In the past I’ve written about Walter Bagehot’s ability to understand the subtleties and ambiguities of public argument and the temptation commentators face to turn decisions into a zero-sum game, as if every policy is obvious and all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other.
My own experience is that things are quite different when you serve in the White House, when the decisions one faces are often complicated, when good arguments can be made on behalf of competing policies, and decisions have to be made on incomplete information based on uncertain assumptions.
An excellent illustration of what I have in mind can be found in this piece by Michael Gordon in Foreign Policy. Based on newly revealed transcripts, it presents the competing views in 2006 of the State Department and the National Security Council over the so-called surge strategy in Iraq.
As Gordon puts it:
Much of the discussion … was dominated by [Secretary of State] Rice’s argument that the United States should abandon a strategy in which “nothing is going right” and instead focus on “core interests” like fighting al Qaeda and contesting Iranian influence. Instead of trying to stop the burgeoning sectarian violence, Rice suggested, the American military might concentrate on averting “mass killings” — attacks on the order of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.
But [NSC Advisor Stephen] Hadley and his aides on the National Security Council were pushing in the opposite direction and making the case for sending more troops.
It’s now obvious that those who favored the surge were correct and those advocating the alternatives–whether withdrawal or a “light footprint” counterinsurgency or retreating to bases to “ride out” the sectarian violence–were not. Yet even those who believed at the time that the surge was clearly the correct strategy also had to concede that the arguments marshaled by Secretary Rice and her top aides were serious ones and worth taking into account. Were sectarian demons that had been unleashed now uncontainable? Were we beyond the point when no application of forces was likely to make a discernible difference? Had the Sadirist elements defeated the more moderate Shia ones?
Which brings me to my second point. When asked by ABC’s William Lawrence to look back over the first two years of his presidency, John Kennedy said this:
I would say that the problems are more difficult than I had imagined them to be. The responsibilities placed on the United States are greater than I imagined them to be, and there are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined them to be. And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments, because unfortunately your advisers are frequently divided. If you take the wrong course, and on occasion I have, the President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly. The advisers may move on to new advice.
It is in the nature of things that in America, the president is the individual who has to sort through competing counsel and decide which course of action to take. The surge was, as Gordon points out, a fateful one for George W. Bush, and in this instance Bush embraced a new war strategy in Iraq that required him to jettison the counsel of his most trusted foreign policy advisor (Secretary Rice, who eventually embraced the surge strategy), to say nothing of the views of most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General George W. Casey, Jr., then the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq; John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command; military analysts; the entire Democratic Party; much of the Republican Party; most of the foreign policy establishment; the Iraq Study Group; and public opinion. It was a remarkable moment in presidential leadership.
It’s also fair to say, I think, that as much of the world seems to be spinning out of control–with ill-advised decisions by President Obama having undone many of the gains in Iraq and worrisome-to-ominous developments occurring in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Georgia, North Korea, Mali, Sudan, Russia and elsewhere–President Bush’s successor is learning the hard way that it’s easier to make the speeches than it is to make the judgments.