The Myth of Corporate-Style Governing 8: Rice Pudding


Condoleezza Rice’s testimony yesterday didn’t do much to shore up Admin arguments that they “did everything they could”, not even on the surface. Instead of acknowledging that their focus on state-sponsored terrorism was mistaken and that they corrected it after 9/11, Rice actually seemed to be defending this thoroughly discredited doctrine. Of course, she more or less had to, what with its being the excuse for Iraq and all, but it increased rather than decreased the sense that the BA remains locked inside its own little world, believing what it wants to believe, its thought processes uncontaminated by facts.

The disconnect beteen the Admin version of events and realities on the ground was thrown into sharp relief on the tv screen, as Robert Wright noted in the NY Times this morning.

How did Condoleezza Rice do in defending the Bush administration’s antiterrororism policies yesterday before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks? Better if you kept your eyes on her than if you glanced down at the CNN headlines rolling across the bottom of the TV screen.Just as she said that invading Iraq had removed a source “of violence and fear and instability in the world’s most dangerous region,” the bottom of the screen read, “IRAQ’S INTERIM INTERIOR MINISTER NURIL AL-BADRAN ANNOUNCES HIS RESIGNATION; INTERIOR MINISTRY IS IN CHARGE OF POLICE FORCES.”

You have to admire Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, for so staunchly defending the invasion of Iraq even amid the current turmoil there. But the effect of her defense — and of her testimony generally — was to raise questions about this administration’s grasp of reality.

Not really–I think those questions have all been answered at this point–The Bush Admin is out to lunch. Permanently.

But if there were no surprises in her attempt to defend her boss by supporting standard BushCo fantasies, there were a couple in other areas that are worth mentioning, not so much surprises of views as surprises of tone.

The first was Rice’s apparently genuine belief–that’s how it came across on the radio–in the Clinton Admin’s responsibility for 9/11, and her matter-of-fact contempt for the Constitution. Not once but again and again she called it a “structural problem” and took credit on behalf of the BA for finding a way to circumvent it. She was talking about the PATRIOT Act, which dismisses all those uncomfortable Constitutional separations between domestic and international surveillance that used to keep the CIA from spying on dissenters and the FBI from eavesdropping on embassies, and pretty much allows them to cross any boundary that happens to get in their way. Given that someone as inherently anti-democratic as Ashcroft is in charge of the Justice Dept, one suspects that the same contempt runs through the whole Administration.

Early in her opening statement, she said that the “only thing” that could have stopped 9/11 was better information collection which legal restrictions due to laws against the invasion of privacy made difficult or impossible, and hinted rather strongly that this intolerable situation was the fault of the Clinton Administration, implying that 9/11 might not have happened if only they had ignored those pesky laws like the BA had.

If that weren’t chilling enough, we have the spectre of a National Scurity Advisor unable to recognize a threat report when she sees one, and insisting that nothing could possibly be done unless the terrorists told her in advance the details of their attack: “It was not a warning — there was no specific time, place or method involved.” Oh, sorry. We’ll try to do better next time.

At the root of Rice’s blithe acceptance of the dictum that without specific information nothing much could be done and that in any case, nobody asked her to do anything, is a corporate mind-set that is yet another reason why corporate executives don’t belong in govt. In the corporate world, change is dangerous–you don’t move or adjust until and unless you’re forced to do so. CEO’s are prized for their “steadiness”–which tranlates in the real world to “stubbornness in the face of external pressures”–because it’s a quality that makes investors feel good; they think their money is safer in the hands of people not blown away by every little fad or difficulty. They’re probably right, but it’s a quality that leads, in govt, directly to what we’re seeing now: officials challenged by new circumstances who are both unable and unwilling to shift gears when confronted by new information or changing environments. All their training and experience tells them to resist doing any such thing.

Another problem arises from a managerial skill that you would think would be a plus: the focus on problem-solving. That it isn’t is due to the differing nature of corporate and governmental cultures and a different level of expectations. She wasn’t kidding or making excuses when she said this–it’s the way corporate managers think:

[S]he suggested that if terrorist threats were not brought to the president’s attention, it was Mr. Clarke’s fault. “All he needed to do was to say, `I need time to brief the president on something,’ ” she said. “But Dick Clarke never asked me to brief the president on counterterrorism.”

It sounds, as Philip Shenon notes, like she’s playing into the Blame Game. But the reality more likely is that this is simply her management style: your job as a supervisor is to solve the problems and expedite the requests of your subordinate staff; if they don’t tell you the problems, how can you solve them? If they don’t make the request, how can you grant it?

Richard Clarke, by contrast, is a career govt official, and the govt paradigm is significantly different: when a situation develops, you tell your principals and make recommendations, the assumptions being that the principals will then act on it without you having to “ask them” to do so. That is, presumably, what they came to govt for–to do things.

Indeed, that has been our expection of and belief in govt activity lo, these many years–govt does things: things that protect us, that better our lives, that make us safer. We don’t expect people in govt to sit on their hands in a crisis and hope it blows over. But that’s exactly what corporations demand. Where a govt warning in a crisis might be, “Don’t do too little”, in a corporation it’s “Don’t do too much.” The cultures are entirely apposite.

Finally, there is the corporate manager’s instinctive faith in delegation of authority. Her otherwise inexplicable refusal to help bridge the gaps she acknowledges existed between the intelligence services due to the “structural problems” she was fully aware of, can be understood only in the light of her contention that she didn’t need to do anything because the FBI was already doing it.

“The F.B.I. was pursuing these Al Qaeda cells,” she said. “I believe in the Aug. 6 memorandum it says there were 70 full-field investigations under way of these cells. And so there was no recommendation that we do something about this. The F.B.I was pursuing it.”

First, one of her departments was dealing with the situation, so why did she need to get involved? Let them do their job. Second, there was “no recommendation” that she do anything, and in the corporate world, you don’t initiate anything if you want to survive.

There is a caveat to all this, and it needs to be said: In the corporate world, lower-echelon managers are responsible to upper-echelon managers; every boss does what her boss told her to do. Orders come from the top. No orders, no action. Condi’s boss is George.

Unwittingly, Rice gave us a pretty clear picture of Bush’s incompetence as a manager. We can now understand, if we didn’t before, why Arbusto went busto. As Randi put it yesterday, “When Bush says they did everything he knew how to do, believe him.”

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