One key feature of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations identified by David Halberstam in his superb account of the development of US policy on Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, was groupthink: the failure of White House national security, foreign policy and defense staff to propose or even countenance alternatives to the prevailing views on Vietnam, especially when these alternatives were in radical conflict with the prevailing wisdom. Among the junior staffers working in those administrations was Richard Holbrooke, now the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration. A New Yorker profile of Holbrooke last year included this statement by him, about the need for policy planning processes to incorporate agonism:
“You have to test your hypothesis against other theories,” Holbrooke said. “Certainty in the face of complex situations is very dangerous.” During Vietnam, he had seen officials such as McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national-security adviser, “cut people to ribbons because the views they were getting weren’t acceptable.” Washington promotes tactical brilliance framed by strategic conformity—the facility to outmaneuver one’s counterpart in a discussion, without questioning fundamental assumptions. A more farsighted wisdom is often unwelcome. In 1975, with Bundy in mind, Holbrooke published an essay in Harper’s in which he wrote, “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” That was one of the lessons of Vietnam. Holbrooke described his method to me as “a form of democratic centralism, where you want open airing of views and opinions and suggestions upward, but once the policy’s decided you want rigorous, disciplined implementation of it. And very often in the government the exact opposite happens. People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.” (page 47)
David Halberstam : The Best and the Brightest. New York, NY, USA: Random House.
George Packer : The last mission: Richard Holbrooke’s plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan. The New Yorker, 2009-09-28, pp. 38-55.
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