A Washington Post article on SecDef Gates’ efforts to orient the Pentagon to addressing critical needs in Iraq and Afghanistan is a fascinating depiction of the nuts and bolts of bureaucratic politics.
While historians and journalists, for obvious reasons, often focus on the big decisions, how those decisions are implemented is frequently the difference between a policy’s failure and success. The article focused on Gates’ efforts to ensure that units deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan had IED resistant MRAPS and that field commander requests for Predator UAVs were met. But really, it is an example of the kinds of things people at the top need to do to ensure that policies work. Since 9/11 we’ve seen all too many examples of articulated policies that were inadequately implemented.
Background on Bureaucracies
In his seminal work Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis Graham Allison argued for multiple means of understanding a state’s behavior. The first was the classical rational actor model of a unitary state carefully calculating its political interests. While this holds true in some conditions, Allison argued that there were other factors that shaped behavior: the processes and outputs of large organizations and bureaucratic politics. Organizational outputs can shape available options and perceptions. Large organizations require standard operating procedures in order to function. But these procedures can also be constraints and may hamper an organization’s ability to adapt to rapid changes.
The bureaucratic politics model is about the bargaining between the various officials involved in a situation. Each will have their own policy preferences, stake in the issue, and ability to shape the response. The organizational process and bureaucratic politics models are often considered together. Much of the literature looks at decision-making, but in another report Allison wrote, “implementation is at least half the problem in most government decisions or actions.”
There are situations where officials in the middle of the bureaucracy who are well removed from the top resist the decision. But in many cases implementation issues are not sinister, but like a giant game of telephone a policy’s intent is unclear as it moves down the chain of command or it is being balanced against competing priorities. For a mid-level official, the President or cabinet secretary is a figure well-removed from regular operations whereas a boss, a key subordinate, or a counterpart at another agency is an immediate concern.
The point is not to decry bureaucracies – they are absolutely necessary. It is that officials at the top need three things to deal with this fundamental reality. They need the capability and will to reach into the bureaucracy and make the appropriate adjustments. But first they need the ability to identify the key points in which to intervene. A cabinet secretary or president has extremely limited time relative to the demands placed on them. They need to be judicious in the fights that they pick.
The Seretary Gates determined that field commanders were not getting the number of Predator combat air patrols needed and according to the Washington Post article took an active role in remedying the situation.
Gates’s team went to extreme lengths to get more hours out of the available ground control stations and pilots. The task force arranged for experienced pilots to use stations normally set aside for training to fly combat missions during off hours. Because the Predators are controlled using satellite links, pilots can operate aircraft flying in Afghanistan and Iraq from bases in the United States.
The Air Force also lost a few hours of flying time each day because Predator pilots controlling planes from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., had to make an hour-long drive into town to buy lunch, visit the bank or pick up their children from day care. Gates set aside money to build a cafeteria, child-care facilities and other amenities at Creech.
There is no villain in this story. With hundreds of thousands of employees, thousands of aircraft, hundreds of billions of dollars of expensive equipment, and thousands of facilities spread all over the world the U.S. Air Force needs standard procedures to function. The base commander in Nevada probably does not have the discretion or budget to make the changes needed on his own – and he probably would not have made his superiors happy pressing them for larger budgets to build a daycare.
None of this is to argue that the policies are necessarily wise. There is some debate over whether or not Predators are an effective counter-insurgency tool or if they create more enemies then they neutralize.
Rather, it is to re-emphasize the aphorism that the devil is in the details. In fighting complex, networked trans-national enemies it is essential that political leaders not only have strategic vision – but that they exercise a certain logistical savvy in implementing their policy. Frequently, this virtue is in short supply.