Rap that US doesn't look before it leaps is a bum one, except ... Mind-set, as well as way system operates, can skew decisions

Why does the United States government seem to rush into things that aren't good for it? Or persist in policies that have clearly gone awry? Many's the accusation, for instance, that American agreement to reflag and escort Kuwaiti tankers was hastily agreed to without serious consideration of the long-term consequences. Similar sentiments have been expressed about other policies.

Usually the rap is a bum one. Meetings full of disagreements and contingency planning for a hoard of eventualities are the the norm in Washington.

Nevertheless, where there's smoke there's fire. And there are faults in the American crisis-response mechanism whenever American power is to be used.

The problems almost always revolve around obtaining an honest airing of alternative views. Two basic impediments are common:

First is that of mind-sets at upper levels. If a policy has essentially been decided by political instinct, these prejudgments tend to overshadow the ensuing policy debate. Under these conditions opposing views may not be solicited at all, be actively discouraged, or merely ignored. Iran-contra-type impulses to shut out opposition altogether may have been extreme, but certainly not uncommon.

``When opposing views are not sought and given appropriate attention, it is a management failure,'' says Henry Rowen of the Hoover Institute, ``and the principal person to do this is the president's national-security adviser.''

Once a proposed or actual policy is known to be favored by an administration's leaders, the ``team player'' imperative can be a fearsome thing to behold. True or not, ambitious professionals will perceive their careers endangered by playing an unpopular opposition role.

Second is a structural problem that occurs whenever the use of military force or covert action is considered. In these cases, the same department both executes a policy and is the primary judge of its effectiveness.

The Pentagon is primarily responsible for weighing the effects of policies using US forces. In matters of covert support to insurgents, the CIA Operations Directorate is assigned this task.

In both cases, the same organizations also administer the policy. And given the specialized expertise and knowledge required, there is little effective cross-checking on their judgment. Although other agencies may make observations and often disagree, they usually do not have the facts, resources, or inclination to present their views tenaciously.

In Pentagonese, there is no separate office formally charged with ``net-assessment'' in crisis situations. To use a closely related term, there is no ``red-team.''

If the White House proposes to use naval force in Lebanon's civil war, who will judge the likely military effect? The Joint Chiefs of Staff in conjunction with the military services. If the CIA covertly supports insurgents, who has the information to predict their actual effect? The CIA Operations Directorate. And who will carry out these policies once promulgated? The same agencies.

Both of these problems - of mind-set and self-evaluation - are prescriptions for recurrent, nonobjective policies. Particularly after committing resources to a policy, it is natural to see more signs that it is working than failing.

Some will say that the panoply of interagency meetings both before and after adoption of a policy incorporating the use of force is the appropriate forum for critical analysis. All departments participating are given opportunities to voice their support or dissent. But ordinarily, the agencies closely involved with the process will carry the day in such meetings.

What about intelligence analysis? A little-understood fact outside of government circles is that intelligence agencies are normally charged with assessing foreign forces only. When American power is to be added to a regional situation, evaluation of that impact is not within the normal scope of intelligence assessments, unless specifically requested.

The State Department or National Security Council may advocate or naysay a policy including the use of force, and their political input may be valuable. But neither has the resources for exhaustive military analysis. And since one or both of these elements will normally have originated the proposed policy, they may lack the political detachment needed to make an objective evaluation.

Congressional opinions are automatically suspect because of other political motives. They are also depend largely on analysis by executive proponents of a policy with some alternative input by lobbyists - overall, thin gruel on which to base judicious debate.

Alternative policy options will be permitted to surface and compete with top-level mind-sets only if they are deliberately sought by senior officials. And the bestowal of primary responsibility for both action and evaluation in the same organization is an inherent weakness that bears careful monitoring.

The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.

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