New York Times Death Spiral Watch
Are We in a Recession? What Will It Look Like If We Have One?

Do the Cossacks Work for the Czar?

There is an awful lot in this post by Timothy Burke at Easily Distracted » One-A-Day: John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History. But let me, for now, focus on one issue and one issue only. Tim writes:

Easily Distracted » Blog Archive » One-A-Day: John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War: A New History: [I]n Zimbabwe... there is first a disconnect between what imperial leaders did and what actors on the colonial periphery did, and that the actions of the latter sometimes drove the former, and that decisions made at either (or both) levels often were internally contradictory, improvisational as well as pre-determined, based on fragmentary or patchwork kinds of knowledge, and frequently opaque to the actors themselves....

I’m perpetually skeptical about whether we ever ought to talk about individual intentions in an atomistic way... assign proportionate value to different components of intention, and equally skeptical about whether we can ever atomistically describe the relationship between intention and result. That’s just with one individual, but it’s even more so once we talk about how a decision actually is made by small groups of advisors and is then transmitted to larger institutional networks....

[O]ne of the interesting bits of information to come out of the Iraq War so far has to do with why US intelligence was so off about Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. People who want to argue that intelligence was purely concocted for political purposes are too simplistic, people who want to reduce it all to the will of Dick Cheney or a few neocons are too simplistic, people who want to make it a sincere mistake are too simplistic. Some of what strikes me as actually involved includes....

[A]ctors inside the Bush Administration made it known that they, even more than their predecessors, would not welcome intelligence which blatantly contradicted beliefs or assumptions that they were inclined to make. No one ever sends an order down that says, “Here’s the casus belli we need, please write it up! kthnx.” This kind of pressure gets exerted when someone like Cheney says in a conversation that includes key advisors and heads of executive departments that intelligence has been “too timid.”... Cheney (or various neocons) could believe that statement as a reaction to some factual understanding of the history of US intelligence... and could not entirely know themselves why they say it, or how that statement is likely to be received or interpreted....

Another thing at play: how the movement of information through institutions is rather like a game of telephone, that there is a kind of drift and transformation which has less to do with intentionality and more to do with processes of translation, reparsing, repackaging and repurposing as information travels from office to office, up and down hierarchies....

I could add more, but it seems to me that this is what a social history of state or institutional action at the top of hierarchies might begin to look like. I wouldn’t want someone like Gaddis to take this sort of thinking on board so far that it messes up narrative and explanatory clarity, but I do think traditional political and diplomatic history sometimes mirrors a flaw of a lot of social science. Some social scientists confuse explanatory models for empirical reality; some political historians confuse explanatory narratives about decision-making for the messy processes that shape intentions and translate intentions into action and event.

I think that Tim Burke is both right and wrong. He is right: courts are the natural habitats of deceitful courtiers who tell the princes exactly what the princes want to hear, the people on the spot who control implementation matter in ways that the people around polished walnut tables in rooms with green silk walls do not, and the movement of information through bureaucracies does resemble a game of telephone with distortions amplified at every link.


Those with sufficient virtu to become princes in this modern age are well aware of all these deficiencies of bureaucracies and courts.

When Lloyd Bentsen became Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, he scattered his--loyal--senate staff throughout the Treasury Department at all levels, and used them as a second, separate, parallel web of communication in order to gauge the distortions that were being introduced into the paper that crossed his desk by the game of bureaucratic telephone. When Kangxi became Emperor of China, he scattered the--loyal--hereditary bondsmen of his Manchu clan throughout the imperial Chinese bureaucracy at all levels, with instructions to write to him regularly through secret channels to tell him what was really going on, as a second, separate, parallel web of communication so that he could gauge who was telling him what he needed to know and who was telling him what they thought he wanted to hear.

It is reasonable to suppose that fifteen or twenty-five year olds raised by hereditary right to posts of especial distinction are bureaucratically unsophisticated--people who don't understand that pieces of information that come up through five layers of the hierarchy have been shaded a little bit at each level. It is reasonable to suppose that twenty-five or thirty-five year olds raised by hereditary right to positions of special ditinction are psychologically unsophisticated--do not understand that if they are pleased by and reward lies, they will ultimately be told nothing but pleasing lies.

But by the time anyone (a) possesses sufficient virtu, (b) is forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five, and (c) has seen the world, there is no excuse for not understanding that as a czar your cossacks respond to the incentives you set them, that you can change those incentives, and that you are responsible for the behavior that your incentives elicit. By the time you are forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five, you know very well that when you say that "intelligence has been 'too timid' in the past," what they hear you saying is "don't tell me what you think, tell me what I want to hear." George W. Bush--the feckless and virtu-less hereditary prince--may well not have clued in to the fact that Condi Rice had decided that if she told him what he needed to hear she might get fired, while if she told him what he wanted to hear she would get promoted. But Colin Powell knew damned well what the flow of "intelligence" from George Tenet to him was worth unverified, and knew damned well that taking care not to try to verify it was a way of preserving his own options for the future. And Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld knew damned well--unless they are much farther into their dotage than I believe--that their confidence in Saddam Hussein's WMD program was based not on intelligence but on their judgment that they would have active WMD programs if they were Saddam Hussein.

The frictions and distortions of the bureaucracy and the court exist. They are, however, counterbalanced by the intelligence, the sophistication, and the energy of the principals at the top. If the czar wishes, the cossacks do work for him. And if the czar doesn't want to take the time to make the cossacks work for him--well, that is his decision and what happens is his will just as well.