Politics & Policy

‘Decider’ or ‘Dissident’?

George W. Bush's command.

Editor’s Note: Excerpted from Presidential Command by Peter W. Rodman Copyright © 2009 by Peter W. Rodman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In 2007, Bush made the surprising comment to an Egyptian pro-democracy activist that he, too, often felt like a “dissident” in Washington. His bureaucracy, he said, was not responsive to his policy of promoting democracy. “Bureaucracy in the United States does not help change.” As Presidential Command chronicles, Bush was not the only president in the modern era who believed his government to be unresponsive to his wishes. Like Jimmy Carter during the Iran crisis, Bush came face-to-face with the reality that execution of policy is in the hands of the permanent government. A president needs not only the “power to persuade” but also a variety of political tools to reinforce his powers of persuasion–political appointees in the departments who are attuned to his wishes, and cabinet officers for whom the presidential agenda is the top priority.

Bush had problems with both the State Department and the Defense Department, but the problems were of different natures. In a conservative administration, State under Colin Powell often seemed the outlier. When Condoleezza Rice took over the State Department in the second term, this was thought to solve the problem; she had been more attuned than anyone else to Bush’s thinking. On the strategic initiative toward India, for example, State suddenly moved decisively in the direction the president had presumably always wanted to go; the agreement with India on nuclear cooperation was reached early in her tenure in 2005. On Iran as well, State’s policy under Rice seemed to some observers tougher than it had been under Powell, as she unveiled increasing support for democratic opposition groups in Iran.

Over time, however, the role of the career service reasserted itself in the department, and State’s policy drifted in that direction. Especially with the departure of Rumsfeld, the balance of forces in the administration as a whole shifted in the State Department’s direction. Hadley often acted as Rice’s partner–perhaps analogous to Scowcroft’s role in covering Kissinger’s flanks in the Ford administration. Yet, unlike Gerald Ford, Bush 43 (if the North Korea case is an example) seemed ambivalent about the policy results.

The problem at the Pentagon was different. Here the issue was not a philosophical disconnect but a failure to deliver results. I will leave the specific debates on troop levels, strategy, and so on to the historians, but the president ultimately reached his own conclusions and held Rumsfeld accountable. The 2007 surge represented an assertion of Bush’s personal leadership.

Bush followed it up in 2008, as another debate occurred in the administration over how fast to reduce U.S. troops in the wake of the apparent success of the surge. Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates, won plaudits for his more congenial style with Congress as well as the military. Initially Gates sided with those in the Pentagon who wanted U.S. troop reductions to continue in the second half of 2008–withdrawing not only the increment associated with the surge but as many as five additional brigades. This was responsive to those in the Pentagon concerned about the stress on the overall force and those in Congress eager to withdraw. The president, however, sided with General David Petraeus, Casey’s successor as commander on the ground in Iraq, who wanted to stabilize force levels in the second half of 2008 to consolidate the gains that had been made. Unlike Melvin Laird during the Vietnam War, Gates deftly shifted to support the president once the president (again) made his wishes clearly known.

From my vantage point, the iconic figure in the Bush administration was not Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader caricature, but Stephen Hadley, the pursuer of bureaucratic consensus. That consensus was Rice’s goal, as well, as chair of many Principals meetings, but Hadley–the calm, careful lawyer, the judicious and always even-tempered referee–epitomized it to me in the many Deputies meetings that I saw him chair in the first term, and then as Rice’s successor. The model of good governance that they both sought to follow–clearly at the president’s instruction–was noble in intent. But as Ronald Reagan discovered, the pursuit of bureaucratic compromise can be a fool’s errand. Bush, like Reagan, was often surprisingly diffident about imposing his will. It was puzzling above all because Bush, in meetings where I saw him, was focused, determined, and well versed in the issues–more so than my recollection of Reagan in a number of such meetings.

Bush, I believe, was attempting to follow a management model from the business world, delegating to senior subordinates and relying on their judgment. But there are large differences between a president’s situation and a CEO’s. In a typical corporation, a CEO’s senior subordinates have a more acute sense of whom they answer to; certainly there are nothing like the centrifugal forces that pull on a cabinet secretary–the congressional and media pressures, the institutional cultures and biases, the career professionals’ knowledge that they will be there for the long term while their political masters are only temporary. Any president, of course, has to delegate to subordinates. But yet again we see that without the sustained strategic leadership of the president, a collegial system of management is subject to breakdown. Two kinds of problems can result, and Bush suffered from both of them. One major problem arises when there are deep disagreements among strong cabinet secretaries; these only the president can resolve. And second, even when there is consensus, it can be a lowest common denominator–a papered-over compromise that conceals the president’s real choices.

This was Richard Nixon’s insight. It was not an accident that Bush’s surge of forces in Iraq–the decision that may prove to save his legacy–did not originate in any bureaucratic consensus.

– Peter W. Rodman was assistant secretary of Defense for international-security affairs at the Department of Defense from 2001-early 2007, and a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution. He died this summer.

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