Why the Military Fails To Protect Us (And Lies About It)


A September 3 article in Newsweek magazine by Evan Thomas ("Into Thin Air") highlighted one important reason why the government and the military have failed to apprehend bin Laden and why they have failed so miserably in Iraq. The reason is that all the bureaucratic incentives that conservatives used to talk about when it comes to the operation of the domestic side of government apply in spades to the government’s military bureaucracy. Government intervention in all areas invariably makes things worse, and the military is no exception. That’s why we observe the relentless calls for tax increase after tax increase, year in and year out, from government. No amount of money is ever enough for government to "succeed" in educating children, eliminating poverty, protecting the environment, or any of the other tasks it has claimed for itself. All it knows how to do is to demand more and more of our hard-earned dollars to try, try again, to succeed.

This "philosophy" was stated very succinctly back in the 1960s when the socialist economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared that all of New York City’s problems with education, crime, poverty, etc. could be solved by merely doubling the city government’s budget. The city budget did double, and double again, and again, in the ensuing years as these problems only got worse. That, of course, led to calls for a tripling of the budget, and more.

The Newsweek article was probably a real eye-opener to many Americans, but it told a story that those of us who study bureaucratic decision-making have heard many times before. In any analysis of government one must start with the assumption that all of the "actors" that are being studied are motivated to act in their own self-interest, as they see it, just like everyone else in society does. This includes presidents, Defense Department bureaucrats, members of Congress, high-ranking military officers, and everyone else involved in government. In the case of the military bureaucracy, this means that the top decision makers aspire for the same things that almost all of us aspire to: to advance in their careers. What this means in today’s military is that once one reaches a certain rank, to progress further requires a spotless record with no embarrassing decisions or actions. One significant mistake can put an end to career advancement because of the fact that there are so many competing for a limited number of generalships, admiralships, extra stars, etc.

This brings us to the failed effort to apprehend bin Laden, as discussed in the Newsweek article. The article described several instances in which American soldiers believed that they had cornered either bin Laden or some of his top lieutenants in Afghanistan or Pakistan. They were unable to swoop in and capture or kill him, however, because of a standing order that upon any such sighting permission must be given from someone with at least the rank of a three-star general. It would often take three for four days for such a decision to be made, said Newsweek, and often times the decision would be "permission not granted."

Soldiers in the field are required to first type up a request form to attack, and in some instances it will be returned to them by the three-star general (or higher) because of punctuation errors, according to Newsweek. This of course is par for the bureaucratic course in any department of government. Meanwhile, the bad guys escape.

Scholars who study bureaucracy have referred to such incentives as the "FDA syndrome." The Food and Drug Administration has long been notorious for taking a decade or longer to permit the sale of important, life-saving drugs that have been available in other countries for years. The reason for this is the set of bureaucratic incentives that exists at the FDA (and at many other government bureaucracies): If a wrong decision is made and a dangerous drug is allowed on the market, it is a public relations embarrassment for the agency, and the persons responsible will probably not progress any further in their careers. Thus, the bureaucrats themselves bear part of the costs of bad decisions, so they are excessively conservative, taking years and years before deciding on a drug’s legality.

At the same time, the bureaucrats bear no personal costs of prohibiting life-saving drugs that may well save thousands of lives if they were on the market. Beta-blockers that sharply reduce the risk of second heart attacks were available in Europe for over a decade before the FDA permitted them in the U.S., for example. People may be deprived of life-saving drugs, but that poses no risk and imposes no cost on the FDA bureaucrats themselves. This is another reason why their self-interest leads them to be excessively cautious, at the expense of the rest of society.

Military bureaucrats act in exactly the same manner. If the raid of a house where soldiers on the ground believe bin Laden is hiding turns out to be empty, or simply housing ordinary citizens, the officer who gave the go-ahead could have his career ended. But if bin Laden was in fact there and escapes, thanks to American bureaucratic bungling, hardly anyone will ever know it. "Turf battles [between the branches of the military] and fear of risk undermined the effort" to find bin Laden, wrote Evan Thomas, whose article was based on personal interviews with former CIA officials, soldiers, Defense Department bureaucrats, and books and memoirs many such people have written in the past few years. With regard to the raids that were routinely called off by Rumsfeld, Thomas quotes a former Rumsfeld aid as saying that they were cancelled because "there just wasn’t certainty." Apparently, the elderly Rumsfeld, the dictionary definition of a rsum builder, was still concerned about his own image and career advancement, first and foremost. If this is true of someone in his position, it is surely true for all of his military subordinates.

One thing the U.S. military has become very, very good at is hiding the truth about what it is up to from the American public. When’s the last time you saw the coffin carrying an American soldier’s remains in a newspaper or on television? When’s the last time you even heard of a plane arriving in the U.S. loaded with coffins, a daily experience for the past five years? The recent Newsweek article is very exceptional — an exception that proves the rule.

Our government’s foreign policy of poking our noses in everyone else’s business, and attempting to control their governments and their markets, has made endless enemies for us, some of whom have responded by becoming terrorists. This is how government bungled us into the quagmire in Iraq, which is as good a display as any of how government always makes things worse, not better.

As Newsweek points out, the U.S. government essentially gave up hunting for bin Laden almost immediately. Instead, Rumsfeld took the advice of Newt Gingrich, one of his informal advisors, and invaded Iraq to "demonstrate American power to the world," as Gingrich is quoted as saying. General Tommy Franks refused to send Army Rangers to Tora Bora, where the CIA believed bin Laden was hiding out, because he was busy planning the Iraq invasion. Top military officers were also not very interested in searching for the 9/11 perpetrators since most of them were trained in "demonstrating firepower," not special operations, and they wanted to show off their skills as a means of advancing their careers. Newsweek makes a point that has been made repeatedly by Congressman Ron Paul in the Republican Party presidential debates: "The Iraq war drained resources from the hunt" for bin Laden.

After five years, it is not even safe to drive to the airport from downtown Baghdad unless one is driving in an armored tank — and even that is not perfectly safe. This would suggest that the September 10 testimony before a congressional committee of General Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, should be taken with a grain of salt about the size of Texas. It would hardly be good for his career, and his legacy, to admit that the operation that he planned and executed has been a failure.