Bomb first, ask questions later?

In a piece of splendid reporting, The New York Times has shed new light on the decision making process that culminated in the destruction of the Al Shifa chemical plant in Sudan in retaliation for the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. The Clinton administration insists the plant was making chemical weapons and was connected with Osama bin Laden, the Saudi the administration believes responsible for the embassy bombings.

Almost from the beginning, doubts were expressed about whether the plant was really making chemical weapons and whether Mr. bin Laden had anything to do with it. Since the plant was hit, persuasive evidence has come to light that it was in fact making pharmaceuticals and that connections with bin Laden, if any, had been severed. What we can see now are flaws in the process by which President Clinton decided to destroy the plant.

Disturbingly, these are the same flaws that have led to bad decisions in the past. The first of these is papering over or suppressing differences among officials who consider a matter before it gets to the president. In the case of Khartoum, there were skeptics in the CIA, the Pentagon, and the State Department. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy's attempt to invade Cuba in 1961, the skeptics were in State and the CIA. There were doubts in the CIA about the location of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade before it was put on the NATO target list last May.

The second procedural flaw is allowing the pressure of time to preclude sober consideration. With Khartoum, quick action was considered imperative to deter other terrorist attacks. There was the same urgency in the Johnson administration's response in 1964 to mistakenly reported attacks on a couple of US destroyers off the coast of Vietnam. In a hurry, the US bombed North Vietnam, and Congress passed a resolution which the Johnson administration took as authority for conducting a war - all in response to attacks that didn't happen. In 1983 two days after a US Marine barracks in Lebanon was blown up, killing 241, the Reagan administration invaded the island of Grenada in the Caribbean. Critics said this was to divert attention from the tragedy in Lebanon. The administration said it came from a growing leftist threat exemplified by the presence of Cubans building an airfield that could accommodate large Soviet planes. (Later, the Cubans having been removed, Americans finished the airfield themselves.)

The third procedural flaw is excessive secrecy in decisionmaking. In the Khartoum case, no consultation was sought with people who knew something about chemical manufacturing or about Sudan and its capital city. In Chile in 1971-73, the State Department and the US Embassy were kept out of the CIA's planning against President Salvador Allende. This was true also in operations in Guatemala.

The fourth likely source of mistakes is planning an operation in a country where the US has no representatives physically present. The US Embassy and the CIA station had been closed in Khartoum, in Havana, and in Grenada for months or even years before US intervention. Decisionmakers had no on-the-ground reports to guide them.

Finally, the decisionmaking process squeezes out doubts and dissents as policy recommendations move up the ladder. The president gets a unanimous recommendation. Particularly if this coincides with his own predilections, he is unlikely to ask if there is any dissent.

In the cases of Khartoum, the Bay of Pigs, Grenada, and the Gulf of Tonkin, the recommendations to the president were made with little, if any, consideration of long-term or even medium-term consequences. Presidents haven't asked what-if questions. What if we're hitting the wrong target? What if this doesn't work? What if it does?

The president reasonably expects his advisers to ask these questions before sending him recommendations. But the president is ultimately responsible for asking the questions and making the decisions. And it is the country that suffers if the process fails him.

*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is coauthor of the forthcoming 'National Insecurity: US Intelligence After the Cold War' (Temple University Press).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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