A recent article by William Pfaff illustrates how the Pentagon set up Mr. Obama to do its bidding. The name of the bureaucratic game, of course, is to remove all realistic alternatives to the Pentagon’s preferred decision before that decision is made. Pfaff’s discussion is based on Andrew Bacevich’s new book “Washington Rules.” I have not read Bacevich’s book yet, and will not be able to until I return to the states in November, but I have read several reviews and from that perspective can say that the behaviour Pfaff describes comports well with behavior I witnessed in my years in the Pentagon.
The picture is more subtle and far more complicated than that portrayed by Pfaff, however.
Pfaff looks at the game playing from only President Obama’s perspective. In Washington, the game is played at all levels, all the time. I have seen, over and over, how a Secretary of Defense gets set up by the bureaucracy just, like the Generals set up Obama. Also, when serving as low ranking officer on the Air Staff, I saw many cases where lower ranking generals using the same tactics to set up senior generals, especially the AF Chief of Staff — who was always considered the least informed guy in the room. If fact, I was once ordered by a two star general to lie to a three star general [Wheeler note: Spinney did not also say that he refused]. Colonels are always trying to maneuver generals into promoting their agendas. This is the way the real world operates, and the name of the game in this kind of staff work is always the same: remove all reasonable alternatives to your agenda to insure the decision goes your way. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
The Pentagon is a rat’s nest of military-industrial factions, factions inside factions, and ever shifting alliances — all competing with each other. The information game is easily played at all levels — which is one reason why this behaviour is so intractable. Mafias inside the AF are hosing each other as well as the AF Chief of Staff, ditto for the Army and the Navy, the different services are hosing the Secretary of Defense as well as each other; the Secretary of Defense is hosing the President. All are working the press and the Congress … this is going on all the time at all levels, all the time. It is simply the human condition in large government bureaucracies where billions of dollars are at stake, and leaders ignore it at their peril. .
The key to playing this game successfully is to make a leader dependent on formal communications channels and the chain of command, then you can use the bureaucracy to filter what flows up to him/her. This is known as the mushroom treatment — keeping the boss in the dark and feeding him/her bullshit. Savvy leaders understand this and understand that trying to stop this kind of behaviour is futile. To avoid being trapped, they must take proactive action to let the sun shine in by opening up other pathways for he information to flow in.
The only way a leader, whatever his level in the bureaucratic hierarchy, can do this is to carefully cultivate alternative informal back channel communication loops to trusted people scattered throughout the lower echelons of his organization. By discretely accessing a multiplicity of views, as well than bureaucracy’s preferred solution, a leader can determine when he is getting the mushroom treatment, and more importantly, gain the leverage needed to pry open the door to real alternatives. The author Robert Coram, in Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, has an excellent discussion of how back channels worked in the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Light Weight Fighter and A-X debates in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as in the strategy development for the first Iraq War in 1991.
Back channel access to alternative views also gives a leader leverage over his subordinates. Once his subordinates appreciate that they can not control all the information flowing into their boss’s brain, the game opens up and the leader can do some broken field running. Indeed, a subtle leader quickly learns that the best results often occur when he makes it clear he knows when subordinate is setting him up by tailoring the information, but chooses to give the subordinate a second chance (in bureaucratic jargon, this is known as appealing to his patriotism). That subordinate will never forget the experience, particularly if the leader has already established his cojones with a couple of ruthless well-timed career executions for similar behaviour.
Of course, the subordinate leaders in a bureaucratic hierarchy hate back channel information loops, because it undermines their power to manipulate their boss. They will do everything in their power to snuff it out and maneuver their boss back in the dark room where they can resume feeding him bullshit. That is why a leader must exhibit subtle discretion; opacity is essential for this kind of operation to work over the long term.
It is easy for Pfaff to say Obama’s hands were tied by the generals, but that is not the whole story. The mushroom treatment will not stop until Obama realizes he set himself up it by placing careerist sharks and professional bureaucratic apparachiks in the key subordinate national security positions without setting up compensating channels of information.
Rather than naively claiming to study Lincoln’s team of rivals, he would have been better off studying the master of all back channel operators, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who understood bureaucracy, having served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, overseeing the toughest bureaucracy in Washington). But that, of course, assumes Mr. Obama wants To Do rather than To Be.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at email@example.com