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Who are the 'Egyptian Military'—And How Do They Resemble a Dysfunctional Bank?

Marchers shake hands with Egyptian Army soldiers on tanks during a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarek in Tahrir Square January 29, 2010 in Cairo, Egypt. Egytian soldiers were for the most part interacting peacefully with the marchers in Tahrir Square during the afternoon hours.
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Marchers shake hands with Egyptian Army soldiers on tanks during a demonstration against President Hosni Mubarek in Tahrir Square January 29, 2010 in Cairo, Egypt. Egytian soldiers were for the most part interacting peacefully with the marchers in Tahrir Square during the afternoon hours.

As the situation on the ground in Egypt continues to destabilize—with riots breaking out in Tahrir Square earlier this afternoon Cairo time—there is much discussion of the critical role the military will play in Egypt in the days and weeks to come. Among policy analysts who seem to agree on little else, there appears to be a consensus on this: The military will play a key role in determining the future of the Egyptian nation.

However, when I hear analysts refer to the 'Egyptian military'—nearly always as a unitary, rational, and even monolithic entity—I become a little perplexed.

As I already observed, intelligence and security forces are the stock in trade of autocratic regimes.

That kind of massive scale and redundancy tends to lead to enormous bureaucracy—as anyone who has ever worked at a large money center bank can tell you.

The thing about large and complex bureaucratic organizations is this: Over time, they tend to degenerate into political fiefdoms, riven by petty discord—and the dysfunctional environment that such bureaucracy creates often leads to decisions that would seem highly illogical—especially when viewed through the lens of a rational entity acting as a unitary whole.

(Again, ask someone who's worked for a large bank. But big banks at least have large market forces to hold the bureaucracy and politics in check. Or, I should say, they did before the era of Too Big Too Fail. With theoretically unlimited government funding, big banks may begin to function increasingly like the division of motor vehicles.)

Which gets us back to my original thesis: Viewing the Egyptian military as a unified and rational entity—which will choose sides and make predictable decisions accordingly—may be incredibly naïve.

In fact, it may disastrous.

Whenever a pundit refers to 'The Egyptian Military', it is perfectly reasonable question the pre-suppositions built into that analysis.

Predicting civil war for Egypt would be rash: There are, as yet, no signs that rogue generals intend to square off against one another in the streets of Cairo.

But with the gathering chaos in Egypt, the notion of a breakdown in discipline in the Egyptian military—and perhaps even an eventual fragmentation—cannot be dismissed out of hand.

If that happens, the 'Egyptian Military', as such, will cease to exist.

And all bets are off.

Note: Much of the intellectual infrastructure of this argument is borrowed from the work Graham Allison. Allison, a political scientist at The Kennedy School at Harvard, developed a theory called The Rational Actor Model to explain the analytic failures of the predictive models used by the Kennedy administration during the Cuban Missile crisis. (Ironically, the theoretical framework that Allison was critiquing was based on economic models—largely game theory and the work of Milton Friedman and other—that he felt had been misapplied to the domain of foreign policy.) Allison's book about the Cuba Missile Crisis, Essence of decision, co-written with Philip Zelikow, explains the weaknesses inherent in the Rational Actor Model — where complex organizations are assumed to make rational decisions the way an individual might.(If reading academic foreign policy books isn't your thing, you can rent the film Thirteen Days, which depicts the Kennedy administration during the two weeks in October '62 that nearly ended the world. Some of Allison's theories seem to have made their way into the screenplay. Plus, it's a good movie.)

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