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How Hypocrisy Became Standard Operating Procedure for the U.S. Government

The “Afghanistan Papers” point to an information cartel that will likely persist for the foreseeable future.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to U.S. troops during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Nov. 28.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to U.S. troops during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Nov. 28. Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the Washington Post released a landmark investigation into the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The foundation of the reporting was hundreds of interviews, recorded by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), of the officials and staffers who were tasked with devising and implementing Afghanistan policy. The core finding is that the United States’ elected and appointed civilian leaders, and its senior military officials, consistently made misleading public assertions about their overall progress in achieving political, humanitarian, and military objectives in Afghanistan. Moreover, they had publicly defended programs and initiatives that they knew were not working, would not work, or would actually make things worse.

The only truly surprising thing in the Post series was the breadth of government employees who had privately believed that the war was not going well, but publicly expressed an optimism and faith in forever-forthcoming goals. This private-public dichotomy was found at all levels of seniority, party affiliation, military rank, experience, and direct exposure to the 18-year conflict.

Such hypocrisy is rarely demonstrated so clearly in print, especially for an issue with foreign-policy consequences so lethal, costly, and demoralizing. Democratic countries are collectively responsible for their foreign-policy actions. And so, in the case of Afghanistan, academics, activists, think-tank analysts, Pentagon beat reporters, investigative journalists, political party donors, citizens, voters, and others, all bear some responsibility.

But primary accountability lies with the three groups that most directly knew what was happening, should have been more forthcoming with their privately held assessments, and could have made the needed corresponding strategy and policy corrections: civilian government officials, senior military officials, and the relevant congressional overseers of foreign and military policy.

While nobody knows another person’s motivations, these government employees did not make their choices independently of their institutional cultures, professional networks, and personal relationships. In turn, it is important to understand how their decisions and behaviors were shaped while they served. That will provide some clues for why government hypocrisy has been—and will continue to be—the norm when it comes to wars that do not unfold as planned or promised.

First are the civilian officials in the White House, Pentagon, State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other relevant agencies. These are Senate-confirmed officials, political appointees, or higher-level career bureaucrats who take orders from those officials or appointees. The former two categories of people owe their jobs to the White House, and once the president authorizes a military intervention, they loyally defend its wisdom and progress (in public), remain silent, or leave office. The latter, by formal orders and custom, are generally prohibited from speaking out against administration policy; their job is to execute what the White House decides, or to leave.

Next are senior military officials who ultimately take orders from the president or authorized civilian Pentagon officials. In general, officers at the level of Army colonels or Navy captains or higher do not publicly comment on doubts about an ongoing war on the belief that doing so could embolden the enemy, introduce skepticism among allies, or, worst of all, harm the morale of forces deployed across a battlefield. They contend that their constitutional obligation is to translate civilian political guidance into operational plans, not to publicly question that guidance while fulfilling their oaths of enlistment.

Officers who are publicly skeptical of current wars are rare and shunned. A prominent example is Army Col. Gian Gentile, who was publicly critical of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine and practice and was constantly pressured, personally by peers and through his home institution of the U.S. Military Academy, to cease his criticisms. In 2010, a colonel working for Gen. David Petraeus, who was then commander of forces in Afghanistan, told me that Gentile was “public enemy number one” and in some ways more dangerous to the mission than the Taliban. Active-duty officers such as Andrew Krepinevich and H.R. McMaster wrote books that criticized the political decision-making and military actions of the Vietnam War, but they were published, respectively, 11 and 22 years after the disaster ended, when there were limited professional consequences for the authors.

Finally, there are the relevant congressional members or committees who could employ their intended oversight powers to verify that the relevant government agencies were being factual and forthcoming about trends and expectations in Afghanistan. They could investigate claims (themselves or through the Government Accountability Office or Congressional Research Service), mandate stricter public reporting requirements, withhold defense appropriations if officials are not forthcoming, enact the war-limiting authorities contained in the War Powers Resolution of 1973, or even exercise their constitutional powers to “declare War.”

But if you have ever worked on Capitol Hill, followed the annual legislative process closely, or watched open hearings, you know that congressional oversight of the United States’ wars is almost nonexistent. There are few legislators who track what happens in U.S. combat zones, and fewer still who then translate their understanding into asking challenging questions of Pentagon officials. Partial oversight is possible when a legislative body is controlled by the opposite political party of a current president. But even then, legislators primarily thank generals and admirals for their service, ask about defense projects that benefit their constituency, and refrain from pushing back on the Pentagon or State Department’s latest rosy pronouncements.

There are professional staff members who work for legislators or on committees and vigilantly monitor and grill their midlevel counterparts in the Pentagon and at Foggy Bottom. However, they do not get to ask these staffers or officials questions in open hearings, nor compel elected members to do so. Behind-the-scenes oversight lacks teeth, and it has no political salience to the limited public debates that do occur about to the United States’ overseas wars.

Beyond the specific pressures on each of these three groups, there are two powerful national psychological factors at play as well. First, an unquestioned respect for the uniform makes it politically difficult to challenge military policy without also challenging the selfless troops who implement it. Second, habitual foreign threat inflation mandates ever more extensive foreign military deployments. These forces combine to create a mindset where wars escape the pervasive scrutiny that is applied to other federal governmental activities.

Behind-the-scenes oversight lacks teeth, and it has no political salience to the limited public debates that do occur about to the United States’ overseas wars.

Despite efforts to demonize Washington, government employees overwhelmingly work long hours, care about the missions they are mandated to fulfill, and try to do their best with limited resources. Unfortunately, when it comes to Afghanistan and other recent U.S. wars that have been characterized by glaring hypocrisy, these employees chose to mislead when they had the agency and ability to make a difference by being publicly candid in congressional hearings, interviews with journalists, speechmaking, or with their own writings.

What the Washington Post revealed was not a conspiracy of insiders who contrived to maintain lies, but rather an information cartel that dispensed confident public assessments about the Afghanistan war that they individually knew were unfounded. What they privately told SIGAR interviewers was what they privately also told many journalists, academics, and think-tank fellows at the time. But they almost never said their piece out loud, because it could have put at risk their political reputations and professional livelihoods. These all-too-human institutional pressures and psychological factors are powerful, undeniable, and will likely remain prevalent in the foreseeable future.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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