The Decider Who Can’t Make Up His Mind

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

July 6, 2008

Conventional wisdom holds that George W. Bush’s foreign policy failed because the president — who famously called himself “the decider” — is too, well, decisive. Bush’s reckless, impulsive decision to invade Iraq, the argument goes, opened the door for Iran’s ascent, distracted the United States from pursuing al-Qaeda more effectively in Afghanistan and Pakistan, diverted Western attention from a worsening relationship with Russia and so on.

There’s a lot to this assessment. But you can’t fully comprehend the Bush record without understanding another Bush problem: a chronic failure to reach decisions or implement those that are made. On one key issue after another, from the Middle East to North Korea to the Department of Homeland Security, Bush has proven himself to be a dawdler, a foot-dragger who can’t make fundamental choices or press his team to follow his commands. Call him the non-decider.

This image of Bush the ditherer is obviously hard to reconcile with his long-cultivated image as a strong executive, a self-described “gut player” with unyielding determination and unfailing clarity of purpose. In his scathing memoir “What Happened,” former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan writes that the president sought to present himself as “a disciplined leader who focused on making hard decisions and wisely delegating responsibilities, in the manner of an effective corporate CEO.” Bush seems to have hoped to emulate the crisp, effective process run by his father and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft; he certainly tried to strike a contrast with President Bill Clinton, whose team’s deliberations Gen. Colin L. Powell (somewhat unfairly) said resembled “graduate-school bull sessions.”

But as many veterans of the Bush administration have made clear, the president’s CEO style has more to do with fanatical punctuality (he once locked Powell, his first-term secretary of state, out of a Cabinet meeting because he was running late, according to McClellan) than true resolve. This picture of an indecisive, ineffectual leader is being painted not by the predictable Bush haters but by his own former aides — career civil servants and political appointees alike. After reading “War and Decision,” the new memoir from the arch-neoconservative Douglas J. Feith, former assistant secretary of defense Bing West quipped in the National Review that Feith’s book should have been titled “War and Indecision” — perhaps a fitting epitaph for the Bush era.

So why has Bush vacillated so often? Here are some of his key management lapses:

Leaving fundamental disagreements to fester. For all his insistence on moral clarity, Bush has failed to bang heads and create clear policies. That has made for an administration persistently riven by sharp differences of view and personal antagonisms.

The outstanding example here is Iran. More than seven years into Bush’s tenure, it’s still not clear whether he advocates regime change in Tehran or favors a negotiated deal to stop the ayatollahs’ suspected nuclear program. The failure to decide has been a guarantee of failure. After all, we can’t have it both ways: The Iranians are hardly going to bargain with us to stop developing the ultimate weapon if they think we want to do away with their government.

But this is just what the Bush administration expects them to do. The United States has joined with European countries to jump-start a set of negotiations with Iran, even as Washington is appropriating $75 million for democracy-promotion programs that underwrite opponents of the regime in Tehran — which the Iranians understandably view as promoting regime change. The confusion goes to the very top: Last month, Bush derided the notion of talking to the Iranian leaders as appeasement, while National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley insisted that the administration was pursuing a “diplomatic strategy” with Iran. Go figure.

A similar syndrome has bedeviled the administration’s North Korea policy. After years of invective against the regime of Kim Jong Il, the White House finally reversed course and let Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill try to cut a deal over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Hill appears to be on the verge of scoring a late-term foreign policy success, but at considerable cost. Had the administration picked up in 2001 where the Clinton team left off, North Korea would not now be thought to be sitting on enough nuclear material to make a half-dozen or so nuclear weapons. Hill has probably had to overcome more hurdles thrown up by Vice President Cheney’s office (which abhors all contact with Pyongyang) than by the world’s last Stalinist regime.

Nor has the administration been able to make up its mind on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Taking office after the failed 2000 Camp David summit chaired by Clinton, the Bush administration let it be known from the start that it did not intend to risk presidential time or capital on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, even as the body count rose. It made the occasional show of concern — unveiling, for example, the plan that was meant to lead to a Palestinian state but then doing so little that many wondered whether this “road map” had been left in the glove compartment.

In 2007, after years of sitting on the sidelines, the administration abruptly shifted its stance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is keen to leave a legacy that transcends Iraq, managed to override such peace-process skeptics as Cheney and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams; she declared that the administration was back in the peacemaking business and determined to wrap up an Israeli-Palestinian deal before it left office. But Bush himself has remained largely aloof, and the administration has stopped talking about reaching an agreement this year. Bush could never quite decide whether he was in the peacemaking game or not — and, unsurprisingly, has little to show for his shilly-shallying.

Failing to follow through. Even when the administration does pick a policy, it often fails to carry through on its decisions. For example, the White House originally opposed creating a Department of Homeland Security, then decided that it could steal a march on its opponents by pushing for an even bigger agency than they had advocated. When the new behemoth was launched, however, the White House gave it little direction. That ensured a historic case of drift and confusion that led to catastrophe in New Orleans and inaction elsewhere; both the 9/11 Commission and the General Accounting Office have issued reports lambasting DHS for its failure to meet basic security goals.

Something similar happened with the creation of a new director of national intelligence to quarterback the sprawling 16-agency intelligence community in a dangerously changing world. Bush agreed to create the new structure, then failed to give its leaders the clout they needed to make reform stick.

The hard fact is that a presidential declaration doesn’t make much happen. Every policy requires an army of bird-doggers to follow it up, harass agencies to take on new responsibilities and ensure that changes are being made.

I saw this up close as a National Security Council staffer in the 1990s. When I started a tour as director for transnational threats, two presidential directives on combating terrorism and protecting the country’s critical infrastructure were about to be issued. The negotiations over the phrasing — painstaking, often mind-bending talks — took months, and ensuring that the CIA, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and others fulfilled their new tasks took even longer. My boss, national security adviser Sandy Berger, spent lots of time importuning, cajoling and cracking the heads of cabinet members, but Clinton still had to close the deal personally. That’s what presidential management means — not hovering above the grimy fray, but plunging into it and getting dirty.

Letting policymaking turn chaotic. Pundits love to decry process as the mindless obsession of uninspired, time-serving bureaucrats. But the Bush administration has demonstrated just how vital it is to hew to established policymaking procedures.

The U.S. government makes national security decisions by bringing together officials from the State Department, the Defense Department, the intelligence community and others. The idea is to have working-level officials from across the government meet to hammer out a policy, then move it up level by level, refining it at each step, until it reaches the national security cabinet known as the Principals Committee. The long road to a principals meeting in the White House Situation Room ensures, to the extent possible, that the government does its due diligence and that the affected agencies buy into the new policy.

Under Bush, though, as numerous former officials have complained, critical calls were often made just by Cheney and defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, then brought to the president for his sign-off. This was certainly quicker than the usual route, but haste made for waste: Big decisions were not subjected to the rigor of the interagency process, which can expose inconsistencies, question assumptions and fix flaws in proposed policies. Three of the most important issues relating to Iraq — whether to invade, whether to purge Baath Party officials and whether to disband the Iraqi army — were never subjected to a serious scrub, as Powell and others have noted. Just a few weeks ago, I heard a senior diplomat lament, “The interagency is broken.”

Hammering out disagreements, following through and letting the process work doesn’t guarantee smart policy, of course. But ignoring these principles is likely to lead to dumb decisions and an irresolute, even chaotic government. It’s not a happy balance sheet for America’s first CEO president.