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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Democratic Governance–Feeble Responses to ISIS And Ebola And Why We Are Not Surprised

David Brooks writing in the New York Times (9.16.14) suggests that the failure of US foreign policy and its response to the Ebola crisis are because there is no longer faith in or commitment to the large institutions of government which in the past were successful in concentrating efforts on particular sectorial problems whether health, agriculture or diplomacy.  America has become even more than ever a nation of start-ups, small entrepreneurs, and DIY individualists. 

Without the large government institutions which represent the technical will of the people, we will always address problems in a piecemeal, catch-as-catch-can way.  Perhaps most importantly ministries and government departments were provided with the resources, talent, and critical mass to be able to devise long-term strategies, comprehensive approaches, and the consensus of talented and intelligent minds.

The collectivity of large public institutions –  government - is not providing either the leadership, the strategic vision, nor the efficient and rational response to crises.  We are experiencing both a crisis of governance and government.

Brooks concludes that there is a correlation between poor governance and the cultural shift of Americans to small-scale enterprise and individualism.  We eschew government enterprise and leadership and put our faith in ourselves and in our own home-grown institutions.

A few generations ago, people grew up in and were comfortable with big organizations — the army, corporations and agencies. They organized huge construction projects in the 1930s, gigantic industrial mobilization during World War II, highway construction and corporate growth during the 1950s. Institutional stewardship, the care and reform of big organizations, was more prestigious.

Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

This is off the mark.  Government bureaucracies are by their very nature lumbering behemoths, riven by internecine warfare, petty turf battles, backbiting, politics, and self-serving ambition – all of which render coherent policy, decisive action, and rational long-range planning impossible.

The issue is not government vs. individual enterprise but the nature of government and the history of American governance. The US has stumbled along in its crisis-by-crisis approach to Islamic radicalism not because there is no faith in the State Department as an institution but because given our tripartite form of government, our current political philosophy, and our historical isolation and persistent belief in exceptionalism, it cannot do otherwise.

We have misread and/or ignored the growing radicalism in Islam and its coherent commitment to the expansion of Islam, the creation of a religious and political Caliphate, and its brutal tactics.  Why?

First, we as a people have been reluctant to criticize religion.  In a pluralistic society which increasingly values ‘diversity’, all faiths are equal under God, and no secular institution has the right to disparage or condemn any one of them.

It has been difficult or next to impossible for the current Administration to distinguish between the political and military wings of Islam and Islam itself.  The British understood that it was not Catholicism which was the enemy in Northern Ireland, it was the IRA.  The US has been slow to disengage faith from political mobilization, and as a result has not been willing to say that Islamic jihadists are our enemy.

Our refusal to name names has cost us dearly.  Now that we have finally understood that there is indeed one enemy, Islam, we can understand how that religion has contributed to jihad, and why it fuels jihadism.

Second, we as a government have been slow to understand that the world has moved from macro-confrontation to micro-insurgencies; and more importantly to realize that the world is moving away from liberal nation-states to powerful interest groups which demand their rights and are willing to fight for them.  We assumed that our battle was against ‘Iraq’ as a regime, and don’t bother us with Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Alawite, Baathist details.  Country after country is being fractured along religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines; and despite the West’s insistence that liberal democracy is the only way to govern in a pluralistic society, fewer people are buying into that nostrum.

Third, out political organization militates against decisive action unless the US is attacked directly as it was in 9/11.  Our representative democracy has always been comprised of hawks and doves, and the fissures in these two broadly defined groups are obvious.  Liberals are still pacifist and conciliatory.  Conservatives are militaristic and authoritarian.  While the decapitation of an American journalist was a mini-9/11, it has been enough only to encourage delicate ‘surgical strikes’. 

Fourth, there is no such thing as independent analysis within the United States Government. George Bush ignored the information, advice, and counsel of the CIA for political reasons – he was bound and determined to get rid of Saddam Hussein and nothing was going to throw him off course.  Politicians will always be selective in their choice of information.  LBJ ignored the evidence about the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin and went ahead with war in Vietnam because he felt a moral imperative to do so.

Fifth, our recent bungles in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to say our humiliating loss in Vietnam, have given us the heebie-jeebies when it comes to military intervention. Not only that, our military philosophy has changed from ‘victory-at-all-costs’ to concern for civilian casualties.  Worse, our concern for limiting American military casualties has taken precedence over military objectives.  In other words history and culture have influenced American foreign and military policy and have crippled us for any future engagements.

Last, we have an overriding belief in American Judeo-Christian values. We are shocked at the tactics of Islamic radicals from al-Qaeda to al-Shabab, groups who will bomb innocent civilians, blow up school busses, and deliberately send suicide bombers into crowded markets.  “Barbaric”, we shout. “Evil…demonic”, and yet brutal practices have been common since the dawn of warfare.  Think Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Hitler, and Pol Pot among many, many others. Our moral exceptionalism prevents us from using the same brutal tactics against the enemy in order to secure victory.

To summarize: It is not the State Department which is at fault, nor American individualism and the consequent inefficiency of government institutions.  It is America itself which is responsible.

Foreign policy is the best example of the dysfunction of governance, for it is influenced by the many political, cultural, philosophical, and historical factors cited above.  Failure to perceive the threat of emerging viruses and to mobilize a campaign against Ebola is much simpler to explain, although many of the reasons are similar to those used to explain foreign policy.

Because the United States has thankfully been free of the ravages of epidemic and endemic diseases for years (no malaria, TB, dysentery, etc.), we do not have either the institutions or resources to mount a campaign to stop them.  CDC and NIH are funded to understand, not to act.  CDC does not have a standing Public Health Army ready to be deployed to quarantine, isolate, and remove.  It does not stockpile surgical gloves, gurneys, and saline solution.  Even thought the threat of Ebola has increased, and the US is becoming increasingly worried about it coming ashore in New York, we can do little.

We have always put an idealistic faith in national sovereignty and the integrity of local governments.  Far be us to be pushy when it comes to issues of local concern. We wait until asked, hoping for the call from President _____who is the pro-tem leader of a corrupt government and an even more corrupt country.   In other words, it is their problem, not ours.

The only way to stop the Ebola virus is with draconian quarantine policies.  Only a deployment of a US military occupation force with shoot-on-sight authority can possibly stop the epidemic.  However, as in the case of our ‘hearts-and-minds’ and ‘no civilian casualty’ military, these measures are beyond our ‘ethical’ boundaries.

Finally, the same isolationism and historical myopia which has affected our military, affects all our other international responses and actions. “Nah, it won’t come here”, we confidently say, followed by a string of curses about the ignorance and incompetence of Africa.

Once again, it is not a lack of faith in our public institutions which is behind our failure to act responsibly and decisively.  It is operational and political structure of America.

Brooks concludes:

As recent books by Francis Fukuyama and Philip Howard have detailed, this is an era of general institutional decay. New, mobile institutions languish on the drawing broad, while old ones are not reformed and tended. Executives at public agencies are robbed of discretionary power. Their hands are bound by court judgments and regulations.

The problem is that government keeps getting bigger despite its inefficiency and unresponsiveness to rapidly changing international and national concerns.  Reforms are more often than not ‘reorganizations’ where a sectorial focus is thrown out in favor of a geographical one; or organization around groups of technical expertise trumps regional distribution.  The fundamental, structural reforms necessary to provide a radical change in government thinking have never been attempted because such change threatens the life of an entrenched bureaucracy and everyone in it; and because such change, given our political system, is not possible.  Why change when in four years a new Administration will ask us to change back again.

The combination of a seemingly intractable, if not defiant political and moral philosophy; a behemoth public sector which grows without restraint; and an electoral cycle which all but guarantees a status quo and venal decision-making, is a witches’ brew.  Most sensible people want to stay as far away from it as possible – which leads to the final reason why government is so inept.  All the inventive, entrepreneurial, creative, visionary risk-takers are in the private sector. So what do you expect?

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