Politics & Policy

The Late Show

What happens when a president wants to make every decision himself

On Friday, July 15, the White House announced that the president would meet with the Dalai Lama. This was after weeks of speculation, and only one day before the Dalai Lama’s long-planned week in Washington was scheduled to end. In other words, the White House waited until the last minute and thereby squandered much of the good will such a meeting can engender.

On the same day, it was announced that the United States would finally recognize the Transitional National Council in Libya as the country’s legitimate government. This step has been urged upon the White House for months, and there is no good explanation for why it was the right thing to do on July 15 but not on July 1 or June 1. As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, “Libya’s rebellion began five months ago. NATO started to bomb Gadhafi’s forces on March 19. Twenty-six other countries recognized the TNC before the U.S. did. Luxembourg roared its approval on Wednesday, and the U.S. followed.”

Just a few days earlier, the Obama administration appeared to have broken, finally, with the Assad regime in Syria, strengthening its rhetoric and abandoning the notion that Assad might lead a transition to democracy.

What all three examples have in common is that the administration was too slow to act. All three decisions were good ones, but came so late as to diminish the benefit to the United States and to the administration itself. And in the Libyan and Syrian cases, the delay may have actually cost lives.

What’s unclear is why the White House’s decision-making is this dilatory. The administration would no doubt argue “prudence,” but that is a hard case to make. There is no real reason why the announcement of the meeting with the Dalai Lama had to come on the day before he left town, nor why the Libyan TNC was not sufficiently legitimate on June 14 but became so the next day. In the Syrian case, the administration appears to have been moved by the attack on our embassy in Damascus — no casualties, very little property damage — rather than by the astonishing and continuing acts of murderous violence perpetrated by the Assad regime against the people of Syria. To many Syrians, many Americans, and others around the world, that will seem to be an odd scale of values.

The more likely answer is a kind of overload — too much happening all around the world to permit timely decisions on all of it — but that is an excuse. That would not happen unless every decision were being made by the president, as appears to be the case. The administration’s legal position on the War Powers Act was similarly, we are told, made not at the Department of Justice but by the president himself.

There are two problems here: the president’s belief in his omnicompetence, and the resultant inability of his administration to get its act together in a timely fashion. The consequence is that even when the White House makes the right decision, it gets there when much of the good from reaching that decision has been lost. Better late than never, to be sure, and better late and correct than early and wrong. But those ought not to be the only options for the world’s most important country. If the president were to surround himself with people he thought extremely smart (indeed, as smart as he thinks he is himself, if that is possible), and were to let them do their jobs, decisions would come faster and our government would not be The Late Show.

— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national-security adviser handling the Middle East in the George W. Bush administration.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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