Thursday, September 4, 2003

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There's micromanaging and then there's not managing at all

When I was providing some extremely minor campaign advice for Bush during the 2000 election, a lot of my fellow academics would tease me about Bush being dumber than Gore. My automatic counter was to ask them which person they felt more confident in as a manager of the exective branch. There was Bush, who seemed to have mastered the fine balance between delegation and hands-on controlwhile governor of Texas. Then there was Gore, a decent, flawed man cursed with a legislator's mentality, who never met an issue he couldn't micro-manage to death. Even my most ardent liberal friends usually shut up when I brought this up (and, post-election, I had many off-the-record discussions with disgruntled Gore staffers confirming that management was Gore's Achilles heel).

I raise this point in the wake of this Washington Post behind-the-scenes piece on the Bush administration's decision to go back to the United Nations for another Iraq resolution in the hopes of coaxing more non-American troops into the country (link via Josh Marshall). High up in the article there's an astonishing couple of paragraphs:

On Tuesday, President Bush's first day back in the West Wing after a month at his ranch, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell walked into the Oval Office to present something close to a fait accompli.

In what was billed as a routine session, Powell told Bush that they had to go to the United Nations with a resolution seeking a U.N.-sanctioned military force in Iraq -- something the administration had resisted for nearly five months. Powell, whose department had long favored such an action, informed the commander in chief that the military brass supported the State Department's position despite resistance by the Pentagon's civilian leadership. Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, whose office had been slow to embrace the U.N. resolution, quickly agreed, according to administration officials who described the episode.

Thus was a long and high-stakes bureaucratic struggle resolved, with the combined clout of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department persuading a reluctant White House that the administration's Iraq occupation policy, devised by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, simply was not working....

For an administration that prides itself on centralized, top-down control, the decision to change course in Iraq was uncharacteristically loose and decentralized. As described by officials in the White House, State Department and Pentagon, the White House was the last to sign on to the new approach devised by the soldiers and the diplomats. "The [Pentagon] civilians had been saying we didn't need any more troops, and the military brass had backed them," a senior administration official said. "Powell's a smart guy, and he knew that as soon as he had the brass behind him, that is very tough to ignore." (emphasis added)

I've expressed my doubts about the international option, but I've also made clear that I think it's a better choice than sticking with the status quo.

That's besides the point. What bothers me about this story is that the White House -- on the most important foreign policy issue of the day, and potentially the biggest campaign issue for 2004 -- was essentially a passive actor in this story. The President seemed perfectly comfortable to let Powell and Rumsfeld play bureaucratic politics with each other ad infinitum. Only when Powell and the Joint Chiefs were able to break the logjam did the policy shift -- for more on this see this Marshall post as well. [Isn't the Post story just another example of Powell puffery?--ed. The sourcing of the article -- lots of DOD people -- suggests that this version of events isn't the result of Powell spinning the story].

Micro-managing an issue is one way for a President to screw up policy, but too much of a hands-off approach can be just as debilitating. This summer, the White House has veered too much in that direction.

President Bush: hope you had a nice vacation at the ranch. Now get off your butt, take charge, manage the problem, and see your vision of a transformed Middle East through to its logical conclusion. Or, as Andrew Sullivan puts it:

C'mon, Dubya. Follow-through; follow-through. Some of us are worried not because we want you to fail, but because we want you to succeed.

As they say in Texas -- yep.

UPDATE: Powell and the Joint Chiefs are officially denying the Post's version of events. Methinks they doth protest too much.

posted by Dan on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM


Maybe this is just letting things on the ground sort themselves out? It takes a while to evaluate the present course of action. Maybe letting DoD and DoS fight until they could reach a consensus makes sense in that context?

posted by: James Joyner on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

Everything old is new again. This story recaps Powell's emergence from the grave last fall, when he succeeded in persuading his boss of the wisdom of the UN route.

The Olympian detachment of Pres. Bush can be unnerving, but letting Powell and Rumsfeld slug it out and then declaring a winner seems to be SOP.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

Oh, I got sidetracked by current events, and forgot my Really Big Point - any post that starts with a bit of Gore-bashing works for me. I goad my lefty friends that Gore, who might have anticipated a Presidential run in 2000 as early as Nov 1992, had three campaign managers in eighteen months. By way of contrast, Bush had Rove (or vice versa) since 1994.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

I think this is a replay of the run-up to the Iraq invasion last year, with Bush giving Powell the ok to give diplomacy a try before he considers other options. I don't think it necessarily means that Bush is committed to the diplomatic route at all costs - just as he wasn't willing to call off the Iraq invasion absent UN approval. Keep in mind that this summer has seen a great deal of diplomatic activity - with Iraq's neighbors, in an effort to keep them from interfering in the reconstruction; with the Road Map; and with Iran, to try to convince Tehran to come clean about its nuclear program. Clearly, most of these efforts have failed, and there is good reason to think that France and Russia will torpedo efforts to adopt a Security Council resolution acceptable to Washington.

posted by: Greg Gransden on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

It's funny in reading Bush at War, GW comes across as a great manager, really bringing people together, taking in tons of information and making decisions, etc. He is portrayed as someone that is "in charge" and really effective.

As you point out, with respect to activity post-cessation of combat he doesn't really seem to be "in charge".

There was an interesting anecdote posted a while back about GW getting bounced from the Carlyle board. They didn't think he was adding much value. Interesting to see the verdict on him as a business guy (maybe that was a political or otherwise motivated decision who knows?).

posted by: Balasubramania's Mania on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

Dan, you should probably note that Powell and Myers have called the WaPo article "total fiction" etc. in unusually strong terms. The narrative in the article is kind of hard to believe.

posted by: rds on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]


I agree that there are some issues on which it's best to let the key players hash things out until a consensus is reached. Iraq is not one of those situations. The CSIS report that stressed the need for quick fixes on the stability issue -- and came at the DoD's request, mind you -- was published seven weeks ago. That's way too long to let things sort themselves out.

Sorry, I stand by my post.

posted by: Dan Drezner on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

I dealt with the issue of Bush's management style over a year ago, on a different issue. The bottom line: unaccountable pundits can rant about the importance of decisive leadership, but real-world managers who are actually responsible for the consequences of their decisions (and who know what they're doing) don't go out on a limb based on their gut convictions--they wait until a decision is so clear that it has already effectively been made, then ratify it.

posted by: Dan Simon on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

The main reason I think Powell is being honest when he says this article is a total work of fiction is that if it were true, Rumsfeld would have to resign. I would think Bush would also have to fire the Joint Chiefs, because at that point in their career, they should know what the chain of command is and it doesn't run through the Department of State

posted by: Steve on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

Rumsfeld spoke a couple of times on Aug. 25 on the need for more non-US troops. At a military town hall meeting, he said:

Q: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, I'm Major Dawn Stay (sp) from Wilford Hall Medical Center. Circumstances are necessitating an expanded role of coalition forces in the Middle East and throughout the globe. What is the likelihood that U.S. military troops would be fighting under the orders of the U.N. or other countries' commanders?

Rumsfeld: The -- I'd say two things. One, we do need coalition forces, and the Department of State and the Department of Defense, John Abizaid, the combatant commanders, and others, the Joint Staff, have been talking to something in excess of 60, 70 countries, about bringing assistance in. I think the number currently is somewhere around 40 countries are participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom in one way or another. We do need international support and assistance. It's a big help. Full stop.

Second question, what is the likelihood of our forces serving under a blue-hatted United Nations leadership? And I think that's not going to happen. (Applause.)

That seems to be the current US position in our proposed UN resolution.

At a press avail that day, he also spoke of a need for more coalition forces, and more Iraqi involvement. They were his first comments, in fact.

So, the bit in the WaPo story that says ""The [Pentagon] civilians had been saying we didn't need any more troops, and the military brass had backed them," a senior administration official said." is wrong, or at least, was wrong as of Aug. 25.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

I thought Bill Kristol's comments at the end of the piece were interesting. It looks like some of the conservative pundits are trying to put a little distance between themselves and this debacle.

People close to the administration said the Joint Chiefs and Powell (a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs) did not win a bureaucratic battle as much as Rumsfeld lost one. "Rumsfeld lost credibility with the White House because he screwed up the postwar planning," said William Kristol, a conservative publisher with close ties to the administration. "For five months they let Rumsfeld have his way, and for five months Rumsfeld said everything's fine. He wanted to do the postwar with fewer troops than a lot of people advised, and it turned out to be a mistake."

posted by: Michael Jones on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

A bit more on the end-run of the JCS around the civilian leadership. I excerpt Paul Wolfowitz, testifying before a Senate committee on July 29:

Mr. Chairman, in my written statement, I go on at some length about the question of how many troops we need. We can into that in questions. s

But I would like to say something that's very important here, because the most -- we don't need more American troops. At least our commanders don't think we do. What we need most of all -- we need international troops, yes. We need actionable intelligence, yes. But what we need most of all are Iraqis fighting with us. The Iraqi people are part of this coalition, and they need to be armed and trained to participate.

...At this stage, it is impossible to estimate what recover action will cost. What we do know is the resources will come from a variety of resources and the costs of recovery in Iraq need to be shared widely. The international community has a vital interest in successful recovery in Iraq and should share responsibility for it.

The international community has recognized its responsibility to assist us in peacekeeping efforts. Nineteen nations are now providing more than 13,000 troops on the ground, and more are on the way, and we are in active discussions with a number of very important countries, including Turkey and Pakistan, about further possibilities.

Now, I am not pretending that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz led the charge for greater UN involvement. However, the idea of international troops seems to be something they supported, rather than opposed. Delivering the international troops is actually Powell's job at State - if he concludes a UN resolution is needed, well, so be it.

That is my current alternative view. The idea that the JCS and Powell sneaked this UN effort past Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld does not seem to square with their public pronouncements.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

If the WaPo is right, either Bush or Powell have to resign. There can't be two presidents and commander-in-chiefs at the same time.

posted by: Peter on 09.04.03 at 11:47 AM [permalink]

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