A few weeks ago, I read (and reported a bit of my reaction to) Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack”, about the build up to the second Iraq war. A president (and vice-president) who seemed determined to move forward, some advisors who were even more single minded in their belief that Saddam Hussein should be replaced, and more hesitant advisors who, as time went on, became more and more reticent about expressing their concerns and misgivings.
There were obviously a number of mistakes made – there was a firm (but unsubstantiated) belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, there was a lingering (but equally unsubstantiated) belief that Saddam Hussein, with his WMD’s would be eager to help terrorist groups such as al-Quaeda attack targets of American or Israeli interest, there was a totally erroneous feeling that the war would be paid for by Iraqi oil profits and that there would be minimal charge to the US Treasury, an erroneous belief that any damage to Iraq’s food supply system and infrastructure would be minimal and correctable, and a similarly erroneous belief that the Iraqi people would welcome the Allies (a/k/a the Americans) with open arms and full support. Finally, there was a feeling that internal divisions with the country (Sunni v. Shiite v. Kurdish and others) would be overcome by a general support of democratic processes.
When you think about it, that’s quite a list.
By chance, the next book that I picked up was a 2011 book by journalist Jim Rsenberger, “The Brilliant Disaster”, a book about the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. It turned out that this was the perfect book to read after “Plan of Attack”, because some of the parallels between the build up to the war in Iraq and the build up to the invasion of Cuba are striking.
From the beginning, during the last years of the Eisenhower administration, the United States acted towards Fidel Castro in ways that worked against its own interests. it was the heart of the Cold War, and there was a fear that the spread of Communism into the Western Hemisphere would threaten the security of the United States and needed to be opposed. In opposing the Castro regime, however, the actions taken by the United States led Castro into Russia’s arms (no pun intended) more quickly and more definitively than would otherwise likely have been the case. But the connection between our actions and Castro’s reactions were not fully appreciated at the time, and more and more extreme measures were discussed as ways to dislodge the regime.
Among the actions discussed (along with various assassination options, including use of the Mafia as the agent of the government), was an invasion, using Cuban emigrants. The goal was to keep the public from thinking this was an American invasion (fat chance, you say), to have the US military serve largely as a source of sea borne supplies and to provide air cover for the invading troops after they went ashore, and to have the entire operation run, not by the military or Department of Defense, but by the CIA. And, as the operation went forward, secrecy was paramount.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy had a briefing by CIA director Allen Dulles. To this day, we don’t know what Kennedy learned from Dulles. But we do know that, later during the campaign, Kennedy let it be known that, if he were elected president, he would do everything he could to topple Castro, including authorizing an invasion of the island by Cuban forces – he basically broke to the press and the public the secret plans of the Eisenhower CIA.
Nixon was apparently apoplectic. He was certain that Kennedy was using this secret information for political purposes and, because the plans were secret plans of the Eisenhower administration, Nixon could neither agree with, nor argue against, Kennedy’s pronouncement. Nixon believed that this was one of the reasons he lost the 1960 election, and he might have been correct.
By the time Kennedy was inaugurated, it would have been difficult (but not impossible) to cancel the invasion. For one thing, training was already underway in Guatemala, with American troops (including Alabama reservists) training the Cubans. The leaders of the new Cuban government had also been designated and were prepared to follow the invaders and proclaim their control.
Kennedy got advice from many, both officials who were part of the Eisenhower administration, and the “best and the brightest” that he brought to Washington with him. As with the buildup to the Iraq war, there were officials who believed strongly in the plan, and officials who thought the scheme harebrained. But while the Hawks were very hawkish, the doves were afraid to let their feelings known for fear that it would hurt their careers (as it did for Chester Bowles), or that they just were too junior to think that their voice would matter (this is where Arthur Schlesinger was). So plans went forth.
The plan was harebrained. 1500 Cubans were being sent to an island were Castro had an army of, I believe it was, about 200,000. And, as in Iraq, the plan was that once the Cubans landed, the entire island (including the army) would rally to their support – although, again, there was absolutely no reason to think this would happen. And, of course, it didn’t.
Worse than this, Kennedy became increasingly concerned that the United States would be viewed as invading a sovereign country, so he ordered the CIA to halt any plans to provide air cover for the landing troops. The invasion probably would not have succeeded in any event, but the lack of air cover cinched it. And, the CIA officials in charge of the invasion, Dulles and Richard Bissell, knew this.
The invasion could have been called off even then. Kennedy did not do so – for some reason he believed both that the invasion might succeed (it’s unclear how he thought this) and that America’s connection might never come to light, and the CIA did not cancel the invasion either, although they clearly knew that it was doomed for failure. And the CIA took the blame – Dulles soon retired, and Bissell’s career ended (he had also been in charge of the U-2 program during the Eisenhower years, and was very well respected).
Why is this similar to Iraq? We thought we needed to do something because Cuba/Iraq posed a great threat to our national security. The pre-invasion planning was extraordinarily detailed – yet the basic dynamics of the situation was misread. The thought was that the Cubans/Iraqis would rally to our side as soon as they got the chance – obviously wrong in both instances. Those in the administration who opposed or questioned the action were either outvoted, or muted their criticism.
Obviously there were also differences. One was an American invasion, and one was designed to hide the fact that it was an American invasion. One was under the direction of a gung-ho president, and the other under the direction of a new president who inherited a program that he probably did not sufficiently understand.
There were lessons from the Bay of Pigs (and from Vietnam for that matter, but that’s a different story) that should have been learned in the build up to Iraq. But they weren’t.
There are also, of course, lessons to be learned from the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, AND Iraq, which can be put to use in connection with the current prospective build up for military action in Iran. Will those lessons be learned? You and I both know the answer to that question.