Robust Action in the Topkapi Palace

by Henry on January 17, 2008

Brad DeLong disagrees with Timothy Burke on the practical consequences of the inscrutability of motivations among key figures in the Bush administration. Not only do I think Brad is right on this, but his arguments (with the addition of a healthy dollop of economic sociology) help elucidate what’s happening in this post by Marty Lederman.

First Tim:

One of the consequences of the perspective I’m taking is that I’m perpetually skeptical about whether we ever ought to talk about individual intentions in an atomistic way, e.g., where we break down what an individual meant to do and assign proportionate value to different components of intention, and equally skeptical about whether we can ever atomistically describe the relationship between intention and result. That’s just with one individual, but it’s even more so once we talk about how a decision actually is made by small groups of advisors and is then transmitted to larger institutional networks. … one 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. …

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. …

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. … 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. … I do think traditional political and diplomatic history sometimes mirrors a flaw of a lot of social science. Some social scientists confuse explanatory models for empirical reality; some political historians confuse explanatory narratives about decision-making for the messy processes that shape intentions and translate intentions into action and event.

Now Brad:

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

When Lloyd Bentsen became Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, he scattered his—loyal—senate staff throughout the Treasury Department at all levels, and used them as a second, separate, parallel web of communication in order to gauge the distortions that were being introduced into the paper that crossed his desk by the game of bureaucratic telephone. When Kangxi became Emperor of China, he scattered the—loyal—hereditary bondsmen of his Manchu clan throughout the imperial Chinese bureaucracy at all levels, with instructions to write to him regularly through secret channels to tell him what was really going on, as a second, separate, parallel web of communication … But 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. …

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.

As I said, 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. This is a point that John Padgett and Christopher Ansell develop in their classic article on ‘robust action’ in the court of Cosimo de Medici. As Padgett and Ansell describe it, Cosimo de Medici, far from being decisive and oriented as Machiavelli’s ideal princes were supposed to be, was an indecipherable sphinx, who preferred to lurk in the background. He never assumed public office and hardly ever gave a public speech. His actions were reactive rather than proactive, responding to a flow of requests in a way that ‘just happened’ to serve his multiple interests. He was able to engage in this “robust action” precisely because single actions can be judged from multiple perspectives simultaneously, and can be moves in many games. Because requests had to flow to him, others, not Cosimo himself, struggled to infer and thus to serve Cosimo’s inscrutable interests. “Control was diffused throughout the structure of others’ self-fashionings.”(Padgett and Ansell, page 1264).

This concept of robust action is one in which the actors at the center of the network never want to disclose their absolute interests and desires, because this would limit their options. Instead, they prefer to make others disclose their desires. Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue specific goals, for:

“in nasty strategic games like Florence or chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked-in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of others’ successful “ecological control” over you.” (Padgett and Ansell, p. 1264)

But in modern contexts, robust action helps the powerful in other ways. It allows the powerful to evade responsibility for their actions. If you never issue a direct order, instead allowing inferiors to infer your desires from what you don’t explicitly forbid, you make it extremely difficult for others to hold you accountable for what your inferiors end up doing. This is most likely what happened in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. There likely never were any formal orders to torture and humiliate inmates – instead, there was a diffuse understanding, encouraged by those at the top of the hierarchy, that torture and humiliation were appropriate and acceptable tools of interrogation. The same thing seems to have happened with the destruction of the CIA waterboarding tapes, as per Marty Lederman:

when the Commission closed up shop, mid-level CIA lawyers Steven Hermes and Robert Eatinger told Jose Rodriguez that the destruction would then be lawful. (This advice was probably equivocal and might well have been mistaken. In light of the potential breadth of the broadly worded federal obstruction statutes, and the warnings that had been repeatedly given to the CIA not to destroy the tapes, it is unlikely that good lawyers could have advised Rodriguez that the coast was clear with any degree of confidence.) Rodriguez knew that if he asked anyone else, he might get conflicting legal advice, or even a directive not to destroy. And if Rodriguez didn’t ask for a direct order one way or the other, no one was eager to give him one. …

CIA General Counsel John Rizzo “advised” against the destruction. And then-CIA Director Porter Goss “recommended” against it. These are the verbs of officials who hope their advice goes unheeded: Notably, no one actually instructed Rodriguez not to destroy the tapes, or that it would be illegal to do so. Rodriguez therefore interpreted the repeated failure of his superiors to require retention of the tapes as an implicit green light to destroy—and he may well have been right about that, as a practical (if not a legal) matter. … Personally, I think it would be unfortunate to point the finger exclusively at Rodriguez and others at his level and below. The obvious wrongdoers were those in the CIA and White House who implicitly or expressly condoned the destruction by repeatedly failing to say “no.” But it is, of course, much more difficult to establish criminal culpability for such willful blindness. As the many at the CIA feared all along, the political folks who pushed for the program have left the career officials holding the bag

Marty may be right on grounds of fairness to say that Rodriguez shouldn’t be held entirely accountable, but there is an incentive problem for the future in letting mid-level people like him go. If underlings have well-grounded reason to fear that when they are prosecuted for their actions, they will be hung out to dry by their superiors in the absence of any explicit orders, then they are likely to demand explicit orders so as to protect themselves. And often, those superiors aren’t likely to want to give those orders explicitly, for all the obvious reasons.

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.

I think what Tim is doing is to over-emphasize the epistemological consequences of this ambiguity (we can never be entirely sure that Porter Goss wanted those tapes destroyed, and almost certainly we can never prosecute him for it), and under-emphasize the strategic consequences (that we can never prove what Porter Goss wanted, allows Porter Goss to get away with a lot of stuff that he couldn’t get away with otherwise). There may be contexts in which the epistemological consequences are more important than the strategic consequences, but I strongly suspect that the inner workings of the 2000-2008 Bush administration isn’t one of those contexts.

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{ 61 comments }

1

C. L. Ball 01.18.08 at 12:44 am

Padgett & Ansell describe a far more nebulous process and one more contingent on the network in Florence than the process and network identified by DeLong, Lederman and Henry. Cheney and Rumsfeld did not engage in “robust action” but established alternate intelligence analysis and policy-making fora that made them “boss” rather than “judge” to the hierarchy. They delegitimized themselves within the bureaucracy. Their real accomplishment was getting Congress to grant conditional authorization for war in Oct. 2002 without any claw-back provision.

2

C. L. Ball 01.18.08 at 12:46 am

“…judge in the hierarchy.” Not “to” it.

3

joel hanes 01.18.08 at 2:16 am

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.

And this is exactly how Reagan evaded responsibility for Iran-Contra, through “plausible deniability” — he never explicitly said “Guys, I want you to set up an independent paramilitary force with its own sources of funding, not under the control of Congress. Why don’t you try selling some of our armaments to our supposed enemies the Iranians (and see if you can swap some for those hostages while you’re at it). Then, we can have our boys really take the gloves off in Central America — raping a few nuns and mass murder of a bunch of peasants will really show those very liberal Comunists who’s boss in this hemisphere.”

And since he didn’t actually come right out and say it, he wasn’t responsible for the fact that those treasonous plans were in fact carried out by Ollie “Higher Power == POTUS” North and his little cabal of conspirators.

Even though it’s probably what Reagan wanted, or what his underlings thought he wanted.

4

rea 01.18.08 at 2:30 am

powerful people can strategically shape the things that underlings do and do not do, without ever specifically demanding that they do anything.

“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

5

David in NY 01.18.08 at 2:39 am

I dissent, sort of. They would be so assiduous in the destruction of evidence (see, obstruction of justice) if the did everything by indirection. A lot of bad stuff got ordered – explicitly.

6

David in NY 01.18.08 at 2:40 am

Oh, cripes. I meant “They would not be so assiduous …

7

Anderson 01.18.08 at 3:10 am

Even though it’s probably what Reagan wanted, or what his underlings thought he wanted.

Reagan scarcely wanted any nuns raped; his Hollywood vision of “freedom fighters” excluded anything so sordid. He was simply unable to imagine what his trite slogans amounted to on the ground.

In this respect (as in so many others), he was not out of the American mainstream. Au contraire.

8

mpowell 01.18.08 at 3:39 am


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. …

I find this claim to be pretty silly (Can we assume that Burke would be terrible at bureaucratic politics?). Cheney may have not been able to know the precise effect of his words and we may never know his true and deepest intention for certain. But given what we know of Cheney, how can anyone claim that he didn’t know what he was doing? He knew what he wanted, and he got it. Isn’t it kind of the point that some people are good at this? Brad and Henry both highlight this as well, but its amazing to me that Tim could be confused about this. Cheney is where he is because he’s good at having the effect that he desires in this context.

9

seth edenbaum 01.18.08 at 4:11 am

You seem to have forgotten the major difference between Cheney et al and the Medici: the US is a democracy and Cheney is an elected representative of the people.

“One of the consequences of the perspective I’m taking is that I’m perpetually skeptical about whether we ever ought to talk about individual intentions in an atomistic way.”

In dreams begin responsibilities. The beauty of the the rule of law is that if it says you’re legally responsible then questions of absolute responsibility are rendered irrelevant. Law simplifies: you cover your ass or do the time. You don’t have to go into the metaphysics of the logic of the Miranda decision, you just have to know why it was the logical choice.

10

Timothy Burke 01.18.08 at 5:01 am

What I’m mostly meaning to do in that entry is suggest that there’s a modest problem with the way that some kinds of political history shorthands “decision-making”, in which intention-decision-action are all combined within the persona of a single leader, and there’s a simple noun-verb description of the decision. “Cheney did this-and-that” and so on, whereas intention-decision-action strike me as more institutional, more social and in some ways more indeterminate even when there’s a very decisive figure who is absolutely certain what he wants. (Which I agree describes Cheney.)

11

elbujo 01.18.08 at 6:26 am

This post makes me want to become department chair just so I can try this theory out someday.

12

nick s 01.18.08 at 6:52 am

Cheney is an elected representative of the people.

Except that there’s a constitutional schism here: Cheney may well not be immune from prosecution, but he’s perceived to be so. At the presidential and vice presidential level, the rule of law gives way to the rule of politics, since impeachment is not a decision made according to the evidentiary and legal standards of the court. And if Cheney is de facto beyond the ordinary reach of law, a reach that extends to sitting legislators (and, presumably, judges), it might be fair to say that Medici rules apply.

Tim: point taken, but isn’t this a standard critique of historical narratives? And isn’t the mature historiographic approach, albeit one that’s not spoken about too loudly, to regard omniscient-narrator ‘X did’ or even ‘X ordered’ as a necessary but problematic shorthand, to be glossed in academic history by an account of the process in as much detail as can be ascertained from the evidence?

Which may mean that there’s a disciplinary cross-purpose here.

13

Martin Wisse 01.18.08 at 7:50 am

This post is interesting, but it’s things like this…


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,

…that get my goat. The reality of why the intelligence was bad was precisely because Cheney and his neocon friends had a preconcieved opinion, wanted to achieve a certain outcome and made sure that they got it. No need to create complicated theories about this. Just knowning about recent American political history, where Cheney and Rumsfeld et all came from, knowning how they had tried to pull exactly the same trick with the USSR as they did with Iraq (massively overestimating their capabilities to ensure a more hawkish policy), is enough.

Because then you’ll also understand how much these people mistrusted the established bureaucracies, from State to the CIA and Pentagon, how obsessed they are with second guessing and knowing better than the professionals and how much they want to be in control, by either establishing new power centres or using informal groups of advisors.

14

Martin Wisse 01.18.08 at 7:54 am

On reread, I want to make it clear that 13 is aimed at Tim rather than Henry.

15

Doug 01.18.08 at 10:12 am

“If you never issue a direct order, instead allowing inferiors to infer your desires from what you don’t explicitly forbid, you make it extremely difficult for others to hold you accountable for what your inferiors end up doing.”

Wannsee, for instance?

16

Dave 01.18.08 at 10:27 am

Never was a thread in more legitimate need of a Godwin, this is exactly how most historians now understand the inner workings of the Third Reich… Which, to be honest, only makes Hitler an outstanding example of the workings of unaccountable power, rather than the vile counter-example to all things good he might more prissily be seen as….

17

John Emerson 01.18.08 at 1:05 pm

In my own political discussions I’ve bumped up against versions of Burke’s point of view several times, the gist being that neither organizations nor individuals ever act intentionally, but that actions and decisions just emerge from within complex psychological and social processes, with no one responsible for group decisions, and with there being no real moment of truth or moment of decision for individuals. Popular philosophical theories apparently make this interpretation of any decision formally necessary, or at least, irresistably tempting to sophisticated thinkers.

I’m more of the view (Henry’s, I think) that “The Cossacks work for the Czar”*, even though the Czar retains plausible deniability. By vagueness the Czar keeps multiple options open, and by vagueness the Czar is able to wash his hands of responsibility. It’s true that sometimes the choice of a specific action at a specific time is forced by events, but that doesn’t mean it “just happened” — the action was a prepared response to an anticipated eventuality.

The application of this model which has met general resistance is in the area of the media, above all once-respected the New York Times and the Washington Post. My understanding is that Czars Sulzberger and Graham (and the others) have thrown in their lot with the neocon / antitax / anti-labor right (without committing themselves on any of the other conservative issues), and that individual bylined reporters and columnists (except Krugman) have figured out what’s expected of them. (My guess is that Krugman, who was quite hostile to the left of the Democratic Party at the time of his hiring, was a hiring mistake). The Somerby-DeLong school of media criticism always focuses on the visible and doesn’t seem to want to look higher up the chain of command.

This explanation is old hat among left media critics, of course, but liberals don’t talk to them. At DeLong “Bloix” explained that the Time, the Post, and the Wall Street Journal are competing to become the house organ of the ultra-conservative super-rich, and that makes sense to me. For an advertising salesman, a single high-end reader buying big-ticket items is worth ten low-end readers.

18

John Emerson 01.18.08 at 1:12 pm

*Footnote to above. The Cossacks didn’t always work for the Czar, of course. If he didn’t treat them well enough they rebelled, and if they got presumptuous he had his regular troops crush them. (Or look at the Brownshirts in Germany.) The neo-Confederate and Armageddonist wings of the Republican Party are showing a bit of restlessness at the moment, though I expect that they’ll fall in place by November.

19

Timothy Burke 01.18.08 at 1:16 pm

I don’t mean to say that organizations and individuals never act intentionally. But it seems to me that there is a style of writing about politics that makes it sound as if they always do. That’s why we’d need a “social history of the decision”: to sort out the times where they do from the times where there’s something a bit messier going on.

20

jim 01.18.08 at 1:40 pm

16 is exactly right. “Working towards the Führer” was the phrase used to describe precisely this process.

21

John Emerson 01.18.08 at 1:51 pm

I didn’t mean to ascribe the view I objected to specifically to Tim. It’s just a pretty widespread reluctance to see agency anywhere, especially when wrong is done by legitimate institutions. it reminds me of the “quagmire” theory of the Vietnam War — no one wanted it, it just happened — which was argued in opposition to the idea that the planners of the war had an imperialist grand strategy.

Considering that those who alleged a grand strategy claimed that “opening Asian markets” was the goal of the grand strategy, and considering that the many who say that the war was justified after all point to the opening of Asian markets, the idea that there was an imperialist grand strategy make a lot of sense.

Things of this kind are also said of the winning of the British Empire, which supposedly was gained in a fit of absent-mindedness.

In any organization, people at any level with their hands on the actual controls can take initiatives which will so completely change the status quo that it’s impossible to return. This is Ariel Sharon’s “facts on the ground” strategy, and it’s one which can be initiated from any level in the organization(not just the top), though the higher up you start the better your chances of success are.

Still another case is the rise of the militarists in Japan, which was done in defiance of the democratic formal government.

The Schmitt-Strauss “state of exception” fascist theory of the unitary executive followed by the present regime glorifies this kind of policy entrepreneurship.

22

John Emerson 01.18.08 at 1:55 pm

In short, I think that Cheney and several of them around him, and to a lesser degree Bush and his lackeys, and probably Rumsfeld too, had an any-means-necessary coup d’etat in the back of their minds from the beginning, and after 9/11 it came completely to the fore. When you look at some of the people who eventually opposed them, legitimist authoritarians like Comey and Ashcroft, I find it hard to argue against this conclusion.

23

Timothy Burke 01.18.08 at 2:38 pm

The odd thing is that in the book I’m trying to finish now, I’m very much trying to focus on individual agency, and I really do believe both in the legal commitment to regarding individuals as responsible for actions and that individuals do decide. But at least some of what I’m arguing about the individuals I’m focusing on (three African chiefs) is that what they decided to do and what happened in the world aren’t always well-mapped, nor do I think that they were always or even often transparent to themselves. But sometimes you do need the shorthand that “He decided” or “He thought” or “He did this-and-that” simply in order to write in an intelligible manner. And sometimes saying that is factually correct, moreover.

24

harold 01.18.08 at 3:17 pm

It was more similar to the court of Hirohito in Japan.

25

aimai 01.18.08 at 3:22 pm

Forgive me for throwing my two cents in here. Its not my field but I’m very interested in this discussion. What it boils down to is that our model of the bush/cheney white house is essentially that they are exploiting the ambiguity of power by issuing some of their more egregious orders in the form of vague questions like “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” or “man, I love me some Jack Bauer shit…don’t you?” But there are other models of power and organization–I’m thinking specifically of the model that I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) to the Captain of a ship who is considered personally responisble and liable for everything that happens on his ship even if he is not present and some lower level officer is actually in charge of the ship–for example if the captain is not on the bridge during an incident? Perhaps we should be agitating for either pro forma prosecution of all top officials at the end of their term (as the Romans did with their provincial governors) or some kind of strict liability for top officials in which the showing of a written order or demonstration of a verbal order is a “get out of jail free card” for all subordinates as long as it is accomplished by the instant jailing of the top administrators?

aimai

26

Random African 01.18.08 at 3:37 pm

When I read Tim’s post, I thought of the Congo Crisis (since he mentionned a project on Cold War in Africa) and particularly the question of Lumumba’s intentions: was he pro-communist ? was he about to work with the USSR ? did he let or make western diplomats think that he did ? were the americans just eager to file him as a “Red” ? or were they getting second hand info from the belgians who were really concerned about their mining interests ?

27

Ralph Hitchens 01.18.08 at 3:47 pm

Martin Wisse, you got the second part right: “…how obsessed they are with second guessing and knowing better than the professionals and how much they want to be in control, by either establishing new power centres or using informal groups of advisors.” But I think you’re wrong earlier when you say “The reality of why the intelligence was bad was precisely because Cheney and his neocon friends had a preconcieved opinion, wanted to achieve a certain outcome and made sure that they got it.” In truth, the intelligence was wrong because it was done badly, and for the most part by CIA. The facts about “Curve Ball” and the aluminum tubes have been made public, but they were only the icing on a deplorable cake. There was a fairly solid consensus across the intelligence community that Iraq had WMDs — near-total assurance of chemical weapon stocks, and high confidence that some sort of nuclear and biological weapon R & D were underway. Unlike what just happened with the Iran NIE, back in 2002 the Administration was going to get pretty much what it wanted from the IC.

28

Glen Tomkins 01.18.08 at 3:55 pm

The tangled web

I thought we went with an imperial presidency from WWII on because we thought we needed some “The buck stops here!” simplicity and finality in government decision-making. We thought we needed a change from all that back-room politicking and byzantine maneuvering associated with making decisions as the Constitution prescribes, in Congress.

Who could have predicted that having an imperial President make all the decisions in private would actually create more layers of deceit and intrigue? Oh, I mean what, outside of the universal experience of mankind, could have led us to foresee that an emperor would soon be attended by a court full of courtiers?

A remark attributed to Churchill goes that democracy is absolutely the worst, most impractical, form of government ever known — except everything else we’ve ever tried. So what will it be? Do we continue with an empire that has to pretend it’s still a republic, or have we had enough yet? Do we need to hit bottom with a “bad emperor”? (Dubya is not a bad emperor. He lacks the work ethic needed for that.) Or are we ready now to admit that even democracy isn’t as byzantinely screwed up as an empire pretending to be a democracy?

29

Cranky Observer 01.18.08 at 3:56 pm

> …that get my goat. The reality of why the
> intelligence was bad was precisely because Cheney
> and his neocon friends had a preconcieved opinion,
> wanted to achieve a certain outcome and made sure
> that they got it. No need to create complicated
> theories about this.

I agree; while the discussion of theories of indirect action is fascinating, useful, and important the problem with the specific application is that the neocons openly published what they intended to do for over 20 years. They managed to put Cheney in office and with him Addington, Feith, etc – and they did/got exactly what they had said openly for 20 years they wanted to do (“stir the beehive; reclaim the Imperial Presidency”). Hard to say that this was going on in the shadows of indirection.

Cranky

30

Dan Nexon 01.18.08 at 4:07 pm

I’m having trouble forming my thoughts on this, but I think, building on Chris Ball’s comments, there’s a danger of conflating two dynamics here.

One is the manipulation of a central location in a segmented network through ambiguous & multivocal signaling, such that other actors impose their own (favorable) interpretation of the central actor’s disposition onto him or her. Because the segmented network precludes lateral communication, other actors fail to communicate their disparate understandings of the central actor’s dispositions, thus enhancing his/her capacity for robust action.

The other involves the manipulation of delegation to maintain plausible deniability. In this case, a subaltern carries out unpopular policies such that the head of the hierarchy can say “that wasn’t my fault.” Here, the manipulation of ambiguity stems not from the lack of lateral communication across the network, but the opacity of the relationship between the central actor and the subaltern. Indeed, there may be active or tacit collusion on the part of relevant actors to hide the central actor’s responsibility for the policy outcome.

I’m not sure that we have much evidence of the former occurring within the Bush administration, but a good deal of evidence about the latter. The latter, in turn, contributed to its ability (now basically dead) to engage in multivocal signaling across different audiences outside of the Executive Branch, such as those in the American Electorate.

(See here and here).

Now, I admit that my own views on Padget and Ansell’s seminal article are inflected by the ways that I’ve modified their argument in application (PDF), so caveat emptor.

31

seth edenbaum 01.18.08 at 5:15 pm

dan nexon,

The former was how Rove’s office was run, the latter how foreign policy was run.

32

Martin Wisse 01.18.08 at 5:24 pm


In truth, the intelligence was wrong because it was done badly, and for the most part by CIA. The facts about “Curve Ball” and the aluminum tubes have been made public, but they were only the icing on a deplorable cake. There was a fairly solid consensus across the intelligence community that Iraq had WMDs—near-total assurance of chemical weapon stocks, and high confidence that some sort of nuclear and biological weapon R & D were underway.

I see where you’re coming from, but this is wrong. The fact that the CIA and others had to rely on such weak sauce as aluminium tubes supposedly used for making the nuclear bombs, something that was quickly debunked at the time, shows how little real intelligence there was to justify the invasion. Remember also Colin Powell’s deplorable performance at the UN, which was supposed to show once and for all that Saddam was developing WMDs, but had to rely on pictures of weather balloon support vehicles!

That it was all reported as if this all made sense does not mean it did, but the establishment in the US and UK was with Bush and Blair in wanting a nice quick war, so hence criticism was muted.

Most people at the time, to the tune of at least 15 million marching against it, knew or suspected better. Moreover, so did experts like Scott Ritter, who had been part of UNSCOM and who was trying desperately to get anybody interested in learning the truth.

I do think Timothy Burke has a point with his argument that it is often too simplistic to imagine that the wishes of a world leader determine reality, but with the War on Iraq he has a bad example. And as John Emerson says, at times this sort of thing is used to take away the blame for evil policies or unfortunate events.

33

Timothy Burke 01.18.08 at 5:34 pm

Yeah, fair enough, Martin, it may not be a good example. I was primarily trying to think aboout the way Gaddis writes about the Cold War in my entry, and use contemporary examples. I also think that Daniel is right that there is a lot more of the “plausible deniability” form of this way of making decisions going on in this Administration than the “indeterminacy” form.

34

Barry 01.18.08 at 6:52 pm

I’d add that a good system also has implied and default authority. When mid-level people are found to be doing bad things, again and again and again, the upper-level people frequently can and should be blamed. After WWII, the US executed officers in the Japanese Army for mistreatment of prisoners, for example – the fact that there was no ‘smoking gun’ didn’t keep some rope from being stretched, and properly so.

What we’ve seen, over the past few decades and most spectacularly in this administration, is all such mechanisms breaking down. Only low-level people can be held accountable. For Abu Ghraib, only staff sergeants and below did time, for example. If one was a sergeant in charge of 40 soldiers, one was above the ‘jail line’, and no officers did time.

The extra importance of this is that being able to make mid-level guys take the (and I mean ’13 steps up, one step down’) fall puts some accountability into the system. They’re in position to finger the upper-level guys. If Scooter was facing some seriously hard time for perjury in defense of treason, he might have decided to talk.

35

Henry 01.18.08 at 8:12 pm

c.l. ball and Dan – I did try to make it clear in the post that the mechanism that I was talking about was a different one than in the Padgett and Ansell one – but perhaps I didn’t make it clear enough. That said, I do think that there is considerably more robust action going on here than you give credit for. Take, for example, Rice in 2000-2004. She was arguably the worst NSA in a generation, but was extremely successful in the ‘nasty strategic game’ that was the Bush administration. This was in large part because she successfully cultivated an ambiguity as to what her actual views and intentions were, persuading both realists and neo-cons that she was on their side, and priming her for the jump to her new job. Dan’s linkage of the different mechanisms is an _extremely_ useful clarification and something that bears more thought and work (Dan – if you get a paper out of this, you need to say in a footnote that this began in the comments section in CT). And on the Nazi state analogy, yes. I haven’t seen much political science work on this though – mostly what I have seen is historians working in a post-Poulantzasian vein. This work is really fascinating (it corrects for the bias of us IR types to see the state as a unified, or at least rational entity), but I would love to see some proper comparative work to determine whether this kind of mode of governance is replicated to a greater or lesser extent in other administrations, and what seems to explain variation in it.

36

John Emerson 01.18.08 at 8:31 pm

OT: At my URL is “Commissar Goldberg”, my own take on Goldberg. I think that there’s a tendency to underestimate the seriousness of the Goldberg phenomenon, under the mistaken impression that the reidiculousnes, falseness, and/or emptiness of his thesis are important. They’re not, especially: the important thing is that he will continue to be able to make these vicious, flat-earth accusations without being slapped down, and that is a function of (you guessed it!) Movement Republication occupation of or intimidation of the media.

37

John Emerson 01.18.08 at 8:32 pm

“ridiculousness” “Republican”

38

RW 01.18.08 at 9:45 pm

Perhaps this is the core of the naval tradition that command must bear total responsibility, to cut through the Gordian knot of deniability: Intents and actions are largely irrelevant, the burden of outcome rests utterly upon the captain; to share success as s/he wishes, in failure to sink alone.

It would appear that the habit of allowing poor leadership to reward itself for failure and success alike has greater implications than previously appreciated.

39

marylou 01.18.08 at 10:03 pm

Re: John Emerson’s last point about ‘Movement Republican occupation of or intimidation of the media’ – case in point: the ‘disappearing’ of the presidential candidacy of John Edwards. Missing in media coverage, now being dropped in meaningful polls (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2008_01/012925.php)

40

mere mortal 01.18.08 at 11:07 pm

It is difficult to believe that in a situation where an administration can put loyalists at key decision-making positions, and where those key positions have Scooter type protection, that decision or motive ambiguity can cause outcomes not directed from the top.

Many of the scandals in the Bush administration have come when the masks were removed from these key loyalists, be it Scooter implementing the burning of a CIA cover, DoJ hacks sacking prosecutors who don’t toe the line, or NASA hacks removing inconvenient science from scientific work.

These incidents are instructive that such direction exists throughout, that the political appointees know their role and have their instructions.

There is simply no justification for blaming the disastrous outcomes of the Bush administration on almost every issue on anything but intentional actions in service to ideological goals, with no regard to even second order consequences.

A confused or poorly-herded bureaucracy as an excuse for Bush administration incompetence is either intentionally obtuse or sweet and charming in the fashion of a confused four-year-old who has learned enough to see outcomes, but still not quite bright enough to understand causes.

Remember DeLong: “Worse than you can imagine, even after taking account of the fact that the Bush administration is worse than you can imagine.”

And Daniel Davies: “Give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics: It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration, It was significant enough in scale that I’d have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it), It wasn’t in some important way completely f—ed up during the execution.

41

sm 01.18.08 at 11:35 pm

The early Medicis manipulated elections in a republican constitutional regime to make themselves a dynasty of strongmen and eventually, hereditary princes.

42

bob mcmanus 01.19.08 at 3:27 am

“A confused or poorly-herded bureaucracy as an excuse for Bush administration incompetence is either intentionally obtuse or sweet and charming in the fashion of a confused four-year-old who has learned enough to see outcomes, but still not quite bright enough to understand causes.”

You’re welcome.

43

Matt 01.19.08 at 6:37 am

I am not as familiar with Medici as I am with cow herds, but the same principle applies.

The key is uncertainty in an unstable configuration. In the realm of cows, one has few dominate bulls, and more pretenders. But neither of these groups have the transaction counts to pursue a comfortable relationship. So, the herd compensates by moving wealth back and forth amongst the top cud chewers; one can see cow herds and their fundamental motion if one sits around them often enough.

So, Medici, knowing he has an unstable situation, lets power flow in and out, satisfying some of the princes all the time and all of them some of the time. Thus, he creates, over a time*space window the stability he cannot get in space alone.

We saw the same thing in Alan Greenspan, a man stuck in an unstable situation, a bank monopoly. Greenspan knew this, and he thus spoke three tongues simultaneously, creating an ambiguity among his clients that allow stability over time.

There was some research posted about ancient philosophers having a similar unstable situation with the rulers, and thus being forced to speak in tongues.

44

Ralph Blanchette 01.19.08 at 8:53 am

These commentator’s epistemology puzzles me. As far as I can tell, we have here theories of human action in a bureaucratic setting which we apply to the Bush administration. We find that the particulars of the administration’s actions can be made to fit these theories and take that fit as evidence for the theories’ quality, presumably their accuracy in determining the causes of those actions, from which we are able to determine the motivations of the actors for the purpose of making political and moral judgments of them. So it’s a thoroughly rationalistic enterprise. No empirical data on motivation, e.g. reports of discussions by the decision makers, and so on, are required. There’s no danger that simply assuming bad motives from the start will affect our results. Have I got that right?

45

walkingtheline 01.19.08 at 11:17 am

No need to assume bad motives when we’re neck deep in olfactory evidence, Ralph:

http://www.netrootsmass.net/Hugh/Bush_list.html

46

Porlock Junior 01.19.08 at 11:30 am

Here’s a very current example, or at least an allegation, of the same sort of effect:
http://dorigo.wordpress.com/2008/01/17/ratzinger-divides-maiani-unites/
The Pope gets into some opposition at a university — which, if you read further down in the blog
http://dorigo.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/storm-over-rome-physicists-against-pope-ratzinger/
started not with Galileo but with matters of current Italian politics and the Pope’s influence therein — so now a distinguished figure among the opposition will apparently lose an appointment. Of course no one gave orders for a reprisal; that’s unnecessary. So goes the account, anyway. BTW, if anyone cares, that blog gives the best account of the Galileo – Feyerabend – Ratzinger – university affair.

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John Emerson 01.19.08 at 12:37 pm

Ralph, we’re not in an ideal situation for assessing the motives of the Bush administration. Fate and the Bush administration itself have decreed that we be denied most of the information we’d need to make a responsible assessment of that. And beyond that, what you’re reading here is comments on a blog, not anyone’s considered professional opinions.

On the other hand, we all feel compelled by our personal relationship to contemporary history to try to figure out what the fuck is going on. So far the assumption that the Bush administration has bad motives has worked pretty well for me, though I wouldn’t express it exactly that way. What I’d say is that 1.) the Bush principals (Bush, Cheney, Romney, Rove, and their immediate aides) are all authoritarian militarist anti-welfare-state free-marketers, and 2.) they feel justified in presenting their projects to the electorate in a deceptive way.

I think that it would be possible to come up with a neutral statement of #1 and #2 that both sides could agree upon, with the Bush people describing their motives as “good”, and I describing them as “bad”. Value judgments, conflicting historical projects, etc., etc.

48

Bruce Baugh 01.19.08 at 2:03 pm

Matt @ 44: But a key fact about Greenspan’s tenure is that there wasn’t stability, or rather that there was apparently deliberate, planned upset, pushed down the road on a pace that justified a series of policies the public wouldn’t have approved of if ever given a look at the whole scheme. The willingness to make long-term plans and lie about them is an important part of the nature of the…”junta” isn’t necessarily the word I want, but “movement” may be a little diffuse. Something in between those, for the category of people John describes well as “authoritarian militarist anti-welfare-state free-marketers” and who do talk to each other and make plans together.

49

J Thomas 01.19.08 at 2:08 pm

“There was a fairly solid consensus across the intelligence community that Iraq had WMDs—near-total assurance of chemical weapon stocks, and high confidence that some sort of nuclear and biological weapon R & D were underway.”

Ralph Hitchens, I want to point out that you are utterly and completely wrong about this.

You are quoting another of those things that everybody knows which is not true. Everybody knows this because the mass media repeated it a lot. But there is no evidence whatsoever for it.

The consensus you describe did not exist. No such thing. It is a consensus that was invented for media consumption, and the “intelligence community” was not willing to stand up and tell the truth when the lie was created.

I repeat, there was no such consensus. Cheney was unable to get the conclusions he wanted from the “intelligence community” and had to invent his own intelligence community to get the consensus he wanted.

And now people tell this lie *all the time*. It’s disgusting. Please stop.

50

Cranky Observer 01.19.08 at 2:27 pm

> And Daniel Davies: “Give me one single example of
> something with the following three
> characteristics: It is a policy initiative of the
> current Bush administration, It was significant
> enough in scale that I’d have heard of it (at a
> pinch, that I should have heard of it), It wasn’t
> in some important way completely f—-ed up during
> the execution.

Since we don’t know what their goals are/were, particularly Cheney, how can we determine if the results are f’d up or not? Personally I think Cheney has had an incredibly successful administration from his point of view; what he has accomplished makes me sick but he has accomplished more of it than anyone since Teddy Roosevelt.

Cranky

51

John Emerson 01.19.08 at 2:38 pm

I agree with Cranky. I don’t trust the Democrats to undo Cheney’s work, either.

The great political strategist of our time is Ariel “Facts on the Ground” Sharon. You screw things up so badly that they can’t be fixed, and then you take advantage of the mess to put your own plan into effect, and if it wasn’t actually legal in the first place, what difference does it make?

Though I think that the Bush team really did expect the subjugation of Iraq to be much easier than it was. They were already planning the invasion of Syria or Iran (or maybe Venezuela or Cuba), but they had to postpone everything. But the Iraq war was still a success, in that it closed off a lot of options that the Bush-Cheney team didn’t want to see.

Dsquared’s statement needs revision.

“Give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics:

It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration,

It was significant enough in scale that I’d have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it),

It wasn’t in some important way completely f—-ed up during the execution plausibly could have been regarded as an effort to attain its publicly stated goal.

52

Martin Wisse 01.19.08 at 9:28 pm

Speaking of the goals of the War on Iraq, Greg Palast explains the swings in policy of the occupation as a result of a power struggle between the neocons and the Texas oil mafia. The former wanted Iraq to be the weapon that would break OPEC and get cheap oil flowing and transform the Middle East and all that while the latter wanted Iraqi oil production off the table entirely so as to make sure oil prices remained high.

What do you think? Plausible or not?

53

james woodyatt 01.20.08 at 6:29 pm

Anybody with any personal integrity who has ever found themselves unexpectedly working in an organization where the leadership gives its highest priority directions by not explicitly forbidding to do that which is actually expected has noticed one of the organizing principles not mention in any of the articles above, namely that underlings who demand explicit orders or who ask pointed questions about what the leadership actually intends as opposed to what they are saying are quickly replaced with underlings who are eager to please the leadership by any means available. Having been one of those people (as an employee of Enron Broadband Services from May 2000 to May 2001), I must say that having some besotted academic tell me that I can’t really induce the intentions of the personalities who make such staffing decisions is one of the things that makes me despair for the state of American academia.

Shorter JHW: Oh fergawdzakes, don’t you people have anything better to do with your time?

54

richard 01.21.08 at 6:27 pm

without actually disagreeing with anyone above, it seems to me that there’s a danger in claiming, on the one hand, that Cheney is an inscrutable mandarin, while on the other claiming that you know he got exactly what he wanted. Having identified him as machiavellian, it’s tempting to go the extra step and assume that all events somehow conform to his grand, unknowable plan.

So what, exactly, did/does he want? I figured it was selling rights over Iraqi oil, a massive, permanent military establishment on Iran’s and Turkey’s borders, a weak client state, on a shorter leash, dressed up in democratic drag, and enough instability to justify permanent high levels of spending on military contractors, diverting money from the US govt to his own/cronies’ pockets. How far are we from that? Is it acceptable to postpone ownership of Iraqi oil, as long as nobody else has it?

55

kharris 01.21.08 at 7:21 pm

The parallel mischief in environmental policy is already well known, but the past weekend’s episode of “60 Minutes” does a good job of filling us in on efforts to subvert fact within the Bush administration.

We have been through much of this at the level of evidence over and over. People are still trying to pretend that Powell was unaware he was lying to the UN in his famous speech. Outsiders, with far less access to intelligence information, were able to point to tons of misstatements. This was the guy who tried to get us on the right path. We have guys who were in the room, on the public record saying that they settled on a weapons charge not because it held water, but because it was the charge behind which everybody would most readily line up. Why do we need to pretend the result was unforseen by those in charge, even in some special oh-so-sociologocal way?

Our elected leaders are elected so that they are responsible. When they weasle around trying to shape policy in ways that leaves bureaucrats to blame (think of CIA torture tapes), they should be removed not for the policy, but for the effort before the fact to duck responsibility.

56

John Emerson 01.22.08 at 12:05 am

56: I think that Cheney was a gambler who comitted himself to military adventurism within a general right-wing, authoritarian, imperialist, free-market context. Once he got on the Iraq War horse, from that point he responded to circumstances. Guys like that sometimes end up switching sides ideologically just to stay in the game or to save their lives, but I’m pretty confident that his original framework was what I said. No doubt 9/11 allowed him to increase his goals beyond the original plans, but he’d already been hoping for something like that.

57

richard 01.22.08 at 2:21 pm

58: so his goal was war? Rather than that being a method for getting to some other goal?

Or he’s a 19th century colonialist who hasn’t got the joke of 20th century American imperialism (that you don’t need to own the land/cow as long as you can extract the labour production/milk)?

58

Ralph Hitchens 01.22.08 at 3:05 pm

j thomas — You think I’m completely wrong about the intelligence community consensus re. WMDs. Not sure what your basis is for saying that. I was a senior analyst in the IC at the time, not directly involved with the NIE but closely acquainted with many who were, and kept up with the interagency current intelligence reporting & analysis. Based on this, I do believe there was a consensus along the lines I described, even if there was considerable skepticism about some things, like the tubes or the BW vans. What is your basis for saying that no such consensus existed?

59

Ralph Hitchens 01.22.08 at 3:11 pm

j thomas, I would add that the intelligence community is hardly ever willing to stand up and “tell the truth when the lie was created.” Why, it’s beneath our dignity to waste time explaining things to the unclean.

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Guano 01.22.08 at 9:46 pm

“There was a fairly solid consensus across the intelligence community …” If there was this consensus then the intelligence community is very foolish, because the weakness of the “intelligence” was clear and became even clearer once the inspectors began reporting. The intelligence showed that there were still unanswered questions but it was not strong enough to support the assertion that “we know Iraq has WMD”, which is what Blair was saying in March 2003.

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guano 01.23.08 at 7:23 am

So what were the deep-seated motivations? In the UK I think that many politicians and commentators thought in 2002 that it was inevitable that the USA would invade Iraq, thought that it was inevitable that that the USA would win easily, and so decided that it would be pointless to oppose the invasion. Opposing it might lead to them looking foolish or to the end of their careers. So they begin to construct post-hoc justifications (often illogical or based on unproven assertions). (“Saddam is evil.” “How do you know that he is evil?” “Because he’s got weapons of mass destruction.” How do you know that he’s got WMD?” “Because he’s evil so he must have?”) For them the evidence was “compelling” because, perhaps unconsciously” they were hoping for some compelling evidence to come along. In March 2002, Blair has circulated to MPs a “dossier” about Iraq and WMD and MPs replied that it was very unconvincing. Basically the same dossier, tarted up by spin-doctors, was published in September 2002 and this time was said to be “compelling”. Only the politics had changed in the intervening six months; the evidence had not changed.

From my viewpoint in the UK it is more difficult to say what the deep-seated motivations of the neo-cons was. However I will put forward a hypothesis: Iraq was contained, and therefore militarily weak, and it was a tempting target. It was tempting to see an easy invasion of Iraq as leading to the solution of a number of other problems: oil prices, Israel/Palestine, where to station US troops in the middle east etc. Except that the many of the assumptions have turned out to be unvalid!

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