Monday, October 14, 2002

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EXCHANGING INFORMATION WITH THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION: The New York Times has a story on the paucity of information the Bush administration gives to the press. The article said White House reporters, "could not remember a White House that was more grudging or less forthcoming in informing the press." Half of the article sounds like the griping of journalists who are having difficulty finding good sources; the other half sounds like genuine frustration at the lack of even official access to the decision-making echelons. It is also consistent with the administration's eagerness to keep government documents classified for as long as possible.

This story reminds me of multiple off-the-record conversations I've had with foreign policy analysts on both sides of the political fence. They agree on one thing. If the administration resists the release of information it provides to the press, it is positively allergic to the receipt of information from unofficial sources. The administration seems so sure of itself that any outside input falls on deaf ears. One result of this is that when the administration does try to engage the public, they do it in a ham-handed, tone-deaf way, as the economic team is finding out.

This is usually presumed to be a bad thing; I think the answer is a lot more complex. All governments distrust outside information to some extent. In The Secret Pilgrim, John Le Carré's George Smiley made the point that "governments, like anyone else, trust what they pay for, and are suspicious of what they don't."

Also, consider the alternatives. This administration's attitude towards information is about as far from the Clinton administration as you can get. That administration leaked, spun, and released information more often than Britney Spears exposes her navel. The Clinton team was equally eager to bring in outside experts, as Benjamin Barber has so gleefully recounted. I certainly don't think you can say that the previous administration's foreign policy record is better than the current one.

My suspicion is that an administration's policy towards outside information involves two tradeoffs.

The process tradeoff is between consultation and coercion. What Clinton and his team excelled at was building as large a tent as possible to maximize support for a particular foreign policy. Allies, Congress, outside experts felt like they were being stroked, even when they lost on the substance. This kind of tent-building takes time and effort, but it pays dividends in the long run. The Bush team, in contrast, is more willing to threaten to exclude or ostracize those actors that disagree with its viewpoint. The results have often been effective -- hence the Bush team's success in cajoling Congress, the allies, and potentially the United Nations into action on Iraq. One side-effect, however, is that because those on the outside feel like they are not being truly consulted, they will carp about it to others who are not being consulted. The result is a media perception of an administration that has forced a confrontation on Iraq in a unilateral, belligerent fashion, when in fact this confrontation has had more due process than the Clinton team's decision to bomb Kosovo. The Bush approach leaves hard feelings, but it also yields results.

The substantive tradeoff is between decisiveness and accuracy. Clinton wanted all angles of a story, and he got them. The result was a foreign policy that often resembled a Cubist painting: too many perspectives distorting the picture. In other situations, the Clinton team seemed so uncertain of themselves that they preferred to delay making a risky decision in favor of acquiring more information. It preferred delaying a decision in which it had 60% of the story in favor waiting until it had 90% of the story. This lead to the perception of a foreign policy team paralyzed by its inability to take a risk. [Any exceptions?--ed. Yes, the 1995 bailout of Mexico was both brave and decisive.] Sometimes the costs of delay were prohibitive. The Bush team, in contrast, does not lack in self-confidence. They see the forest from the trees, and are willing to make the big decisions even when they have only 60% of the picture, which in the real world is a useful skill. As Nicholas Lehmann notes, in discussing his article on Condi Rice in The New Yorker, "Rice is extremely sure of herself. She, like many of the foreign-policy officials in this Administration, isn't big on caution. Publicly, at least, she projects a brassy self-confidence about the ability of the United States to shape the course of events in faraway places without suffering adverse consequences." The results (the war in Afghanistan, the ABM withdrawal) have been mostly for the good. [Any exceptions?--ed. I think if they had a second chance they would not have pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol so brusquely.] So far, the Bush team seems to have managed this tradeoff better than Clinton team. They've gotten the big things right, which has probably reinforced their willingness to act on their own instincts even further.

My preference is for an administration that adopts 67% of the Bush team's approach and 33% of the Clinton team's approach. The two downsides to the Bush approach I can see are 1) As Fareed Zakaria has argued, this unwillingness to listen to outsiders will encourage the worst interpretations of American behavior, and 2) If the Bush team makes a mistake, it will be more likely to resist a change in direction.

Food for thought.

UPDATE: This USA Today article suggests that the Times piece had some effect on Bush.

posted by Dan on 10.14.02 at 09:24 PM