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09/20/2005 Archived Entry: "Why Bush is good at politics but lousy at government"

I DON'T EXPECT TO AGREE WITH CLINTONISTA ROBERT REICH, BUT when I read this I thought of an unconfirmed factoid I once heard: that the Soviet military used radios that enabled commanders to convey orders downward, but didn't allow soldiers on the scene to convey their observations and advice upwards to the decisionmakers.

Not since the hapless administration of Warren G. Harding has there been one as stunningly inept as this one.

The easy answer to the paradox is that Bush cares about winning elections and putting his ideological stamp on the nation, but doesn't give a hoot about governing the place. But that's no explanation because

the two are so obviously connected. An administration can't impose a lasting stamp without being managed well, and a president's party can't keep winning elections if the public thinks it's composed of bumbling idiots.

The real answer is that the same discipline and organization that's made the White House into a hugely effective political machine has hobbled its capacity to govern. Blocking data from lower-level political appointees and civil servants that's inconsistent with what it wants to do or sheds doubt on its wisdom, for example, may be effective politics, in the short term. It keeps the media and the opposition party at bay.

But the same squelching of troublesome information prevents top policy makers from ever getting the data they need. Operatives in the CIA suspected Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction and personnel at the Department of State knew the plan to invade Iraq was seriously flawed, but such judgments were suppressed by a White House that made perfectly clear what it wanted and didn't want to hear. Career professionals at the CIA and the Department of State are now wary of sharing what they know with appointed officials, as are scientists and experts all over the federal government.

Of course, there's nothing new in this for the U.S., either. Just look at the beginnings of the U.S. War in Vietnam. Robert Anton Wilson has been writing and talking about this for years. He calls it "The Snafu Principle":

Communication only occurs between equals--real communication, that is--because when you are dealing with people above you in a hierarchy, you learn not to tell them anything they donít want to hear. If you tell them anything they donít want to hear, the response is, "One more word Bumstead and Iíll fire you!" Or in the military, "One more word and youíre court-martialed." Itís throughout the whole system.

So the higher up in the hierarchy you go, the more lies are being told to flatter those above them. So those at the top have no idea what is going on at all. Those at the bottom have to adjust to the rules made by those at the top who donít know whatís going on. Those at the top can write rules about this, that and the other, while those at the bottom have got to adjust reality to fit the rules as much as they can.

IĎve been teaching this for over 30 years, almost 40 years. More and more I have been asking at my workshops, can anybody hold up their hand and say that they have told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when dealing with somebody from the government. Nobody has ever held up their hand. Everybody lies when they are dealing with the government! You never know what they are going to come down on you for, so you tell them what you think they want to hear.

It's just worse among people like the Busheviks who are so determined to enforce "message discipline."

Posted by Claire @ 08:05 AM CST

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