Anatomy of DecisionsIn the spirit of election season I’m going to express one of my deepest worries about the Bush administration. I want to do that with a disclaimer firmly implanted at the beginning; I don’t have enough information (and doubt anyone does) to prove my worries, which is why I state them precisely as worries rather than conclusions. My hope here is to convince my reader that a specific problem, sketchy though our evidence may be, is worth considering from either side of the political isle before going to the ballot box. My worry concerns the organization of the decision making process in the Bush administration. I am bothered by the possibility that the very way information is being analyzed and collected in the Bush Whitehouse precludes a thorough review of all the information concerning especially (but not necessarily only) foreign policy. My information is only coming from only a few sources, yet in my frequent though by no means exhaustive perusal of what passes for investigative journalism in this country, none of the information I have seen rebuts my concerns.
To understand my concern I’d like to go back in time a bit to Vietnam. The right and left can generally agree that LBJ bungled Vietnam, even though they tend to disagree whether the bungling was a failure to increase military pressure effectively, follow a more well planned military strategy, or exit the war entirely. Whichever conclusion you come to, the same president was sitting in the Whitehouse making those errors. Why did he make them?
There are no doubt numerous answers to this question, but one particularly compelling version is offered by George Herring in his LBJ and Vietnam (1994). Johnson may have been one of the greatest politicians, in the Machiavellian sense of that term, in the 20th century. He was a master at brining people to the bargaining table despite themselves, at begging, yelling, hugging, and forcing politicians to vote his way. A better backroom politician is difficult to imagine than the gruff Texan.
Ironically precisely these skills served LBJ poorly in making decisions about the war. LBJ’s cabinet was—on paper at least—one of amazing daring and intellect. They should have been very good at managing to ask tough questions and come to new conclusions about the war. They should have been excellent in finding new strategies. But LBJ always regarded his cabinet warily. His years of convincing cagey politicians to vote his way taught him to value consensus over debate, comitment over evidence. When LBJ listened to his cabinet he wanted to here one basically similar positive story about the war; he didn’t want political enemies and rivalries to surface from inside his government.
All of this, Herring explains, helped lead Johnson to never fully understand the complexities of the war. Because he valued unanimous decisions, he didn’t spend enough time worrying about the right decision. Consequently the Johnson administration was always fighting with one hand behind its back.
I want here to make a simple point; one can have the best experts and information in the world, but decision making still relies on hearing that evidence presented intelligently, and comprehensively.
So, how does the Bush administration deal with evidence? Is the top priority keeping the ship sailing in one certain direction, in maintaining consensus, or is it on hearing as many sides as possible? Detailed information is hard to come by, but the reports aren’t hopefull.
I’ll relate two specific examples from one source. According to former marine captain Josh Rushing the media center in Baghdad had two very interesting characteristics. The first was that Rushing himself; a complete novice in media relations was assigned the task of corresponding with Al Jazeera. Why would a wet behind the ears captain get the nod over a more qualified and experiences person who might do a better job of convincing a crucial audience that America really has the Islamic world’s best interests at heart? Because the more experienced personnel were off doing other things including reporting to a domestic audience. Where does this suggest the priorities are, the long-term objective of international policy or the more immediate problem of domestic politics?
Perhaps even more disturbingly, Rushing claims that the media operations at Centcom were under the command of a political insider sent in (and given the equivalent a 2 star ranking) by the Bush administration. This young man in his thirties was select not for his expertise on international affairs, Iraq, or the Islamic world, but for his impressive performance in spinning American mainstream news. What we have here are central areas of policy being dictated by what appear to be the machinations of a thorough and excellent political machine.
Does Bush really demand that all information be presented in one page or less? Do the different sides of the administration engage in meaningful debate during meetings with the president present? Are decisions being made from the perspective of an effective and media savvy politician, or from the perspective of a thoughtful long-term international agenda?
I don’t have the information to answer these questions authoritatively. But the evidence in front of me is not encouraging.