Bush's Foreign Policy Process Is the Big Problem
April 23, 2004
Recent books by Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward point to a number of flaws in the Bush Administration's policy making process, as Nicholas Berry explains.
Bush's Foreign Policy Process Is the Big Problem
By Nicholas Berry
Unlike in past Republican administrations, Bushís foreign policy process is less thorough and less organized. This process results in policies with gaps, unintended consequences, and abrupt shifts in direction.
Recent inside-the-White House books, especially Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies and Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, reveal three characteristics of Bushís process for making foreign policy. The process is closed, relatively unstructured, and exceptionally hierarchical.
This is a format for failure.
A closed process has few players. Clarke and Woodward refer to a relatively small number of advisors involved in virtually all policy making -- Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisor I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Steven J. Hadley, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Having a small number of participants definitely does facilitate control of policy and message, including minimizing leaks. But it also leaves out experts with knowledge of foreign cultures, histories, and governments. Absent in the Clarke and Woodward books are the names of lower-level experts and specialists involved in decision-making. The advisors listed above may be really smart, but they simply cannot have the breadth of knowledge about the politics of foreign leaders and movements. There is a disconnect with lesser staff, as Clarke so often mentions. "On September 4, 2001," laments Clarke, "the Principals Committee meeting on al Qaeda that I had called for urgently on January 25 finally met." Al Qaeda was not a priority of the closed circle, and perhaps would have been if Clarke's Counterterrorism Security Group had some access.
The closed process restricts the number of policies that can be pursued simultaneously. Both Clarke and Woodward indicate that the burden put on top team members causes them to set aside policies considered of lesser priority. As Woodward concludes, "The run-up to war had sucked nearly all the oxygen from every other issue in foreign relations." Besides failing to deal with al Qaeda, Bush increasingly surrendered control of his Israeli-Palestinian policy to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
A closed system allows it to be relatively unstructured. Working with a small number of advisors does not require a highly structured process. What one often sees in White House photographs of a National Security Council principals meeting is five or six people sitting in comfortable chairs in a living room setting. No desks. No computers. No charts. No staff. Very little paper. Informality may be fine for sharing thoughts, identifying problems, and building rapport, but it is not suitable for detailed, operational decision making or planning. Planning is a bureaucratic process, and major policies inevitably involve coordinating multiple bureaucracies. According to Woodward, in a major principals meeting on the issue of going to war, "the president never once asked Powell, Would you do this? What's your overall advice? The bottom line." Powell, when informed of Bush's decision for war (only after Bush informed Saudi Ambassador Bandar!) brought up what he thought was a major unresolved issue: governing Iraq. "You know you're going to own the place," Powell said. The Pentagon had already dismissed the State Department team's recommendations on post-war management, and the Pentagon's post-war management in Iraq inevitably produced a mess.
Woodward reports that in another pre-war principals meeting at Camp David (but without the president), Powell argued that "the war could trigger all kinds of unanticipated and unintended consequences, some that none of them, he included, had imagined." Woodward then gives the response: "Not the issue, Cheney said." Not the issue! Consequences not provided for? Woodward writes that Powell and Cheney "never" had a meeting to iron out differences. Clarke and Woodward portray Bush talking to Powell privately, Rumsfeld privately, Tenet privately. All are scrambling to influence Bush. They are not melding and blending foreign policy estimates and capabilities among themselves.
What results are winners and losers, with the bureaucratic winners running the show. The Pentagon may be terrific at winning wars, but it was woefully unprepared to run the occupation of Iraq. Disbanding the Iraqi army and firing all the Baathist professional workers (whose party membership was a union card) was brainless. Failing to organize electoral rolls, voting systems, parties, and scheduling early elections -- thereby proving that the occupation would be temporary -- was equally brainless. Going back to the UN, bringing back Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani into the Iraqi political process, and hiring back Baathist professionals are all policy reversals designed to rectify unanticipated and unintended adverse consequences.
A closed, relatively unstructured policy-making process is exceptionally hierarchical. The tight-knit scramble to make policy creates the need that a top judge be available to make a decision. Bush, therefore, acts like a judge and jury. Once he has made his verdict, everyone is then to come on board. Woodward probed this issue with Bush during a December 2003 interview. "Other than Rice, Bush said, he didn't need to ask the principal advisers whether they thought he should go to war. He knew what Vice President Cheney thought and he decided not to ask Secretary of State Colin L. Powell or Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld." Bush was clearly the decision maker on going initially to the UN, abandoning the UN approach, giving Saddam Hussein and sons 48 hours to get out of Iraq, and initiating war. In telling the secretary of state that he was going to war with Iraq, the president declared "I'll make the decision" and then he asked Powell, "Are you with me on this?"
Yes, this is commanding leadership, with the emphasis on commanding. That is the aura Bush wants. And he has the policy making system to make him the pure commander in chief. Now if Bush had the wisdom of Lincoln, the political savvy of Roosevelt, and the experience of Eisenhower, maybe the system would work. But Bush is the least knowledgeable president in modern times. The burden upon him is simply too great, although his hubris would never allow him admit it. "I don't do nuance," Bush once said.
Well, policy is about nuance. Intuition, a characteristic many mention as associated with the president, always proves that humans are fallible. Successful leadership thoroughly vets policy, delegates, gets expert advice, allows honest public debate, is patient, is prepared to know good policy from bad (studies history), and organizes his policy process in such a manner to maximize these factors.
The problem then and now is with a policy process congenial to the president's leadership style -- and both process and style are inadequate. Instead of "praying for strength to do the Lord's will," as Bush told Woodward he did on March 19, 2003, after ordering the attack, the president needed to first study the vast literature on organizing a process for producing successful policies.
Nicholas Berry is director of Foreign Policy Forum www.foreignpolicyforum.com and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.
Posted by coalition at April 23, 2004 10:16 PM
Having grown up in Europe and having attended history class there, it's not rocket science why so many Europeans and others around the world cringe at the thought of another four years of the current doctrine. Whenever Europe picked the guy who would put his foot down and right the wrongs, they ended up with fascism, war, and even genocide of the most horrific magnitude. The last big European faith based initiative, the crusades, didn't exactly follow the principles of freedom and humanity either.
The only way Europeans can explain the re-election of the administration is that Americans are - rightfully - not used to being the bad guys, and the President seems like a good enough guy, you can't argue with that. Common sense however says that spreading freedom in the name of Jesus is counterproductive if not dangerous in the struggle against an Islamic extremist ideology. If it were as simple as "freedom lovers vs freedom haters" as White House rhetoric would have it, the principles of strength, resolve, staying the course, and all the other buzzwords so frequently hammered home would indeed apply. But the flashy and certainly effective statements miss the point completely. While no-one with half a brain would indeed appease anti-freedom forces or deny the fact that a strong military is needed to support the effort, the real territory in this current war is credibility, and that can't be gained by force alone. If we could actually suck the life out of al-Qaeda's credibility, we should be worry free since their recruitment would fizzle out. Instead, as of now we're watching our credibility and our unity get eroded by the day. The one conventional war wisdom of knowing your enemy to successfully defeat them seems to be the one principle that is lacking in our effort to regain territory, i.e. credibility.
As the article points out, the complexity involved in understanding the enemy and making advances on the credibility front is not going to be tackled by a closed circle of ideologues who double as advisors, and certainly not by a single man of faith who is proud of disliking nuance and having daily events spoon fed to him by one or two people.
Mr. President, we all have a lot of respect for the vast responsibilities you face and for your love of this country, but please take a second to connect to the web and consider some of the theories out there.
Posted by: Burkhard Schuettler at January 4, 2005 11:12 PM