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Refreshing groupthink for good public policy




Diwa C. Guinigundo

Diwa C. Guinigundo

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in their book “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” have a very useful account of the Kennedy presidency’s cycle of fortune.

Kennedy’s nadir was the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion in early 1961. The US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained Cuban exiles to launch a guerrilla war against the new government of Fidel Castro. The idea was to project “an independent force of patriots” liberating Cuba. The Cuban exiles were trained in a Guatemalan air-ground base by the Americans. This was exposed in the front pages of the New York Times. Before the invasion could even begin, the 1,400 Cuban exiles were promptly received by the Cuban army. In three days, they were all dead or imprisoned.

This is not unique to Cuba. It was done in many parts of Latin America and elsewhere.

As Tetlock and Gardner analyzed, it was not the execution that was the problem. The Plan was.

First, Cuba is a sovereign nation and what the US intended to do was to subvert it and meddle in Cuba’s internal affairs. The pro-US, repressive, and corrupt President Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Castro two years earlier in 1959. The ruling elite controlling sugar, cattle ranches, mines and utilities fled the country.

Under Castro, “Cuba Si, Yanquis No!” earned the people’s support.

Kennedy and his team embraced the earlier plan of President Eisenhower to use the Miami-based Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro.

The second flaw of the Plan was that it was a comedy. The CIA’s covert operation entertained the Cubans: a radio station on the beach saw the whole plan unfold and reported every episode in air waves. Cuba’s rich coral reefs sank some of the exiles’ ships. Earlier, a squadron of American B-26 bombers camouflaged as stolen Cuban planes launched airstrikes against Cuba’s airfields. But the planes were no longer there but elsewhere.

And third, the contingency plan was half-baked. Should the landing fail, the guerillas were supposed to escape to Escambray Mountain to meet up with other alleged anti-Castro forces. This would have made sense if the original landing site was followed. But the Kennedy team switched plans without changing the escape route. Escambray Mountain was 80 miles from the Bay of Pigs through a dangerous mass of swamps and jungle.

What went wrong with the first year of Kennedy’s Camelot?

Group think. Of the lowest kind.

Tetlock and Gardner quoted Irving Janis in his 1972 work, “Victims of Groupthink.” The authors argued that “members of any small cohesive group tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing.”

Camelot was a seductive concept. So the idea was to keep the US as a paragon of liberal democracy. There was a need for Cuba to be neutralized and hold communism at bay. American involvement by all means could be concealed. Upon Kennedy’s instruction to review what happened, cozy unanimity was identified as the cause. No one dared to break the commonality.

Kennedy was undoubtedly surrounded by smart men with great experience. But the plan was vacuous; there was little evidence of serious research as well as careful thinking and self-criticism. Otherwise, the distance of the mountain for consolidation and regrouping would have been obvious. There must have been tiny effort to gather and synthesize other perspectives and contrary views. Training Cuban rebels to oust Castro at American expense using an American training manual was plain and simple interference in domestic affairs of a sovereign nation. The Cuban exiles would be guilty of subversion. It is doubtful if there was granular thinking at all. Coral reefs were ignored. CIA missed the radio station right at the Bay of Pigs. Finally, there must have been an absence of relentless updating of information. The new landing base and the contingency plan did not match.

It would be interesting to apply these lessons when analyzing the decision of the government to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement and its implications on the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

In the current setting, abrogating the VFA appears sensible from a purely nationalistic perspective. But was there scope insensitivity, considering that unlike in 1991 when the US bases were rejected by the Philippine Senate, China is now a major global player?

Was it a case of psychological gravity, considering that dismantling remaining traces of US dominance and unfair treatment of the host Philippines in cases involving US military personnel was a hard decision formed many years ago?

How was the decision arrived at, forecasting possible implications on the West Philippine Sea now that China has not disguised its interest in the area?  Was there a gathering of both outside and inside views of civil society? Were the second opinion of experts and even dissonant voices from all sides of the political spectrum considered?

What was the National Security Council’s advice on the issue? What were the policy implications considered by the Cabinet as it exercised its advisory role to the Executive? These perspectives would be interesting to the public, at the very least, for academic purposes.

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy learned his lesson, and learned it well. His team was encouraged to be skeptical, always challenging the dominant view of the hour. Special Counsel Theodore Sorensen and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy were assigned as “intellectual watchdogs” to “pursue relentlessly every bone of contention in order to prevent errors arising from too superficial an analysis of the issues.” Protocols were set aside. New outside experts would be brought in from time to time to present fresh insights and prevent ideological incest. Kennedy would occasionally leave the room to allow more freedom of thought.

As a result, the Cuban missile crisis of October, 1962, was averted. Camelot shone again. This was done with the same set of advisers and team. While teams can foul up, they can also sharpen judgment and achieve greater things. While teams can see just one side because they are already a crowd, they can also see both sides precisely because they bring different perspectives to the table. With freedom of thought, those differences can enhance better judgment. The new environment yielded at least ten options on how to deal with Soviet ballistic missile deployment in Cuba. Kennedy shifted from his initial view to authorize US attacks to negotiated peace.

We all want this government to sustain its success for the sake of the Filipinos. Which is why it is disheartening that the Philippines was referenced alongside Venezuela, Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh in a piece by Larry Diamond –  “How to Beat a Populist.” He claimed that in these countries, there were assaults on liberal elements like tolerance, accountability, and rule of law.

We should demonstrate that to succeed in political governance, foreign affairs, and economic growth, strategic, collaborative, and information and data-driven groupthink is exercised in government.



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