That Clueless Boss

It’s good to be retired. Each morning, the Los Angeles Times arrives with a thump outside the apartment door. It’s a retro thing. No one gets their news from newspapers any longer. The news in newspaper is yesterday’s news. The actual news is on line in real time, as it happens, and then discussed endlessly as “breaking news” on CNN and MSNBC and Fox News – parsed and discussed for its implications, and then dismissed or elevated to the crisis of the moment, long before the presses roll and actual physical newspapers are bundled onto trucks and sent off to the city and suburbs. No newspaper can compete in the world of instant information, even if much of that information will turn out to be bogus, or incomplete, or stuff made up at a troll farm in Bulgaria, or a troll farm in South Carolina for that matter. Newspapers became quaint, but newspapers can provide deep background and context – for those with the time and patience for such things – retirees for example.

That’s comforting in a world that’s moving too fast, but that comfort will be gone soon enough. Newspapers have gone digital. They’re become authoritative news websites, updated every few minutes with breaking news from their still-intrepid reporters, revised and amended and corrected on the fly – the place to go for the carefully reported news as it breaks – the place where CNN and MSNBC and Fox News go to find out what’s really going on, at the moment. CNN and MSNBC and Fox News will pay good money to get those squirrelly-looking introverted newspaper reporters on-air as fast as possible, to discuss the hot news they have just broken, news that won’t appear in the actual physical newspapers until the next morning. That’s good for those suddenly-public reporters and their newspapers – a second source of income and a bit of fame – but things are changing. Actual physical newspapers will disappear as soon as someone can figure out how to pay for worldwide careful and reliable intrepid reporting, all in one place. Pop-up and static web ads don’t generate a lot of revenue. Pay-walls limit readership and news junkies know all the workarounds anyway. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. He created and runs Amazon. He’s absurdly rich. He’ll pay for worldwide careful and reliable intrepid reporting, all in one place, out of his own pocket, until he can figure out a reasonable business model, if there is one, and there probably isn’t one. Jeff Bezos may not care. He seems to think there ought to be lots of carefully reported real news as it breaks. He’ll pay for that if no one else will.

It’s the same with the Los Angeles Times now too – the biotech billionaire doctor Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the newspaper. He’s the Jeff Bezos out here. He’ll keep the Los Angeles Times up and running. The Los Angeles Times will still arrive with a thump outside the apartment door here in Hollywood – for now – and that’s a comfort. It’s good to be retired and sip black coffee and smoke a pipe in the morning, casually plowing through pages and pages of newsprint. It’s a retro thing and an old man’s pleasure – and there are the comics, to remind an old man why it’s good to be retired.

Specifically there’s Dilbert – Scott Adams’ darkly comic take on the existential despair of systems work in the cubicles – vague and undefined and perhaps pointless work, done by social misfits, assigned by that pointy-haired boss who doesn’t understand a damned thing, but likes to “manage” it all – and can’t. That rings true. That’s why it’s good to be retired. Systems management was hard. It is like herding cats. There was that now-famous commercial about that a few years ago – from EDS, the systems management company Ross Perot founded and that’s now long gone – a rough and tough cowboy herding cats. That rang true. Managing anything complex, where you need agreement or at least general alignment toward a goal, is like herding cats, and herding cats was even harder than Ross Perot thought it was. Those of us who worked in systems management for the successor company to EDS, Perot Systems, knew that all too well. There’s the hard work of management and consensus, and there’s always that pointy-haired boss, who doesn’t understand a damned thing, screwing things up – and it was hard not to be that boss, long ago. Real life can be darkly comic too.

Scott Adams knew that too. Early on he predicted that Donald Trump would easily win the Republican nomination and then easily win the presidency – because Trump’s “message” was overwhelming coherent, compared to what all the other Republicans were offering, and it was certainly overwhelming coherent compared to Hillary Clinton’s “message” – whatever it was – which no one really knew. Scott Adams was right. What he didn’t mention was that Trump would turn out to be that pointy-haired boss.

The New York Times’ Peter Baker, with Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman, report that sort of thing:

President Trump was watching television on Sunday when he saw Nikki R. Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, announce that he would impose fresh sanctions on Russia. The president grew angry, according to an official informed about the moment. As far as he was concerned, he had decided no such thing.

That wasn’t quite true, but Trump is who he is, a clueless boss who makes things worse than they need be:

It was not the first time Mr. Trump has yelled at the television over something he saw Ms. Haley saying. This time, however, the divergence has spilled into public in a remarkable display of discord that stems not just from competing views of Russia but from larger questions of political ambition, jealousy, resentment and loyalty.

The rift erupted into open conflict on Tuesday when a White House official blamed Ms. Haley’s statement about sanctions on “momentary confusion.” That prompted her to fire back, saying that she did not “get confused.” The public disagreement embarrassed Ms. Haley and reinforced questions about Mr. Trump’s foreign policy – and who speaks for his administration.

At the very least, the episode highlighted the crossed circuits over foreign policy in an administration with no secretary of state, an increasingly marginalized White House chief of staff and a national security adviser who has only been on the job for a week and has pushed out many of the senior national security officials in the White House but has yet to bring in his own team.

This is a dysfunctional office straight out of Dilbert:

Since Mr. Trump fired Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson last month, Ms. Haley has been the administration’s leading foreign policy figure. And yet she was not kept in the loop on a major decision involving perhaps America’s most powerful adversary.

According to several officials, the White House did not inform Ms. Haley that it had changed course on sanctions, leaving her to hang out alone.

That is darkly comic, but not really comic at all:

“It damages her credibility going forward and once again makes everyone, friend and foe alike, wonder that when the United States says something, approves something, calls for something, opposes something, is it for real?” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Should we wait to see what Trump does the next day?”

The clash was reminiscent of various occasions when Mr. Trump has directly undercut subordinates, as when Mr. Tillerson broached the idea of negotiations with North Korea and the president scolded him on Twitter not to waste his time. Many in Washington and at the United Nations were riveted by the sharp exchange on Tuesday between the White House and its senior international diplomat.

That’s not good at all, and the clean-up was worse:

“She got ahead of the curve,” Larry Kudlow, the president’s national economic adviser, told reporters at a briefing in Florida before Mr. Trump welcomed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to his Mar-a-Lago estate. “She’s done a great job. She’s a very effective ambassador, but there might have been some momentary confusion about that.”

Ms. Haley took umbrage. A few hours later, she spoke with Dana Perino of Fox News, who quoted her response on air: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”

Mr. Kudlow then called Ms. Haley to apologize. “She was certainly not confused,” Mr. Kudlow told The New York Times by telephone. “I was wrong to say that – totally wrong.”

He added: “As it turns out, she was basically following what she thought was policy. The policy was changed and she wasn’t told about it, so she was in a box.”

That bumbling pointy-haired boss can make a mess of things, but then this didn’t help either:

The argument that Ms. Haley had merely gotten out ahead of a decision was undercut by the fact that the White House itself had sent out word to surrogates on Saturday – the day before her remarks – letting them know that it had already decided to take punitive action against Moscow.

“We also intend to impose specific additional sanctions against Russia to respond to Moscow’s ongoing support for the Assad regime, which has enabled the regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people,” said a document distributed by the Republican National Committee that was titled “White House Talking Points.”

Nikki Haley hadn’t been confused after all, so it was time for damage control:

Such conflicts leave foreign governments in a bind as they try to interpret American moves.

“Coordinated messaging by our government on matters as serious as these is very important, so it is best that an episode such as this one not be repeated,” said John Negroponte, a former ambassador to the United Nations. He added that he was confident that Ms. Haley “has absolutely no interest in undercutting, contradicting or getting out in front of the White House.”

Perhaps so, but Trump is fine with undercutting, contradicting or getting out in front of her, and there’s this:

Beyond the immediate disconnect, though, is a deeper strain between Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley, according to administration officials and other insiders. Ms. Haley has been perhaps the most hawkish voice on Russia on a team headed by a president who has emphasized his fervent desire for friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin.

At times, that serves the president’s interests because she can say what he will not. But at other times, he has grown exasperated by her outspokenness.

At one point recently, he saw Ms. Haley on television sharply criticizing Russia over its intervention in Ukraine. “Who wrote that for her?” Mr. Trump yelled angrily at the screen, according to people briefed on the moment. “Who wrote that for her?”

He probably wrote that for her. Sometimes he’s mad at Russia. Sometimes he isn’t. Which day is it? Which hour is it? She’s the hapless Dilbert now, but there’s this too:

A former governor of South Carolina, Ms. Haley has assumed a more prominent role than most of her predecessors, at times eclipsing the secretary of state. And along the way, Mr. Trump has grown suspicious of her ambition, convinced that she had been angling for Mr. Tillerson’s position and increasingly wondering whether she wants his own job.

Republicans close to the White House whisper about the prospect of an alliance between Ms. Haley and Vice President Mike Pence, possibly to run as a ticket in 2020.

Aides to both scoff at such suggestions, but the slightest hint of such a pairing would be likely to enrage Mr. Trump, who has made it clear that he plans to run for re-election.

And there’s this too:

Ms. Haley draws strong feelings on both sides of the aisle. In Republican circles, she is a favorite of neoconservatives and national security hawks like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, but viewed skeptically by the more isolationist wing that sees Mr. Trump as a champion. Among Democrats, she has respect from those who see her as a voice of reason and scorn from others who see her as overly combative.

“Nikki Haley is a neocon in her view,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California. “Basically, she’s a parrot for the McCain-Lindsey Graham worldview of ‘Let’s go bomb Iran, let’s go fight another cold war with Russia, let’s go use force around the world.'”

Mr. Connolly, on the other hand, described her as an important counterpoint to Mr. Trump. “She’s been a little island of some sanity in this otherwise dysfunctional, irrational, volatile White House when it comes to foreign policy,” he said. “She’s now getting the Tillerson treatment. And so perhaps this island will be swallowed up by rising sea levels.”

Then the whole presidency turns into a Dilbert cartoon, but there’s other reporting on this:

Trump conferred with his national security advisers late Sunday and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them, according to several people familiar with the plan.

Administration officials said the economic sanctions were under serious consideration, along with other measures that could be taken against Russia, but said Trump had not given final authorization to implement them. Administration officials said Monday it was unlikely Trump would approve any additional sanctions without another triggering event by Russia, describing the strategy as being in a holding pattern.

No one told Nikki Haley about any of that, but the Trump folks told Russia:

Sometime after Haley’s comments on CBS, the Trump administration notified the Russian Embassy in Washington that the sanctions were not in fact coming, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said Monday…

After Haley’s comments, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the sanctions were a U.S. ploy to oust Russia from international markets and constituted “undisguised attempts of unfair competition.”

“The sanction campaign against Russia is truly assuming the nature of an obsessive idea,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news agency. “We still do not see these sanctions as lawful. We see them as going against international law.”

Peskov added, “Certainly, this cannot have any relation to and cannot be motivated by considerations of the situation in Syria or any other country . . . I would call this international economic raiding rather than something else.”

But after the Kremlin got word through Russia’s embassy in Washington that the sanctions would not be coming, there was a subtle shift in Moscow toward a less confrontational tone…

Nikki Haley was frozen out of all that. Somewhat like Dilbert, she does her vague and undefined and perhaps pointless work in her cubicle, in comic existential despair, but she’s not alone:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged President Trump to get congressional approval before the United States launched airstrikes against Syria last week, but was overruled by Mr. Trump, who wanted a rapid and dramatic response, military and administration officials said.

Mr. Trump, the officials said, wanted to be seen as backing up a series of bellicose tweets with action, but he was warned that an overly aggressive response risked igniting a wider war with Russia.

Friday night’s limited strikes on three targets, which lasted under two minutes, were the compromise.

This was all about handling the clueless pointy-haired boss:

The debate reflects a divide between Mr. Trump and the defense secretary, who, like no other member of the cabinet, has managed to maintain a cordial relationship with the president even while reining him in.

Until this month, Mr. Mattis had a buffer at the White House in the former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who often deferred to the defense secretary, a retired four-star Marine general. The arrival of Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, means that buffer is gone.

Now, managing the clueless boss will be hard:

Administration and congressional officials said the hawkish Mr. Bolton is not expected to defer to the defense secretary; already, neoconservative members of the Republican foreign policy establishment have started to air concerns that Mr. Mattis is ceding strategic territory to Iran and Russia in Syria.

Mr. Mattis is widely viewed by global leaders as the strongest and perhaps most credible voice on foreign policy in an administration that has been rocked by firings and resignations among senior presidential advisers. The recent exits of both General McMaster and Rex W. Tillerson as secretary of state have focused more attention on Mr. Mattis’ role in the cabinet.

He is alone here, but so far, so good:

As he pressed his case last week, before the allied strikes with Britain and France, Mr. Mattis lost the battle over getting congressional authorization. But he won the larger war.

Mr. Mattis prevailed in limiting the strikes to three targets that did not risk endangering Russian troops scattered at military installations around Syria. Nor did the 105 missiles hit Syrian military units believed to be responsible for carrying out an April 7 suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma, near Damascus.

In the end, the narrowly targeted strikes belied Mr. Trump’s description Friday night of a larger coordinated response that could take days or weeks.

But it is sometimes best just to let the clueless boss rage a bit:

“The combined American, British and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power – military, economic and diplomatic,” Mr. Trump said in an address to the nation as the strikes were underway. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.”

But there have been no additional strikes since then, and the Pentagon said no more are being planned. “This is a one-time shot,” Mr. Mattis said on Friday calling the airstrikes “a very strong message to dissuade President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from using chemical weapons against his own people.”

It would do. Keep your head down. Ignore the clueless boss. Do your job as best you can. Ignore your existential despair. Things won’t get better.

It’s a job – and that’s why it’s good to be retired from all that and each morning to see all of that play out again and again in that day’s Dilbert strip. Scott Adams was right about Trump, more right than he knew.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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