March 23, 2007

Unified Command

Dr. Barnett's recent article Unity of effort requires unity of command is very long on indignation, and rightly so. For the US State Department to block the transition of even the rich off of rations is disgraceful. The State Department is a mess. The problem would not be solved by merely creating a new bureaucratic department, even a cabinet level one. That's because, functionally, presidents of both parties have institutionally lost control of the State Department (as well as other pieces of the executive).

Neither Democrat nor Republican presidents have been happy with the compliance of the State Department to their wishes. Whether it's Ambassador Silberman in 1979 or Speaker Gingrich in 2003 the basic fundamental truth has not changed for decades, we the People, through our elected representatives, have only limited control over the State Department. Our voices do not count for much because powerful figures at high levels in these departments are simply impervious to the comings and goings of administrations.

The State Department is not alone in institutionally creating its own priorities and policies. Critics of the CIA on the left have accused it of having its own agenda for decades. Critics on the right sometimes view the ongoing Plame affair as part of a calculated CIA campaign to hobble Bush administration foreign policy. This separation of civil servants from political control essentially creates a mandarinate, a mandarin class and it's a real problem that is showing up in lots of ways.

Barnett wants "unity of effort" (as do we all) and thinks that "unity of command" would provide it. In one sense, the idea's right and the Bush administration is way ahead of him there, but there's a bear trap for Democrats like Barnett. You see, the Bushies call their version, the unitary executive, in other words, taking the Constitution seriously when it says that "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." But unitary executive theory is a lightning rod for criticism from the left, viewed as prelude to dictatorship and other unwholesome things. Get out the asbestos underwear if you're going to propose a unitary executive among liberals.

But let's say that one can have unity of command without a unitary executive. Let's say that the bear trap is avoidable. How would things look like? You would have a department whose mission would be to go out in Gap countries and provide connectivity so that they would, over the long haul, join the Core. Like every other Cabinet level department, power and prestige would be measured by the same metrics, head count and budget. Graduating a country out of the Gap would reduce head count and force shifts and retraining for staff who specialized in the graduating country. In other words, there would be an career aggrandizing incentive to subtly foul things up, to manage problems instead of solving them.

Effort would be unitary alright. But getting around State is already hard enough, if you're adding to the challenge by the creation of a bureaucratized "DoEE" as well, things might get worse, not better. After all, what are you as a DoEE bureaucrat to do if you shrink the Gap to nonexistence, start over in State or DoD?

Clearly, there will be individuals who will fight the temptation and do their best but systemically this is what is very likely to happen over time as the incentives to fail without appearing to fail lead to career advancement and power for those who are honesty impaired as department bureaucratic power is maximized by their actions.

The civil service system that created the mandarinate is there for a reason. It is a pretty good improvement over the previous spoils system. But we are suffering from the current incarnation's defects and it's costing us more than treasure, it's costing us lives as our transition in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer because of infighting among the mandarinate and between the mandarinate and their putative political masters, us.

Posted by TMLutas at March 23, 2007 05:03 AM