The Need for Skepticism in the Cabinet

One of the things I've been up to in my long absence from blogging has been studying up on game theory and issues of persuasion and decisionmaking, for one of my side projects. One of the tidbits I gleaned from this study is that academics agree that it is, indeed, very hard to go against a group consensus. You must fight against social penalties for perceived disloyalty, as well as the internalized doubt in your own beliefs: perhaps all these other people know something you don't? Otherwise, why would they hold a view that you see as obviously wrong?

Interestingly, when a dissenter has even a single ally, no matter how many are arrayed against him, it becomes much easier to sustain his position. The second factor noted above, that the lone dissenter tends to question his own conclusions, is mitigated by the presence of an ally who shares those conclusions. And the ally provides valuable social feedback that helps make up for the more general disapproval.

These points were going through my mind as I read Angelo M. Codevilla's review of Bob Woodward's latest book, State of Denial, in the most recent issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Woodward describes the petty politicking in the Bush Cabinet between competing centers of power, which the President was unwilling or unable to quash. Because (says Woodward) the President fostered an atmosphere in which good news was the order of the day, and in which bad news would spoil the mood, officials would often withhold bad news and try to solve the problems on their own, or else pass them off as someone else's responsibility. Most important for Cabinet officials in an environment without strong central management was to consolidate their own authority at the expense of others. Secretary Rumsfeld (says Woodward) was famous for this, fighting to preserve the autonomy of the Defense Department and avoiding collaboration with the State Department, even as observers and front-line soldiers decried the absence of State personnel.

I do not know whether Woodward's account is accurate. It would certainly explain the seemingly disjointed conduct of a government whose arms frequently work at cross-purposes in this war. And the larger phenomena of groupthink coloring decisionmaking, officials withholding crucial data from decisionmakers for fear of a bad reception, and feuding bureaucrats impeding the prosecution of policy are certainly not new in American government. Indeed, the classic case of groupthink has for a long time been the deliberations leading up to the Bay of Pigs operation under JFK.

I do not believe any president actually wants to foster such an environment in his cabinet. But as it stands, it is hard not to. Each member of the Cabinet has a tremendous amount of power over his department; no president would willingly entrust that power to someone with which he disagrees. This will lead to a certain intellectual homogeneity. Meanwhile, each member of the Cabinet is individually constrained by the imperatives of the department he represents. His information is filtered through that apparatus, and his policies are often identified with the policies of the entrenched establishment within that department. This will lead to cabinet members defending their own fiefdoms even against the greater national interest.

These two institutional factors together make a toxic brew.

Eliot Cohen, in his excellent book Supreme Command, concludes that perhaps the most crucial task of a good leader is to challenge the orthodoxies of his underlings and force people to respond more rapidly to the real world. (Ironically, Cohen's book achieved some prominence because it was on President Bush's reading list; it seems the President was not able to sufficiently profit from it.) This sort of challenge and interrogation is very difficult to do when a president must deal with groupthink in his cabinet, restricted information, and bureacratic backstabbing. What can be done?

There is a useful position in the parliamentary governments of some foreign nations (Israel is one such), called the Minister Without Portfolio. This minister has equal rank with other ministers who actually run branches of the government, yet has no executive authority (or responsibility) himself. This releases him from many institutional pressures, and allows him to speak more or less freely. Meanwhile, since the minister has no actual authority except as an official gadfly, prime ministers have more latitude in choosing ministers that they might not see eye-to-eye with.

The relative performance of parliamentary democracies is not the issue here; they are subject to their own pathologies. But the concept of a cabinet-level appointee without executive authority is ripe with possibility. It would help counteract the abovementioned corrosive factors of the Cabinet dynamic, allowing for a more healthy level of discourse and cooperation--especially if there were two Secretaries Without Portfolio, so that they could support each other if necessary. It should also be their responsibility and privilege to keep an eye on the inner workings of the various departments, to make sure that their internal politics are not allowed to damage American policy without notice.

Whatever the remedy, it is clear that the present structure of our decisionmaking bodies is badly flawed. They are frozen in a 1950's model of corporate structure, full of hierarchies and one-directional information flows, when the rest of America has moved on to more fluid, collaborative structures. But that is a larger discussion. We must fix one problem at a time, and fixing the Cabinet isn't a bad place to start.

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