The White House: Barely Managing

Magnifying Glass over FBI,CIA Seals an an aerial view of the White House
AP / CBS
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This piece from TNR was written by Daniel W. Drezner.


Remember when George W. Bush's chief selling point was his Reaganesque management skill? Whereas Al Gore was perceived as a micro-manager, burning through staff the way California goes through governors, Bush would run the White House like a CEO, with an eye toward the big picture. As for the details, they would be delegated to ultra-competent subordinates for ironing out.

This was thought to be particularly true on the foreign policy dimension. In August 2000, David Brooks noted:

"On foreign policy matters, for example, Bush has attracted the policy wonk version of the 1927 Yankees. You look at the people who will fill key slots in his administration, from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice down through less-prominent advisors such as Bob Zoellick and Paul Wolfowitz. They are the best out there."

Three years later, it's safe to say that the 1927 Yankees metaphor will probably not be deployed again any time soon to describe this administration's foreign policy team. Indeed, this has not been the best time to have "postwar planner, Operation Iraqi Freedom" on one's resumé. Reports over the past week reveal a tangle of misguided preconceptions and organizational rivalries in the planning that went into the postwar occupation of Iraq. One White House official admitted to Time that "there are challenges greater than we anticipated" in the country. Newsweek recounts a High Noon episode of bureaucratic infighting during which Colin Powell told Donald Rumsfeld, "I can take hostages, too. How hard do you want to play this thing?" Such conflicts were not confined to the cabinet level, either. Paul Bremer's decision to completely disband the Iraqi army was taken in direct opposition to his CIA liaison -- a decision that even Bremer now regrets.

What happened to that Reaganesque management style? Actually, not much. Bush's strength remains the big picture. His most notable foreign policy moments -- his address to Congress ten days after the September 11 attacks, his September 2002 U.N. address -- were big-picture articulations of right and wrong. No, what's happened is that Bush has actually perfected the Reagan management style -- its weakness as well as its strengths.

A detached management style combined with smart and aggressive subordinates can produce two structural flaws in the policy process. The first is that if major foreign policy players disagree, the potential for unending bureaucratic conflict is high. Even when the president clearly articulates the desired ends for policy, furious battles will erupt over the means to achieve those ends. In a cabinet filled with accommodating or like-minded individuals, such disputes can be settled quickly. In a cabinet with the likes of Powell and Rumsfeld -- confident men with genuine differences of opinion over the best way to advance the national interest -- the battles never cease. The current scuffles between State and Defense in the Bush administration are eerily reminiscent of the legendary set-tos between George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger under Reagan.

The costs of such disputes can be significant. The more resources and energy that policy principals devote to bureaucratic infighting, the less they have available for focusing on effective policy implementation. This was certainly the case with Iraq. The different components of the executive branch were embroiled in disputes on multiple fronts over postwar management, ranging from the role of Ahmed Chalabi to the role of the United Nations. In all of those disputes, the recondite issue of Iraq's deteriorating electricity grid apparently never came up. The result was that Donald Rumsfeld's Defense Department ended up administering postwar Iraq but being surprised by the electricity problem, while Colin Powell's State Department was marginalized but fully aware of it.

The other structural flaw is both more rare and more frightening. When different parts of the executive branch are locked in constant conflict, the result is a permissive environment. Officials become used to the notion that they will have to act as aggressively as possible to win an argument. Lines of communication between different parts of the executive branch become frayed or severed. Add weak oversight to the mix, and you have a situation in which bureaucratic entrepreneurs will be tempted to push their agendas to the point where ethical rules are violated -- or laws are broken.

In the Reagan administration, this management style contributed to the Iran-Contra fiasco.

In the Bush administration, the battles over Iraq's WMD program have led to open hostility between the Defense Department and the CIA. The leaks and counter-leaks over Nigerian yellowcake have escalated to the point where the Justice Department is investigating whether anyone in the White House violated federal law and jeopardized national security by outing the identity of an undercover CIA operative. What's amazing about this episode is that, if true, a felony was committed over what was truly a minor dispute. Which leads to a troubling question -- if an administration official was willing to commit an overtly illegal act in dealing with such a piddling matter, what lines have been or will be crossed on not-so-piddling matters?

Many have given the president a pass on these issues and blamed NSC advisor Condoleezza Rice for the kinks in the policy process. That would be grossly unfair. The only real leverage an NSC advisor has is the ear of the president, and that only matters when the president takes an interest in the process. George W. Bush has done a fine job of articulating the goals of U.S. foreign policy. He needs to spend some more time on how to negotiate the means.

Whether he will is debatable. One of Bush's strengths is his ability to stay the course in the face of public criticism. This skill has won him some significant political victories at home and abroad. The problem is, resoluteness can morph into pig-headedness about refusing to recognize the error of one's ways. For that matter, a record of success in the face of criticism makes it more difficult for anyone to admit that they need to change course. On this dimension at least, the president might be best advised to channel a little less Reagan and a little more Gore.

Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999).

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