Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Years After Iraq: Top-Down Leadership

The decision to bring "democracy" to Iraq displayed a deep and obvious contempt for democracy itself. George W. Bush considered the decision to begin a war his personal prerogative, and both the political establishment and the media establishment treated it that way. The war was inevitable; the decision had already been made. Not supporting the war was treated as foolish (because futile) and unpatriotic (because patriotism was defined as supporting the President's decisions). James Fallows has a reconstruction of how the Bush Administration moved toward the war without any concern about Congressional approval, and John Judis recalls what it was like to be one of the few journalists asking real questions about the war (h/t Historiann). They're sobering reads. Imposing democracy when you think of democratic process as an inconvenient hindrance was never going to work. And refusing to let the Maximum Leader be gainsaid on the important decisions is a great way to make Maximum Mistakes.

George W. Bush was ceded powers that George Washington himself did not want or believe he should have. The Constitution entrusts the power to declare war to Congress. That isn't simply because few of Washington's successors have Washington's military judgment. It's because it's a mistake to rely on any single man's judgment for something as serious as declaring war. That, the Framers, insisted, should never be an executive decision.

Ten years after the debacle in Iraq War began, our country is still gripped by a cult of executive leadership, the fantasy that a single unchallenged leader makes the best decisions. We glorify CEOs and imagine them as succeeding best when they are sole decision-makers. People talk wistfully about business stars as political candidates, "running" the government the way they are imagined "running" their business. And, as I've blogged about my own industry, there is a cult of CEO-style university governance, reducing the normal checks and balances to rubber stamps. The thinking is that shared, deliberative decision making is just a pain, that things go better when the process is simple and one person is empowered to make all the decisions. It is the Myth of the Efficient Dictator.

But history establishes that this is bunk. Dictators make decisions efficiently. But they also make bad decisions efficiently, and since no one can talk them out of their mistakes, the consequences can be absolute disaster.

You can't find a national leader with better military sense than Napoleon. But empowering Napoleon to make all the decisions ultimately leads to crushing military defeat. Napoleon's very real successes eventually convinced him he was invincible, and that conviction made his destruction inevitable. And since no one could tell the Emperor that invading Russia was a bad idea, everyone had to go along.

We narrate history as the story of brilliant individual leaders. But the actual record shows autocratic regimes doing very poorly, both on their own account and when pitted against societies with a broader distribution of decision making. Democracies are not always right, and free debate does not always produce the best answer; nothing always produces the best answer. But a democracy has the chance to draw upon the intelligence of many, many minds. A dictatorship can never be smarter than the dictator. An FDR with a recalcitrant Congress to keep happy turns out to be a better war leader than a Hitler who cannot be contradicted by his subordinates. In fact, an FDR with a Congress to keep happy might even be a better leader than and FDR without one.

And if you really want to appreciate the glories of Efficient Dictatorship, contemplate the Pyramids. A wonderful achievement by unquestioned kings who commanded armies of slaves and were worshiped as gods. Those pyramids are what is left of their regime, because those projects bankrupted Egypt's Old Kingdom: a huge slice of the GDP went into building every Pharaoh's big geometry-project tomb.

The dirty secret about fascism is that the trains don't actually run on time. You're just not allowed to say that they're late. And by the time that train goes off the rails, it's too late to say anything.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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