Rising to Total Incompetence

Richard Nixon was finally sworn in as president on January 20, 1969, the same year that Laurence J. Peter published his book on the Peter Principle – his insight into the nature of large organizations. In almost all organizational hierarchies, corporations or government bureaucracies or the military, every employee will rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level where they are quite incompetent. They could always do the next higher and more complex job, and the one after that, and the one after that one too – but at some point the next job was one they just couldn’t do – so they sit smug at the top, or near the top, clueless and useless. That’s how any promotion system works. Move folks up. Challenge them. Stretch hem. They grow. The organization grows. Keep doing that until they hit that wall – the job they just cannot do – and then leave them there and hope they don’t do too much damage. And that, Peter explained, is what is wrong with most corporations. Those at the top had settled there because there was nowhere else to put them. And they were useless.

That was management theory at the time, but Nixon wasn’t incompetent. He could do the “president job” quite well – the opening to China and all the rest. But he was also paranoid and angry and nasty and vengeful and utterly unethical. And then he was gone. He lost to Kennedy in 1960, and then he lost when he ran for governor out here in California, but did finally win the presidency. That was the final promotion, and he could do the job – but he really couldn’t. He was too mean and too nasty. He was promoted to a place where that mattered too. He had to leave. He blew it. He knew that.

What does Donald Trump know? He may have risen to his own personal level of incompetence. Things aren’t working. The Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus reviews his foreign policy:

As president he named himself negotiator-in-chief and tried to cajole North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to abandon nuclear weapons. He reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, betting he could force the ayatollahs to change their ways. He vowed to force China, Canada, Mexico and the European Union to give up what he called unfair trade practices.

He backed an uprising in Venezuela aimed at toppling its leftist president, Nicolas Maduro. He declared victory against Islamic State and ordered U.S. troops home from Syria. In his spare time, he asked his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to arrange peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

He has achieved none of those outcomes.

But it’s worse than that:

We’re in an escalating trade war with China, and with both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping slapping tariffs on imports, consumers and businesses in both countries are likely to get hurt. The nuclear negotiations with North Korea are stalled, and Kim not only is still producing nuclear weapons material but also has started firing short-range ballistic missiles to show his pique.

The sanctions on Iran haven’t made its government more pliable; Tehran has threatened to resume aspects of its still-halted nuclear program. U.S. troops are still in Syria. And Kushner has yet to unveil his Mideast peace plan.

Something is wrong. He finally moved up to that one job he couldn’t do:

“The problem with Trump is that he’s a weak president,” Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University and author of “The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth,” told me. “He doesn’t know how to make the government work. He isn’t interested in the details of policy. He doesn’t have a cohesive team of aides to help him.”

A second, related answer: Trump has strong opinions, but no coherent strategy.

“The president provides the hunches and instincts,” the State Department’s chief of policy planning, Kiron Skinner, said a bit undiplomatically at a conference last month. It’s the job of his staff to turn hunches into strategy, she said.

He cannot do the job:

Skinner and other Trump acolytes have labored for months to turn the president’s slogan of “America first” into a more elaborate “Trump Doctrine.”

Its basic tenets, which Trump has outlined in several speeches, boil down to this: Every nation should pursue its own interests. For strong nations like the United States, alliances and multinational organizations just get in the way.

And that’s a joke:

That’s the third reason Trump’s foreign policy isn’t working. It spurns the strong multilateral alliances that were a foundation of the U.S. strategy that grew out of World War II and won the Cold War.

“The world has changed, but allies are as important as ever,” Mandelbaum told me. “If you really want to get China to change its economic practices, you need to build a strong coalition to put pressure on them. It’s not clear that the United States can do it alone.”

Trump hasn’t thought this through, and Daniel Drezner does not expect that to happen:

When it comes to foreign affairs, President Trump is not cursed with the burden of knowledge. This was always pretty clear, but the point has come into sharper focus in the past week. As his trade war with China escalates, Trump continues to display a fundamental lack of comprehension about how the policies he’s put in place work. He has repeatedly insisted that China pays for U.S. tariffs, even though every economist – including his own adviser Larry Kudlow – acknowledges this to be false. According to Axios, Trump’s staffers are convinced he really believes it; one former staffer says it’s “like theology.”

A similar dynamic is playing out in the Middle East. In Iran, the Trump administration is increasing pressure; administration spokesmen and spokeswomen have brandished military threats and plans. Based on Trump’s own comments, however, it is not clear he is aware of the implications of his foreign policy. When news broke about a Defense Department plan to deploy 120,000 troops to the Middle East if Iran were to escalate existing tensions, Trump simultaneously denied it but also suggested that “if we did that, we would send a hell of a lot more troops.”

That seems like incompetence, so Drezner says that the president simply does not know what he is doing:

Iran and China are not easy portfolios for any commander in chief. Nonetheless, the standoffs with both countries – either of which can easily worsen – were entirely avoidable. Both situations show just how wrong things can go when the ultimate decision-maker for the government of the most powerful nation on Earth doesn’t understand that he’s boxed himself in.

Trump declared during the 2016 campaign that “I alone can fix” the problems facing the country. What we’re seeing now is the unfortunate counterpoint: He alone gets us into these new messes.

That’s incompetence, but predictable incompetence. He ascended into a job he could have never done in the first place:

Unlike any of his predecessors, Trump possessed zero experience in any branch or level of government when he arrived at the White House. His only previous contact with the legal system had been suing others and being sued, which did not prep him for the finer points of law. Trump has repeatedly commanded his staffers and Cabinet secretaries to do things that, as president, he has no legal authority to do. And in return, they have repeatedly mocked his knowledge deficits. Reince Priebus, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Steven Mnuchin and H. R. McMaster all reportedly called him some variation of “idiot” during their service in his administration. After leaving office, Tillerson explained: “What was challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil corporation, to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.'”

But wait, there’s more:

If Trump is the president with the least experience in government in American history, he is also the one most hostile to expert advice. Like a small child who thinks that no one is wise to his bluff, Trump has consistently claimed expertise on subjects that he clearly knows nothing about. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that on foreign policy, “my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.” Despite Trump’s rather limited tech savviness, he has claimed expertise about wind energy, the aeronautics of Boeing planes, and self-driving cars. He has repeatedly rejected the assessments provided to him from the U.S. intelligence community on security matters. He has spurned his economic advisers on foreign economic policy. The reason for the high turnover on his foreign policy team has been his refusal to listen to their counsel.

And that has been deadly:

Trump’s lack of knowledge erodes his ability to lead. Indeed, his ignorance enables his subordinates to pursue policies that might be at variance with Trump’s wishes. The president did not comprehend the veiled insults contained in outgoing defense secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation letter because he did not read it until it was covered in the news media. In just the past few weeks, Trump has publicly reversed his own administration’s actions on North Korea and the Special Olympics, unaware of policy initiatives until they were already in motion. As political scientist Elizabeth Saunders has demonstrated, inexperienced leaders are less able to constrain their subordinates from engaging in bureaucratic conflicts or pursuing risky actions. Their lack of experience and knowledge makes it more difficult for them to effectively monitor their subordinates, particularly when those subordinates have their own agenda. Saunders concludes that “a base of substantive, domain-specific knowledge is important, and is distinct from procedural experience and acumen (such as good organizational or bargaining skills).”

So this was one promotion too far and a situation where someone a bit better at the job will do that job:

On Iran and Venezuela, Trump appears to be at the mercy of his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, who is running point on both policies. Bolton has made some extraordinary threats, including calling out individual allies of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro by name on Twitter. None of this has caused the Maduro regime to collapse, surprising Trump repeatedly. Bolton’s bellicosity on Iran is based on intelligence that has failed to persuade U.S. allies of any escalation in the Iranian threat.

This will not end well:

Unburdened by any knowledge of history, Trump can serenely gamble on economic and military brinkmanship, convinced that his escalation dominance on Twitter translates into success on the global stage. Those of us who have studied these matters, however, see too many brush fires that can escalate into an uncontrollable blaze.

Perhaps so – Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. Trump is not. Donald Trump is president. Drezner is not. That’s why this will not go well.

On the other hand, the New York Times reports this:

President Trump has sought to put the brakes on a brewing confrontation with Iran in recent days, telling the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, administration officials said, while his senior diplomats began searching for ways to defuse the tensions.

Mr. Trump’s statement, during a Wednesday morning meeting in the Situation Room, sent a message to his hawkish aides that he does not want the intensifying American pressure campaign against the Iranians to explode into open conflict.

For now, an administration that had appeared to be girding for conflict seems more determined to find a diplomatic off-ramp.

But that may be changing:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the leader of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, on Wednesday to confer about the threat posed by Iran, according to a statement. Long an intermediary between the West and Iran, Oman was a site of a secret channel in 2013 when the Obama administration was negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran.

Mr. Pompeo also asked European officials for help in persuading Iran to “de-escalate” tensions, which rose after American intelligence indicated that Iran had placed missiles on small boats in the Persian Gulf. The intelligence, which was based on photographs that have not been released but were described to The New York Times, prompted fears that Tehran may strike at United States troops and assets or those of its allies.

Asked on Thursday whether the United States was going to war with Iran, Mr. Trump replied, “I hope not.”

But that depends on who is in charge:

The developments cast into sharp relief a president who is instinctively wary of military adventures and a cadre of advisers – led by the national security adviser, John R. Bolton – who has taken an uncompromising line toward Iran. The internal tensions have prompted fears that the Trump administration is spoiling for a fight, even if the commander in chief may not be.

That is a worry, as Josh Marshall explains here:

Looking at the escalating (US-created) crisis with Iran, one thing I realize is that a lot of people do not quite know who John Bolton is. They assume – rightly – that anyone in the Trump orbit must be either a moral weakling, a crazy person or someone with one foot out the door. All true. But John Bolton is a unique and uniquely dangerous character.

The danger is that Bolton is quite competent:

During George W. Bush’s second term, Bush nominated Bolton to serve as UN Ambassador. That was in 2006 and with a GOP majority in the Senate. Bolton was seen as so manifestly ill-suited to the position that he couldn’t get confirmed. He had to settle for a pity recess appointment.

All respect to the UN and the UN Ambassadorship, but it is of course a vastly less consequential position than Defense Secretary or CIA Chief or National Security Advisor. Bolton couldn’t even get confirmed in a Republican Senate for the simple reason that he was just too big a warmonger to be a safe pick even for UN Ambassador.

And he’s not safe now either:

Bolton is a caricature of a militarist and warmonger. He is sometimes classed with the so-called “neo-conservatives” who played the central role getting the country into the Iraq War. This isn’t really correct, either in classification or historical terms. For all their shortcomings many of the leading neoconservative policy hands and intellectuals were big on democracy promotion – often in foolish ways, usually only when it was convenient and mainly in Europe. But this is at least part of the worldview.

Bolton doesn’t come from that worldview, as limited and as disastrous as it has proven. In really every context he is for hard US dominance, unilateralism and war as the preferred course of action. Again, he’s really the caricature of a militarist, the kind of one-dimensional, clownishly hawkish type who gets described in small circulation left-wing magazines but can’t possibly exist in real life, only he does exist and his name is John Bolton.

But that’s not what makes him dangerous:

He’s no fool. He’s a very bright guy. And – critically important -he’s a master of bureaucratic politics. The main failing of the top Trumpers is that they are mostly ill-prepared clowns. Ill-prepared clowns can do immense damage. But there have been numerous instances in the last couple years in which big Trump administration initiatives got derailed or delayed simply because of bad lawyering or bureaucratic ineptitude. There are lots of examples of that on the immigration front, for instance.

John Bolton is not the type to make those kinds of mistakes or allow his directives to get sidelined or forgotten in the federal bureaucracy. Being a smart bureaucratic player sounds like an insidery thing. But it’s immensely important in getting what you want out of the sprawling federal bureaucracy whether that’s on the immigration front or in national security and war-fighting.

Bolton knows his stuff. Trump may be outmatched here, but then again, the game may be over for Bolton too:

Trump has raised concern with the heightened rhetoric, believing a large-scale military intervention with Iran would be devastating to him politically, people familiar with the situation said. The President has told members of his team that starting a new conflict would amount to breaking his campaign promise to wind down foreign entanglements. And he’s chafed at suggestions his aides, led by national security adviser John Bolton, are somehow leading him to war.

As recently as last week, Trump was calling outside advisers to complain about Bolton, people familiar with the conversations said. Trump is frustrated that Bolton has allowed the Iran situation to reach a point where it seems like armed conflict is a real possibility, but his frustrations with his national security adviser actually began earlier this spring over Venezuela, when a similar dynamic — Bolton and other aides openly hinting at military options — caused Trump to warn his team to tamp down the rhetoric.

But even that might not help:

Trump denied on Wednesday there was any “infighting” over his Middle East policy. But he reiterated his desire to open talks with Iran, a wish he’s been advocating heavily in meetings over the past week.

“Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision – it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered,” he tweeted. “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”

If so, he wants to make sure that’s possible:

Trump is taking more active steps to open diplomatic channels. On Thursday, Trump will meet with the president of the Swiss government in order to try to establish a channel with which he can speak to Iranians as tensions between the country and the US heighten, according to a person familiar with ongoing discussions inside the White House.

Trump will meet with Ueli Maurer, the Swiss government president, at the White House to discuss the nations’ relationship and “matters such as Switzerland’s role in facilitating diplomatic relations and other international issues,” the White House said in a statement.

The US and Iran do not have an official diplomatic relationship, but Switzerland serves as the protecting power for the US in the country. That means they represent US interests in Iran, performing services for US citizens in the country like visa processing.

So the Swiss might be helpful, and then it might not matter if they are:

The Iranians have thus far shown no public willingness to speak to Trump, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said this week that negotiations with the US would be akin to “poison.”

Trump has been advocating heavily for some type of diplomatic contact behind the scenes, even as his national security team scales up its rhetoric on Iran and weighs military options.

They don’t see a reason to trust this guy, which might have to do with his minimal management skills:

Within the US administration, officials describe an increasing level of concern in recent months among career staffers at the direction of the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

Bolton and his coterie of Iran hawks at the NSC have been pushing for “action for action’s sake,” one administration official involved in the discussions said, without a clear strategy or set of goals. The concern is that there is simply a desire to scale up the pressure on Iran, escalating tensions with no clear off-ramp. Before re-entering government as Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton openly advocated for regime change in Iran.

Now, there is serious wariness emerging over Bolton among Trump’s circle of outside advisers, who enjoys open-door access to the President and spends hours with him each day.

Someone is whispering in Trump’s ear. Don’t trust this guy. No one does:

Pompeo and Bolton have a strained relationship, people familiar with it say, even though they are largely aligned on policy. Both are hawkish, but Pompeo believes he is more deft and diplomatic in his approach, according to the sources. The secretary of state often rolls his eyes when he is asked about Bolton.

Trump, meanwhile, has long chafed at any suggestion his decisions or actions are being manipulated or orchestrated by someone other than himself. Asked last week about Bolton in light of recent turmoil in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran – all places where the US has taken a strong stand without much progress – Trump said his national security adviser has “strong views” but that “I actually temper John.”

No. Everyone is ignoring Trump. Everyone understands the Peter Principle. There are some things that Donald Trump just cannot do. The nation promoted him to that final position where he just didn’t understand the job and thus couldn’t really do the job – and there he is. That’s the Peter Principle at work. But at least this is just a temp job. There’s an election coming.

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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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