Tuesday, March 30, 2010

short classics in bureaucratic politics

"History never repeats itself," Mark Twain supposedly said, "but sometimes it rhymes." I've never been able to verify the source, but the line is too good not to use.

Today I was reminded of two short pieces on U.S. policy in Vietnam that have classic status because they describe broader processes of government than the historical incidents they describe.

James C. Thomson, Jr., an Asia scholar who served on the Kennedy-Johnson NSC staff, in 1968 wrote an "autopsy" on U.S. policy that coined several concepts still useful for understanding how officials think and behave -- the domestication of dissenters, the effectiveness, the curator mentality.

Four years later, "Blowtorch Bob"Komer, an LBJ staffer who argued for and later was given directive power over a combined military-civilian counterinsurgency program in Vietnam, wrote an analysis for the RAND corporation explaining U.S. failures. Among other insights, he mentioned the "institutional inertia -- the built-in reluctance of organizations to change preferred ways of functioning except slowly and incrementally." He also noted the power of weakness: "But for many reasons we did not use vigorously the leverage over Veitnamese leaders that our contributions gave us. We became their prisoners rather than they ours: the GVN [Government of South Vietnam] used its weakness far more effectively as leverage on us than we used our strength to lever it."

I knew and admired both men, and I cite their work now not to make any particular comparisons between Vietnam and our current conflicts, but rather to draw attention to the value of their insights -- not as a conclusion about policy but as a set of tests worth performing on any major policy.

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