Tyrants get bad information — so do non-tyrants
Other than Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, the most surprising result of his imperial revanchist dream so far has been the utter failure of the Russian military to conduct a competent “special military operation.” Those seeking to explain how Putin could have so misjudged both the Ukrainian response and his army’s readiness have mainly landed on a single theory: that tyrants surround themselves with submissive personalities who fear telling them what they don’t want to hear. Putin’s public humiliation of his intelligence chief no doubt sent a message to other leading officials just before the invasion. And certainly, there are many historical examples in favor of that theory and the way it can lead to catastrophe for autocratic regimes, from Hitler’s eastern campaign to Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.”
Unfortunately, there is an abundance of counter examples that should make us less confident in the notion that open societies have an inherent advantage.
As badly as this war may turn out for the Russians — and horrifying for the Ukrainians — we should exercise caution claiming the superiority of democratic institutions in collecting and using military intelligence. LBJ was a strong leader when he became president, but he was not a dictator. Nonetheless, it is well-established that “the best and the brightest” saw what they and he wanted to see in Vietnam, a “bright shining lie” in Neil Sheehan’s powerful phrase. To take only one other presidential example, we don’t need to elaborate on George Tenet’s “slam dunk” summary of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq.
Beyond overt tyranny, the failure to speak truth to power has more to do with the social psychology of ambitious human beings in massive organizations, based on the career-driven incentives of pleasing the boss and supporting corporate momentum. Even the mind-focusing circumstance of risking a long vacation in Siberia or facing a firing squad are not usually required to discourage speaking out. Nor is government the only site of convenient conformity. One case that has already entered the engineering ethics textbooks is the Challenger disaster, and we can safely assume that Boeing Supermax will take a good part of a chapter in the next edition, as will Theranos in the business schools.
Conducting a competent “special military operation” is difficult and elusive not just for tyrants.
The Vladimir Putin who has emerged in recent years stands out as a single-minded and overbearing ruler. But there are also capable dictators who have learned that it can be in their interest to better facilitate the flow of information in order to govern in ways that suit their purposes and political survival. Getting valid and reliable input may not deter them from pursuing an unambiguous agenda and dominating their opponents — but they know that ignoring valid and reliable intelligence imperils their effectiveness.
In any setting, sound decision-making requires that leaders rely on the best possible inputs for information, situational awareness, and military intelligence.
The psychology and art of giving and getting solid advice and input goes beyond just having the courage to speak out. While it is true that ideological tyranny sows the seeds of its own demise, uninspired conventional thinking marginalizes creative and provocative ideas even in democratic bureaucracies. Enabling straight talk from subordinates and advisers goes beyond their mustering the courage to express themselves. Staff and consultants muddle communication when they can’t discern strategies and goals in support of missions.
Even in liberal democracies, leaders cannot assume that they are receiving unqualified objective and unvarnished information. The quality and validity of the inputs get blurred by multiple institutional and personal dynamics. The decision to deploy torture tactics against the perpetrators of the attacks on Sept. 11 diminished the effectiveness of interrogations and gathering intelligence on terrorists. It launched national security strategies fraught with anti-Islam bias and failures to discern the political dynamics of the Middle East. The result, the war in Iraq, is widely considered one of America’s greatest foreign policy blunders.
A chaotic or rapidly changing environment impedes the flow of information and military intelligence. It imposes unique challenges to agencies and bureaucracies needing to reset and wondering which way the wind will blow. Getting clear on what to do and how to do it challenges leaderships and staff and perturbs traditional working styles and habits. The environment is unsettling, almost toxic, and contributes to stress, confusion, and interpersonal tension. Even individuals not distracted or overwhelmed by personal ambition find it hard to speak truth to power in complex scenarios when figuring out the ‘truth’ eludes the most senior leaders.
Are liberal democracies less likely to succumb to bad information than tyrannies? The answer is a qualified yes, but not one that should distract us from the human impulses and limitations that are a feature of liberal democracies as well.
Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army Brigadier General, serves on the executive board of The Center for Ethics & the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. He directs the COVID Resilience Campaign at Silver Hill Hospital. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveXen
Jonathan D. Moreno a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven but Nobody Wants to Die: Bioethics and the Transformation of Health Care in America.” Follow him on Twitter: @pennprof
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