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  • How could they have been so stupid?

    Posted by Jonathan on April 13th, 2003 (All posts by )

    If this article is accurate, Russia has been subverting the U.S.-UK anti-Hussein alliance, has been supporting the Iraqi military and intelligence apparatus at an intimate level, and has done so until very recently. As the article puts it,

    It is not known how the Russians obtained such potentially sensitive information, but the revelation that Moscow passed it on to Baghdad is likely to have a devastating effect on relations between Britain and Russia and come as a personal blow to Mr Blair. The Prime Minister declared a “new era” in relations with President Putin when they met in Moscow in October 2001 in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.
    And obviously these revelations, if true, are likely to have a similar negative effect on U.S.-Russia relations.

    Perry de Havilland wonders how Putin could have been so foolish as to imagine that Iraq could possibly defeat the U.S. and allies, or that Russia’s role in aiding Hussein would not eventually be publicized. You might as well ask why the French could be so stupid to assume they will get away scot free after alienating the U.S., or why Saddam Hussein could imagine that he would prevail once the U.S. and its allies decided to fight.

    People miscalculate. Powerful people, especially if they are sheltered from information that contradicts long-held or official positions, can make big mistakes. Saddam Hussein is an obvious example, but even Putin and Chirac may have suffered from bad advice delivered by advisors with mutually supporting opinions. (The just-as-bad alternative is that they ignored good advice. I think this is possible in Chirac’s case, as he shows some Captain Ahab-type tendencies. Putin may have been badly advised by Russian military “experts” whose expertise was at best outdated.)

    No one is immune from such mistakes. Better leaders try to prevent them. Bush has succeeded largely because he is decisive and sees the big picture accurately, but also because he is a good manager and selected excellent advisors whose diverse views — e.g., Powell vs. Rumsfeld — make big conceptual errors less likely. It was not so long ago that people were asking how Bush’s predecessor, an intelligent man, could be so foolish as to make various bad decisions for which he is notorious. Hubris and overconfidence are deadly no matter who you are. Good decision makers guard against them and try to minimize their effects.