Friday, January 18, 2008

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Managing the bureaucracy....

Henry Farrell summarizes an interesting blog exchange between Timothy Burke and Brad DeLong on the proper relationship between leaders and bureaucracies.

Burke first:

[O]ne of the interesting bits of information to come out of the Iraq War so far has to do with why US intelligence was so off about Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. People who want to argue that intelligence was purely concocted for political purposes are too simplistic, people who want to reduce it all to the will of Dick Cheney or a few neocons are too simplistic, people who want to make it a sincere mistake are too simplistic. Some of what strikes me as actually involved includes:

a. That very indirectly, almost “culturally” or ideologically, actors inside the Bush Administration made it known that they, even more than their predecessors, would not welcome intelligence which blatantly contradicted beliefs or assumptions that they were inclined to make. No one ever sends an order down that says, “Here’s the casus belli we need, please write it up! kthnx.” This kind of pressure gets exerted when someone like Cheney says in a conversation that includes key advisors and heads of executive departments that intelligence has been “too timid” in the past, or is too dominated by experts who are unwilling to act. The thing is, Cheney (or various neocons) could believe that statement as a reaction to some factual understanding of the history of US intelligence, could say it as a reflection of a much more intuitive kind of personal, emotional orientation towards leadership (think John Bolton here), and so on–and could not entirely know themselves why they say it, or how that statement is likely to be received or interpreted.

2) Another thing at play: how the movement of information through institutions is rather like a game of telephone, that there is a kind of drift and transformation which has less to do with intentionality and more to do with processes of translation, reparsing, repackaging and repurposing as information travels from office to office, up and down hierarchies. So at one level of action and knowledge, you can get a very granular, nuanced understanding of the extremely limited value of a source like “Curveball”, but a process rather like genetic drift starts to mutate that knowledge into something else by the time it reaches the layer where ultimate decisions are made.

Now DeLong:
Tim Burke is both right and wrong. He is right: courts are the natural habitats of deceitful courtiers who tell the princes exactly what the princes want to hear, the people on the spot who control implementation matter in ways that the people around polished walnut tables in rooms with green silk walls do not, and the movement of information through bureaucracies does resemble a game of telephone with distortions amplified at every link.


Those with sufficient virtu to become princes in this modern age are well aware of all these deficiencies of bureaucracies and courts....

by the time anyone (a) possesses sufficient virtu, (b) is forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five, and (c) has seen the world, there is no excuse for not understanding that as a czar your cossacks respond to the incentives you set them, that you can change those incentives, and that you are responsible for the behavior that your incentives elicit. By the time you are forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five, you know very well that when you say that "intelligence has been 'too timid' in the past," what they hear you saying is "don't tell me what you think, tell me what I want to hear." George W. Bush--the feckless and virtu-less hereditary prince--may well not have clued in to the fact that Condi Rice had decided that if she told him what he needed to hear she might get fired, while if she told him what he wanted to hear she would get promoted. But Colin Powell knew damned well what the flow of "intelligence" from George Tenet to him was worth unverified, and knew damned well that taking care not to try to verify it was a way of preserving his own options for the future. And Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld knew damned well--unless they are much farther into their dotage than I believe--that their confidence in Saddam Hussein's WMD program was based not on intelligence but on their judgment that they would have active WMD programs if they were Saddam Hussein.

The frictions and distortions of the bureaucracy and the court exist. They are, however, counterbalanced by the intelligence, the sophistication, and the energy of the principals at the top. If the czar wishes, the cossacks do work for him. And if the czar doesn't want to take the time to make the cossacks work for him--well, that is his decision and what happens is his will just as well.

And now Henry:
I’m with Brad on this, but I want to go one step further. The very fact of ambiguous motivations and uncertainty about what the people at the top really want can be a crucial source of strategic power for those people. By combining ambiguous information about the motivations of those in power with implicit incentives to please them, powerful people can strategically shape the things that underlings do and do not do, without ever specifically demanding that they do anything....

More generally, the problem of ambiguity, reflects, as Brad says, to a very considerable degree the desires of those at the top. Moreover, it may be a crucial source of power for them. It allows them to blur lines of accountability and responsibility, by making underlings guess what they want, while never having the comfort of explicit instructions. Hence decisions by underlings over torture, to destroy tapes, to skew intelligence in the one way rather than another, that are based on well grounded inferences about the preferences of those above, but which don’t allow others later to reconstruct clear chains of causation and responsibility that lead from those at top to those who want to implement their wishes. That motivations may not be unambiguously discernible from context doesn’t mean that their motivations don’t exist, or that beliefs about those motivations aren’t important. Moreover, precisely that ambiguity over motivations allows for all sorts of strategic actions that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

My take: there are cross-cutting effects in the relationship between bureaucracies and "courts" as Brad puts it. No doubt, bureaucrats will want to please their superiors, and that can affect the kinds of information that they receive.

On the other hand, there is an large and robust literature in political science on the fact that bureaucracies can also resist, evade, or sabotage the policy preferences of their political superiors. Indeed, this came up earlier this week in the Nevada debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (NOTE: if anyone can find a shorter YouTube clip that only encompasses the first 7 minutes, post it in the comments):

Hillary Clinton's concern with bureaucratic evasion mirrors the Bush administration's utter and complete conviction, when they came to power in 2001, that they faced a hostile and ideologically biased bureaucracy. Being embedded in said bureaucracy at the time, I think the Bushies were about 15% correct and 85% incorrect, and this led to some horrible policymaking processes. An interesting question going forward is whether Clinton would display the same kind of organizational pathologies.

To be clear, Brad and Henry are correct to say that leaders should be wary of eager-to-please courtiers, and should be willing to pulse the system in order to get alternative sources of information. The irony of the Bush administration, however, is that in the case of intelligence gathering, Cheney and Rumsfeld did precisely this very thing. In their case, however, it was because they thought the intelligence apparatus' inherent risk aversion was preventing them from drawing the conclusions that they had already drawn about Saddam Hussein. And, as Hillary Clinton's statements suggest, this is hardly a GOP phenomenon.

One last quick thought: I don't really buy Farrell's strategic ambiguity argument -- or, at least, it was at best a minor key in this administration. George W. Bush is a lot of things, but "ambiguous" ain't one of them. And it's Bush's decisions that, in the end, set the tone for the administration. One of the biggest problems with liberal critiques of the Bush administration has been the assumption that Bush has been from the nose by Cheney, Rumsfeld, neocons, etc. Bull s**t. The president has been the decider.

posted by Dan on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM


Did you watch the last minute and a half of that youtube clip?

posted by: Aaron on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Unbelievable hogwash. We're simpletons for believing anything so simplistic as anything other than Burke's theory? What arrogance. How about this hypothesis--Hussein's actions prior to the war strengthened the belief that he had WMDs--playing games with the inspectors, etc. A lot of evidence found during the invasion points to WMDs having been present at one time and then moved. Of course, no one wants to believe they have been moved into the hands of people even more evil and unstable than Hussein, but that possibility exists. It amazes me how people like Mr. Burke can develop such grand theories based on so little fact. My old history profs would have flunked me for that kind of sloppy behavior.

Suppose there never were any WMDs. So what? Does that make what we did somehow wrong? I don't think so. If your neighbor's house is on fire do you try to help rescue his pets and children or look at the situation and decide that it doesn't matter if they suffer and die because the fire is no threat to your personal security?

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Aaron: sigh, yes, I've seen the last few minutes of it, and certainly do not condone it in any way whatsoever.

However, I could not find another video clip that contained the relevant exchange.

If you find one, let me know and I'll replace it immediately.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]


This debate might gain from the insights of some classic pieces on bureaucratic politics in foreign policy - particularly the criticisms of the bureaucratic politics paradigm by Robert Art ("Bureaucratic Politics and American Foreign Policy: A Critique?" Policy Sciences (December 1973); and Stephen Krasner, "Are Bureaucracies Important? (or Allison in Wonderland)" Foreign Policy (Summer 1971).

Punchline: Presidents can get what they want in terms of policy formulation and implementation, particularly on issues they care about.


William Ruger

posted by: William Ruger on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

I don't think any of this was mismanagement, mistakes, or organizational weirdness. Bush knew that he had the political capital to invade Iraq so long as his intel folks could dig something up for him to make the case for it. Shady? Corrupt? Unethical? Probably. Necessary? Yes.

posted by: Joseph Sixpack on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

The list of American intelligence failures go back far beyond Mr. Bush's tenure, and include both Democratic and Republican administrations of the C.I.A.

The behavior of bureaucracies is well studied; but as bad as they are, we have to have them. The decisive factor is the difference between 'managing' and 'leading'; and unfortunately, a Harvard MBA is structured to acquire the skills of a manager, not a leader. A manager might well seek out alternative points of view; a leader will demand that the worst views get first study. The manager manages numbers; the leader leads in, going first!

As a specific example, the Abu Ghraib incident was managed: Have faith in the system and turn it over to the military justice system (bureaucracy) for routine adjudication. A leader, however, would have handled the incident entirely differently, and in such a way that no one in the world had any doubt about American values and wearing the uniform.

The leadership nationally observed in '01 was a shell by '05, and Mr. Bush's polls exactly track the role switch from leadership to managing immediately after his re-election.

posted by: a Duoist on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

May I extend my comment:

The bureaucracy--any bureaucracy--responds to leadership far differently than how it responds to managing. The perhaps begrudging respect accorded to consistent leadership is at a much higher level than the familiar contempt for a manager: There are no partisan policy 'leaks' by people being led; 'leaks' occur only when people realize they are being managed.

posted by: a Duoist on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

There are no partisan policy 'leaks' by people being led

Some people refuse to be led. "Presidents come and presidents go, but civil service is forever."

posted by: Roger Sweeny on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

I guess it's not unique to US foreign policy bureaucracy. The British Foreign Office (no doubt under the influence of that notorious 'Second Generation' cabal that Pilger referenced and even Robert Harris suggests) the Quai dor Say, the Russian Foreign Ministry (even under a Arabist like Primakov), even the Egyptians all believed that Iraq has a WMD program.After 1998, Russia under the direction of Primakov, and theIraqophile
French diplomats rewrote the UNPROFOR rules to prevent aggressive inspections like those
conducted by Butler,Kay, & Ritter. The oil for food programs 'loopholes' to the likes of Pasqua,
Wyatt, & Ritter, all smoothed any opposition in
many circles to any aggressive inspections. Before
someone brings up 'Curveball' he only mentioned one particular facility in Iraq. Certain events surrounding 9/11 and the anthrax scare in the fall of '2002; had a strong orientation. In the
end, one has to ask did Saddam really get rid of
all his stockpiles? That hasn;t been proven to any
degree of finality

posted by: narciso on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Shorter Dan Drezner: Sure I fed my guests the spoiled hamburger that contained botulism, but I couldn't find any hamburger without it.

posted by: ken on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

So what to make of this?


"Iraq could produce nuclear weapons within three years, according to a German intelligence assessment.
The report also says the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) has evidence that Baghdad is working to develop its short-range rockets.

Germany believes Saddam Hussein is restoring Iraq's weapons capabilities

The BND also believes Iraq still possesses the capacity to resume the production of biological weapons at short notice.

Details of the information contained in the report was published in various German newspapers following a briefing to journalists by BND officials."

"Sunday, 25 February, 2001, 12:40 GMT"

posted by: lucklucky on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

As the other commentators have suggested, how was Cheney able to arch his eyebrow and intimidate or influence or urge (or whatever is being suggested) other intelligence agencies into reporting that Iraq had WMD?

This wasn't the US intel alone that believed Saddam was hiding his weapons.

And it wasn't just other governments believing it. It was also independent institutions that believed he continued to hide his WMD programs.

Furthermore, why didn't these tactics work with the latest NIE on Iranian nuclear activity?

The intelligence community failed. It wasn't the first; it won't be the last.

Looking elsewhere to some secret action by the neocons only prevents us from fixing the problem (as best as we can when dealing with a bureaucratic leviathan called the US intel community).

posted by: SteveMGalbraith on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Actually, the reality is not that hard to understand. Cheney/Addington in particular are masters of intimidating the bureaucracy without leaving fingerprints.

A confirming example is the Department of Justice, where they made unaccountability an art form through politicization. To the point that even the principals (Gonzalez, Goodling, et all) don't really know what they were doing or how decisions got made.

It's not that hard to see the modus operandi - intimidation, misinformation, and ambiguity all leading to the results expected without any audit trail. All of these tactics make the bureaucracy more malleable, the individuals less confident, and the veiled threats more effective.

The CIA as an institution, however, was clearly populated with people more skilled at recognizing the tricks (they invented many of them for use in OTHER countries to maintain deniability) and more motivated to fight back (non-acceptance of the fall guy role for the war and the punishment via Plame). The Department of Justice, like the Court system, has just accepted their castrated role until, with the prosecutor firing, Rove stepped into Plame territory which required an institutional response.

posted by: lone wolf on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

The point is ridiculous, since US and foreign intelligence asserted that Hussein had WMD programs and probably had WMDs before Bush was ever in office. There are various accurate lists of quotes from many Clinton Administration officials to that effect pre-2000.

Combine that with Hussein intentionally wanting ambiguity about possession of them (in order for deterrence among other things), to the point where his own people, including high-ranking officers in his army, believing that they existed, and it's hardly unsurprising.

posted by: John Thacker on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

"The CIA as an institution, however, was clearly populated with people more skilled at recognizing the tricks (they invented many of them for use in OTHER countries to maintain deniability) and more motivated to fight back ("

I'm not sure if you're tongue is in your cheek or not (I sure hope so).

You do know that the CIA also believed that Saddam had WMDs? I guess they succumbed to Cheney's manipulative glances?

And I'd really like to know how this neocon cabal of nefarious eyebrow raisers was able to get Gore and Clinton and Kennedy and Albright and Cohen et cetera et cetera to state in the 1990s that Saddam had WMDS.

Quite a feat.

posted by: EricH on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

The Dick Cheney Mind Ray Device?


Funny how it apparently didn't work back in 1987-90 when Cheney was SecDef and the CIA completely missed Saddam's nuclear program.

One of the fascinating discoveries of the internet for me is how men with fancy titles and impressive sounding pedigrees can say the most patently ridiculous and absurd stuff you've ever heard.

posted by: ThisisSilly on 01.18.08 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

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