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Iraq Invasion Anniversary: Inside the Decider’s Head

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White House photo / Paul Morse

President Bush announces the invasion of Iraq from the Oval Office on March 19, 2003

In the summer of 2002, during the lead-up to the Iraq war, a White House official expressed displeasure with an article written by journalist Ron Suskind in Esquire. He asserted that people like Suskind were trapped “in what we call the reality-based community,” which the official defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”

Suskind murmured something about enlightenment principles grounded in scientific empiricism, but the official cut him off, saying, “That’s not the way the world really works anymore … We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own realityAnd while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” [Emphasis added.]

This is a revealing statement about the mentality in the Bush White House before the Iraq war.

Think about it: in effect, the official is claiming the mind of a decider, who is tasked with making decisions to cope with the constraints of the real world, has the power to create a new reality over and over again. Therefore the decider need not be worried about matching his actions against those constraints, or even observing those constraints, before making his decisions.

Arrogant? To be sure.

Unusual inside the Beltway? Not really, based on my experience in the Pentagon.

But this outlook also reflects an incredibly stupid and dangerous way to orient one’s decision cycle to events in the real world.

It is trite to say that madness occurs when the mind governing decisions and actions becomes systemically disconnected from the real world.

But in the Versailles on the Potomac, where madness has risen to a high art form, reinforced by pseudo science, ideology and greed, all neatly packaged in compelling PowerPoint briefings, transformative visions, and amplified by an adoring mainstream media, it is difficult to know what the real world really is.

Faced with this reality in the 1980s, the military reformers in the Pentagon led by Colonel John R. Boyd found it necessary to develop a more precise working definition of madness: we concluded that madness occurs when the decisionmaker’s “observation, orientation, decision, action” (OODA) loop becomes increasingly distorted and disconnected from its environment by the existence of incestuous amplification.

Let me explain.

Incestuous amplification is a common phenomenon in Versailles. It occurs when the preconceptions in the decider’s orientation (that is, his-her repository of ideology, belief systems, cultural heritage, previous experiences, education, genetic heritage, etc.) misshape the observations feeding that orientation.

Note that the key word is misshape: there is no question that one’s orientation always shapes everything that is apprehended in the environment, or that one’s orientation evolves and changes over time in response to changes in the interaction between the observing organism and its environment.

A 6-year-old sees the world very differently from when he is 60. The relevant measure of merit is whether that evolving orientation produces decisions and actions that improve the matchup between the decisionmaking organism and its environment, as it marches along the one-way arrow of time.

But when the decider’s orientation becomes infected by incestuous amplification, the opposite occurs: his or her orientation distorts observations in a way that drives the interaction to toward an ever increasing mismatch between the organism and its environment.

Viewed abstractly, here is how it happens:

Incestuous amplification, in effect, hijacks the orientation of decider’s OODA loop by overriding observations to a point where one’s orientation induces the decider to see and act on what he wants to see rather than what is. (By the way, when a self-styled decider or change agent uses the words like vision and transformation in the same paragraph, it is a sure warning sign that such a hijacking is well under way.)

It follows that the decisions and actions flowing from this kind of orientation must be disconnected from reality, except by accident or chance. But this initial disconnect is only the first-order effect; subsequent effects remove any significant possibility of a lucky break. That is because the disconnect between the actions and the environment that those actions purport to cope with pumps dysfunctional behavior back into the entire OODA loop, which then folds back on itself to magnify the mismatch.

How this happens becomes clear when one realizes that the consequences of the first-order actions (which, as noted above, are already disconnected from the exigencies of the environment) create changes or external effects that are then fed back into the OODA loop as subsequent observations. These new observations are distorted again by the hijacked orientation of the decider, who sees again what he wants to see. This produces new decisions and actions, which, in turn, are even more disconnected from reality. And so the cycle not only repeats itself but it turns in on and amplifies itself — the effect is a little like placing a microphone next a speaker when recording, only the result is far more dangerous.

That is because, as any student of nonlinear dynamics in control theory, or the theory of evolution by natural selection, can tell you, this kind of positive feedback loop, if not corrected by some form of selection (natural or otherwise), must produce an explosive spiral of ever increasing mismatches, leading to increasing confusion and disorder that inevitably degenerate into chaos or death or extinction. Left uncorrected, the decisionmaking organism exhibiting an incestuously amplifying OODA loop becomes increasingly disconnected from its environment, but nevertheless blunders forward to the tune of its internal dynamics.

Without a correction, there can be but one outcome: the environment eventually intrudes to make the irrevocable decision.

Put another way, all living organisms from the individual to a society can be viewed as open (thermodynamic) systems that must process a flux of matter, energy and information to maintain their coherence. To do this, they must communicate effectively with their environments. Incestuous amplification has the effect of closing off the system from its environment, and any activity in a closed system always generates entropy, thereby making it impossible to maintain that system’s coherence. So, without a correction or a change that opens the decider’s OODA loop to an effective communication with the real world, the only uncertainty in the outcome is how long an OODA loop driven mad by incestuous amplification can last before it degenerates into chaos and is selected out.

Now, with this working appreciation of madness in mind, let’s put these abstract ideas into action with regard to America’s Iraq debacle.

Job One, gathering the data has just been made much easier. I urge you to read carefully “The Iraq War Ten Years After: Declassified Documents Show Failed Intelligence, Policy Ad Hockery, Propaganda-Driven Decision-Making” and the links to the official documents it cites. This compilation of official documents illustrates the “information” that was used by U.S. decisionmakers to justify (to themselves and others) and to plan the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. These documents have been made accessible to anyone with an Internet connection by the invaluable National Security Archive of George Washington University.

After spending trillions of dollars, killing hundreds of thousands (approaching perhaps a million) of Iraqis, suffering over 4,000 U.S. combat-related deaths, and tens of thousands of wounded and stressed-out veterans — not to mention placing a huge indelible stain on our national honor — interested readers can use this archive to take a tour down memory lane to understand the evolving orientation that led to the Iraq horror story.

This is precisely the kind information needed to address the crucial question of whether or not incestuous amplification corrupted the OODA loops of the deciders who created this catastrophe. Surely, given the magnitude of the disaster, this is a project worth pursuing.

Perhaps more important, it is feasible for you or anyone else to use this data to make the analysis. To see why, I respectfully submit the following null hypothesis for your initial analysis of the question of whether or not the American OODA loop went mad in the run-up to the Iraq war: the decider’s OODA loop was not hijacked by the incestuous amplification of decider’s observations.

Note the careful wording of this hypothesis ensures that it can indeed be falsified should you choose to use the archive’s database to test its truth. This construction has the added benefit of ensuring that you will not fall prey to the epistemological trap laid so carefully by Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice during this period: namely that “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”

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