant. And, of course, pain flows downhill. These journalists did significant damage to us.