Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Clappy the Clown

Among the many buffoons, hacks, incompetents, and shlimazls stumbling across the stage that is the Obama administration – and we have to include its ardent facilitators in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – one of the more prominent in current news is James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. Now, I've already commented on what an impossible job – therefore a non-job – this is, back at the time of his confirmation hearings:


And apparently not much has changed, except that LTG (Ret.) Clapper has shown even greater-than-expected ability to step in dog do, wherever and whenever it can be found. And admittedly, life in the civilian, i.e. “public service”, sector is much more demanding in many respects than life in the military. In the military, your job is to follow orders, and the greatest risk you face (besides what happens when you don't follow orders) is getting killed or crippled for life. Compared to that relatively simplistic mode of existence, life in the bureaucracy is raw, nasty, and brutal in the extreme, where the law of the jungle rules. There is nothing like a soft, pink, out-of-shape bureaucrat to wield a knife and thrust it gently between your ribs when you're not looking... and the reason for this is that, in Washington and its outlying extensions, power is not “a” game, it's the _only_ game. Where profit is not a motive, and performance as a basis for promotion is, well, overrated at best... what's left? Raw power – intimidation, social dominance, backbiting, blackmail, character assassination... all sorts of lovely things that take the place of the much purer, more respectable motives of money, sex, and drugs in the private sector.

Now, how that power is expressed is a many-variegated thing. It can be about the number of hapless underlings one supervises – although, to be fair, most of those hapless underlings just thirst for the day when they too will get a chance to wield the whip. It can also be about the amount of resources one controls – real estate, territory, supplies, “materiel”, money. Or, it can be about how close one is to the “flagpole” -- i.e. to the big man, the man in charge. (One common metric in the bureaucracy is how many levels one is below the president – obviously, the smaller the number the more status. The only problem is that you can't get too many levels down before you find that you're only one of about a million people who are all at that same level.)

Oh, and then there are the countless signs and symbols of power. They do not confer power per se, but serve as a kind of sign language as to who's got it and who hasn't. Things like... and I kid you not... the shape of one's wastebasket, and what it's made of (wood vs. metal, round vs. square). The size of one's desk, and what it's made of... and how clean and uncluttered it is. Whether one's furniture is made of wood and leather, or some composite plus Naugahyde... or, worse yet, metal and plastic. How many “direct reports” one has... and how many of them have jobs that, in the private sector, would be called “personal assistant”, “lackey”, or “gofer”. (Does someone else get you your morning coffee? That's huge. And if they also pick up your dry cleaning, well... you are da man, bro!) And then there's the ultimate in bureaucratic status symbols – the hallowed corner office... and it's always been rumored that the Pentagon was built with five sides – i.e. five corners – to increase the number of corner offices available to the god-like beings who sit at the top of the Defense Department heap.

And lest one think that what I'm describing here is strictly a “mano a mano” situation, nothing could be further from the truth. The skirmishes, battles, and outright wars that roil through the bureaucracy on a daily basis are not just between alpha-type individuals; they are also fought between organizational units of all sizes, from the lowliest print shops right up through the directorates of the military services. Everyone's trying, at all times, to get not only their piece of the pie, but the other guy's as well. So a manager or supervisor will enlist his subordinates in a raid upon the territory and resources of some other manager or supervisor, and shamelessly make off with whatever booty is captured. This can include, once again, resources of any sort, including actual human beings – i.e. “personnel slots” and “bodies”.

And one might well ask, where in all of this is the actual prescribed mission? Where does it stand? Well... the first thing that has to be understood is that most of the bureaucracy operates in a mission-free environment. Oh, I suppose that, at one time, there was some mealy-mouthed statement put down on paper about what a given agency or office was supposed to do to earn its keep... but the day when that had any impact on actual behavior is long past. So what you have in Washington, basically, is an entire city populated by people with idle hands – which only aggravates an already-intolerable situation. As I've said quite a few times, every government program is a jobs program – no exceptions! And once those jobs are created and filled, the mission is accomplished. From that point on, the job holders can do pretty much as they see fit... and of course the Internet has been a terrific boon to government workers, vastly outperforming the old water cooler, hiding in a rest-room stall, roaming the corridors, two-hour lunches, shopping trips and other errands, etc. Now, within the cozy confines of his or her own cubicle, a government worker can while away the hours like one of the idle rich lazing about in a summer cottage, and no one is the wiser (or if they are, they don't care).

So... with that as preface, we return to LTG (Ret.) Clapper and his problem. No, not the problem of his “frequent gaffes”, as the media put it – but the problem of how those gaffes come to be. For this is, presumably, not a stupid gentleman. I found, in my experience with the military, that there are no stupid generals. Some may be maniacs... delusional... hyperactive... sociopathic... bullies... but stupid they ain't. The last of the "stupids" usually get sloughed off somewhere between the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel (or the Navy or Civil Service equivalents), although on occasion one will occupy a "bird colonel" slot for a short while, on the way out the door. The problem is, the senior guys can only operate on the information they are given by their underlings – since another of the many signs of status in the bureaucracy is that, beyond a certain point, one ceases to gather any of one's data first-hand. You have to rely completely, and totally, on other people – and there's the rub. If they are on your side, that's good news – they will feed you the best, and most complete, and most useful, information they can get their hands on. But if they're in the mood to do a bit of sabotage, subversion, and chops-busting... well! Then you can expect to be set up, on a daily basis, with flawed information that, when you attempt to use it in public, will make you look like an idiot. This, I believe, is what has happened to Clapper. He is being undercut by the very people, agencies, offices, and entities he is supposed to be supervising... or overseeing... or coordinating... or whatever that job description (and where did that piece of paper go, anyway? I haven't seen it in months!) calls for.

So what we've seen for a while now have been some delicious “oops!” and “never mind!” moments... and the general has wound up looking like a fool in some very public forums. But... why would anyone want to treat him this way? Simply because the various entities he is supposed to supervise, oversee, or coordinate don't want to be supervised, overseen, or coordinated. No way, Jose! They want to do as they have always done – have their fiefdom, their rice bowl, their private kingdom... with no accountability, unlimited budgets, and all sorts of magical secret powers granted to them by the dark forces of primal evil. And just the thought – the very thought – that someone would come in and expect them to toe the line – any line – is offensive in the extreme. So how do they fight back? Well, they could pull some dirty tricks on the president, I suppose, since he's the one who appoints the DNI. Or they could pull tricks on Congress, since they approved the creation of the office and approve its funding on an annual basis. But heck, that's no fun... and it might be risky besides. Better to keep the action confined to the home front – keep it “in-house”, as the saying goes. So to prove how silly the whole DNI idea was, and is, they keep setting the poor sap up for failure, hoping that eventually someone in the White House or Congress will get the word and do away with the office, allowing the countless intelligence entities to once again roam wild and free like the mountain gorilla.

It's not Clapper's fault – unless you blame him for having had the poor judgment to accept such a job. But there really are jobs in Washington that are impossible – they cannot be performed well, if at all, by anyone, regardless of qualifications or good intentions.

Actually, the presidency comes to mind as well, now that you mention it...

No comments: