Here’s the plan…

In a major personnel decision heading into his final year in office, Secretary of State John Kerry plans to appoint Chief of Staff Jon Finer to lead the Office of Policy Planning, the State Department’s in-house think tank, three administration officials told Foreign Policy.

The appointment will place Finer in direct control of a new staff tasked with offering unorthodox solutions to the secretary’s most intractable policy problems. At the same time, Finer will maintain his existing responsibilities as chief of staff, which means he will have to balance the day-to-day duties of running Foggy Bottom with the crafting of U.S. policy.

The move comes as the White House leans harder on the State Department to generate fresh ideas to resolve the civil war in Syria, a slow-burning catastrophe that has resulted in at least 250,000 deaths, millions of refugees, and the global growth of the Islamic State.

“This very much follows the Jake Sullivan model,” said a State Department official, referring to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to put her deputy chief of staff in a dual-hatted role as director of Policy Planning.


What’s interesting here is the sudden resurgence of the word “planning”.

There’s a gag in an old episode of Dad’s Army involving Captain Mainwaring attempting to teach the platoon how to make Molotov cocktails for use against German tanks. The process is a complex one involving a sort of production-chain operation in which one soldier takes responsibility for each stage – one to fill the bottles, one to insert the wick, one to light it etc. etc. At the end of the explanation, Private Walker raises a hand to ask a question: “While we’re doing all this, what’s the tank going to be doing?”

It’s interesting that just as the world is becoming a more chaotic and less US-dominated place, the Obama administration – and particularly the State Department – seems to be developing an increased faith in planning as a concept.

It seems to speak to a desperation to retain at least an illusion of control. Even during the heyday of central state planning – and even in the most thoroughly communist regimes – it went without saying that the field of defence and foreign relations would be left outside the remit of the central planners. The reason for this is obvious: both are entirely contingent upon the choices of outside actors.

Now, the Obama administration has already had a lot of trouble as a result of foreign policy plans not working out as expected, which brings us to a second anecdote.

Years ago a psychologist carried out an experiment (which I would link to if I could find it) that involved giving volunteers pictures of cancerous and non-cancerous cells and tasking them with coming up with a set of heuristics for identifying cancer. The kick in the teeth was that the pictures had, in fact, been labelled randomly. Instead of realising this or concluding that identifying cancerous cells was impossible, however, the volunteers came up with ever more complicated sets of instructions for identifying cancer as more slides were given to them. Humans, it turns out, love patterns to the extent that they’re capable of finding them even where they don’t exist, and don’t deal well with randomness.

Taking this on board, it’s hardly surprising that the State Department’s response to poor planning is more planning. By having more data, more money, more Harvard grads and more work, we can get closer to the ordered ideal that exists in our imagination. Michael Munger refers to this as “unicorn governance”:

Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.

Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State,” delete that phrase and replace it with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”

If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, “The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power,” ask them to take out the unicorn (“the State”) and replace it with “George W. Bush.” How do you like it now?


This blog has argued in favour of embracing uncertainty before. Having a plan is a comfort, but it’s not necessarily a solution…

Michael Leunig Here's the Plan



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