The problem of the Gordian knot
When a leader solves a problem with bold action, it’s often referred to as cutting the Gordian knot. This comes from a legend about Alexander the Great reaching the city of Gordium, whose ancient founder, Gordius, had left behind a chariot tied to a pole by means of a complicated knot. The one able to untie it, the legend went, would be the conqueror of Asia. Alexander promptly took out his sword and sliced through the knot. Success!
Here is the fundamental difference between the public and government. The public is motivated by the fierce urgency of now; government’s concern revolves around the precise determination of how. This was a very useful definition put forward by a longtime Washington journalist. Another journalist put it more simply: Washington, he remarked, is not about the why, it’s about the how. In turn, whether framed in the language of Washington or Manila, this reveals the fundamental, enduring, dilemma every new administration faces once it promises its way to power: How do you accomplish the how, not later, but now. Government is a wholesale undertaking; politics is retail. What makes sense taken as a whole, can prove counter-intuitive and thus unbelievable to the voter. This is a harsh lesson learned by every administration, and the present dispensation is no exception.
In other words the public expects — and will applaud — Alexander-type action that slices through Gordian knots, but it is also fearful that slicing through every problem with a blade risks exceeding what is permissible, not only as to means, but methods. Not every problem can be hacked through. So long as the slicing is done in a manner that does not cause more problems than it solves (such as causing instability), and so long as it achieves results (sooner rather than later), the public will not only accept it, but reward it with approval—but approval is a passive gift; it is not active participation precisely because the public expects leaders to do what is required, without bothering the public.
As a Filipino political leader put it bluntly in 1922: “The problem with you is that you take the game of politics too seriously. You look too far behind you and too far ahead of you. Our people do not understand that. They do not want it. All they want is to have the present problem solved, and solved with the least pain. That is all.” A decade later, somewhat the wiser, came a follow-up reflection in 1938: “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government… the fear is that the Head of State may either exceed his powers, or abuse them by improprieties. To keep order is his main purpose.”
Take the so-called “war on drugs.” Government loves its statistics: hundreds of thousands “surrendered,” dramatic confrontations with mayors. But a growing percentage of the public feels fear, despite assurances that if you don’t do wrong, you have nothing to fear.
The problem with the war on drugs, based on the President’s own statements on the matter, boils down to three things. First, he did not realize the scale of the problem even though he campaigned on the problem being at the core of his motivations to seek the presidency. If his predecessor was perceived to spend too much time on the how leading to dissatisfaction over the now, still, the previous regime’s mantra that the “correct identification of the problem leads to identifying the correct solution” remains valid.
Second, while he had some police generals on his radar, the President has said that he did not realize the police would be so corrupt and stupid in fulfilling his orders. He had a hunch, which I think will eventually be proven at least partially correct, that the first wave of slaughter even before he assumed office was due to corrupt cops liquidating assets and networks they’d benefited from. But he seems convinced this continued even after he assumed office. Add to this his repeated expressions of frustration with cops over what are unforgivable acts of brutality stupid enough to be caught on camera or which leave witnesses, when everything would be easy if each fatality was preceded with a blackout of CCTVs, and an officially-believable assertion of being a response to armed resistance. This is at the core of his repeated insistence that as a lawyer he would never be so dumb as to issue explicit orders for liquidations. He is right—in the sense that what he laid out was a path that could be guarded by cooperative fiscals and judges.
Third, he did not foresee how stubborn civil society and the Church would be; how media, both foreign and domestic, would focus on methods rather than what he considers wonderful outcomes; and how the public would start faltering in its support of not only his objective, but his methods. Now he has had to beat a retreat, hoping his gesture to pacify public opinion—putting the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in charge of cracking down on drugs — will fail.