washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook > Articles Inside Outlook

Flex Power

A Capital Way to Gain Clout, Inside and Out

By Janine R. Wedel
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page B04

Personnel changes are coming thick and fast as President Bush forms the team for his second term. But in one area, little transformation is in the offing: The now-legendary group of neoconservatives who helped take America to war in Iraq will continue to hold sway over foreign policy. One of their number, Stephen J. Hadley, has already been elevated to the post of national security adviser.

The continuing influence of this longstanding core of a dozen or so individuals -- the most visible have been Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith -- will hearten those who share their views, while vexing those who disagree with them. But to a social anthropologist like me, one thing is clear: Their influence highlights the evolution of a new kind of grouping -- a social-networking phenomenon I call "flex groups" -- that signals important changes taking place in American governing and policymaking.

Outlook
The Post's opinion and commentary section runs every Sunday.

Outlook Section


This is not a polemic against neocon philosophy, nor an accusation of conspiracy. Like most members of social networks, the neocon core aren't necessarily conscious of their own patterns of behavior. They see themselves as friends and associates who have worked together over the years to further their careers and promote their vision of a transformed Middle East. But at the moment, they are the most prominent identifiable flex group in the United States, and understanding how such a group operates is critical to grasping the implications of new trends in government outsourcing and their potential for weakening our democracy.

Half a century ago, in his book, "The Power Elite," sociologist C. Wright Mills famously described the triangle of power in the United States created by business, the military and the political establishment, and how it limited and diminished the authority of elected officials. Today, that trend has intensified as more authority is being handed off to private organizations. This movement toward privatizing government work has created more opportunities for coordinated groups of individuals to take over public policy agendas in pursuit of their own interests.

I use the term "flex groups" to capture the members' facility for maneuvering between government and private roles plus their skill at both relaxing the government's rules of accountability and businesses' codes of competition and at conflating state and private interests. The essence of these groups is that the same collection of people interacts in multiple roles, both inside and outside government, and keeps resurfacing in different vincarnations and configurations to achieve their goals over time.

Self-sustaining teams with their own agenda, flex groups are different from the powerful "wise men" of the past, who were mainly instruments of the president and chiefly concerned with pursuing his objectives. Their activities also don't quite equate with the revolving-door syndrome, in which influential individuals serve serially in government and the private sector. Flex players do circulate among positions in government and business (and all sorts of lobbying, think-tank, media, advocacy and other nongovernmental organizations). But in doing so, they are continually working to further the shared agenda of the group. Individually or as a group, they operate on both sides of the door at the same time; in some cases, they may even dissolve the door.

I first began thinking about the concept of flex groups while doing research in social anthropology in Eastern Europe as the communist regimes there were collapsing. After 1989, when states began divesting themselves of nationalized resources, I saw how longstanding informal groups, schooled in circumventing the communist state, worked in and around the crumbling systems to acquire companies and other resources at fire-sale prices.

Group members quickly learned that wearing multiple hats helped them position themselves for wealth and influence in the emerging system. In Poland, officials often presented visitors with two or more sets of calling cards: their official government one along with cards announcing their position in an NGO or consulting firm -- sometimes even one that did business with the government office they headed.

The most skilled players bridged state and private, bureaucratic and market territory, using ambiguity to their advantage. Polish sociologists dubbed these flex players "institutional nomads," because they were loyal primarily to their fellow nomads, rather than to the institutions they worked for. And they positioned their members strategically to best gain access to privilege and resources for the group.

The flex activity in unraveling communist states was obviously much more intense than it is in stable societies such as the United States. Our laws and regulations are also intended to prevent an individual from acting simultaneously as a government official and a consultant, business executive or NGO official. Still, outsourcing and the restructuring of governance has opened up the field to flex players here.

Today, two-thirds of the people doing work for the federal government aren't on the government payroll. A diverse set of private organizations -- companies, consulting firms, NGOs, think tanks and public-private partnerships -- do more of the federal government's work, measured in terms of jobs, than civil servants do. Private contractors write budgets, manage other contractors, implement policy -- and sometimes essentially make it as well. And while contracts are on the rise (driven in part by the demand for military, nation-building and homeland-security services), the number of civil servants available to oversee them is proportionately falling. Meanwhile, private contractors are often subject to more relaxed rules governing conflicts of interest than civil servants would be.

The multilayering that results provides increased opportunities for flex groups to consolidate control of public policy portfolios and override alternative policies. Because they bring coordination to sometimes convoluted government, flex groups can be attractive to an administration. The neocon core had just such an appeal when Bush came into office: Not only did their goals for the Middle East coincide with the president's, but they also had a ready-made modus operandi for advancing them. The perseverance and togetherness that makes such a group effective can make it an asset to a president. (It can also make it a liability, since the group has its own power and interests, which may at times diverge from the president's or ultimately reflect badly on him.)Flex players gain influence by promoting one another for influential positions and coordinating their multi-pronged efforts to pursue their objectives. Consider the relationships among Perle, Wolfowitz and Feith. In 1973, as a senior staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Perle helped Wolfowitz, then an assistant professor at Yale, find employment in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In 1982, as an assistant secretary in President Reagan's Defense Department, Perle hired and later promoted Feith. After leaving the Pentagon in 1987, Perle became a highly paid consultant for the lobbying firm International Advisers Inc., which Feith established in 1989. By serving as a consultant only, Perle -- who had supervised U.S. military assistance to Turkey while at Defense -- was able to bypass federal regulations prohibiting anyone from representing foreign governments right after leaving government.

The mutual assistance of these three continues to this day. In 2001, Perle and Wolfowitz championed Feith for the position of undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon. In that post, Feith in turn selected Perle as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory body with a mixed state-private character that gives its members access to classified information. (Perle resigned as chairman in March 2003 amid allegations of conflicts of interest, and from the board a year later.)

There's nothing necessarily unethical in any of this, but it illustrates how members of a flex group continually help each other.

The effectiveness of a flex group's efforts, even when some of its members are in an administration that is "in power," depends on having some people outside formal government. Flex groups have a culture of circumventing government and creating alternative authorities. The neocons, for instance, have established duplicative governmental entities that have sometimes enabled them to bypass the input of other bodies. Two units in the Pentagon that dealt with policy and intelligence after 9/11 -- the Counterterrorism Evaluation Group and the Office of Special Plans -- were created under Feith and staffed in part by people Perle helped recruit from neocon-associated organizations. Neocon members from various foreign policy agencies in the government have also formed small circles of influence that play a significant role in shaping the administration's Middle East efforts.

If they adopt multiple roles that overlap government, business and other nongovernmental organizations, flex players can increase their influence and use one role to provide deniability, if needed, for actions taken in other roles. Perle, for example, surfaces at the epicenter of a head-spinning array of business dealings, consulting and lobbying roles and ideological initiatives, consistently courting and yet skirting charges of conflict of interest and security breaches.

Flex players call to mind the old notion of conflict of interest, but they are in fact a living example of why such labels no longer suffice. As a Washington analyst sympathetic to the neoconservatives' aims told me, "There is no conflict of interest, because they define the interest."

Many people can no doubt admire the neocons' unity of purpose and dogged pursuit of their ideological and policy objectives. But the problem with flex groups is that they are ultimately unaccountable to the public. In pursuit of their vision -- or of the bottom line -- they do not burden themselves with what are fast becoming the old rules. A flex group can use the ambiguity of its members' roles to its advantage, making their activities difficult to define, let alone monitor. In this lies the potential for corruption or abuse of power. Yet our system of government today is providing increasing opportunities for such groups to arise.

Author's e-mail: jwedel@gmu.edu

Janine Wedel, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, is writing a book tentatively titled "Chameleons in Command: Shadow Power in an Ambiguous World."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company