Monday, August 30, 2004

On Bush's Leadership Style

The Washington Post has done some thorough (and balanced) background work and analysis on Bush's leadership style:
Many of Bush's admirers describe him as a leader who asks tough, probing questions of advisers but also say he is a person who, once he picks a goal, never looks back. Even strong supporters sometimes worry that his curiosity and patience seem limited, while detractors see him as intellectually lazy and dependent on ideology and sloganeering instead of realism and clear thinking. Because he has a relatively small set of advisers, dissenting voices are effectively muffled.

Dissenting voices are muffled? Not the stuff of true leadership. This article has a few little anecdotes from Christine Whitman, for instance, former head of the EPA, complaining of not being heard and essentially shunted aside. With Bush's lack of interest in the environment, and its value to us and our children, this may not be so surprising, but it is not limited to what Bush may perceive as core liberal, anti-business issues.

Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University political scientist and authority on presidential leadership styles, said Bush's clarity of purpose reduces the tendency in government to let matters drift, but too often "results in a vision that may be simplistic or insufficiently examined or something that undermines itself."


In other cases, though, Bush has allowed crises to fester. Bush has never resolved deep disagreements within his war cabinet about how to deal with North Korea, with the result that the isolated nation, which had appeared close to a missile deal with the Clinton administration, has quadrupled its stockpile of nuclear weapons, from two to eight, during Bush's tenure.

On North Korea, Bush has been torn between the engagement recommended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the no-compromise stance taken by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Often, insiders say, diplomatic initiatives are decided at the last minute, apparently on the basis of the position of the person who gets in the last word. The shifting script, foreign diplomats involved in the talks say, has often left other countries confused about the administration's approach -- and the crisis over North Korea's nuclear program unresolved.

It's this kind of myopia or narrow-sightedness on particular issues, like Iraq, while allowing other important crises and challenges to fester, like North Korea, Burma, and the environment, that seems to mark Bush's administration. As the leader of this administration, we have to judge him on it, and there seem to be many more failures than successes, and most of these might possibly be explained by his cavalier and ideologically restrained management and stifling of the free flow of information.

One of the most persistent criticisms of Bush is that he operates in a largely closed loop with little input from outside experts, relying on longtime confidants, many of whom came with him from Texas. Just as Bush has claimed to read mostly newspaper stories selected by his staff, he also relies on just a few people for most of his ideas about the world.

Again and again, people who know Bush refer to the filter around him. John M. Bridgeland, who was the first director of Bush's Domestic Policy Council and then ran USA Freedom Corps, the president's national-service initiative, said Bush "wants only the highly relevant information he needs to make an informed judgment."

The only problem with this is that when he is getting his information from known hysterics like Dick Cheney (sorry Dick, any credibility you may have had is now gone, with your Iraq WMD performance), and a packed truth squad of the likes of Douglas Feith, there's little wonder that Bush was not able to see the forest for the trees. Leadership demands that you ask the tough questions, from the pool of all available information, so that you are not blind-sided, and your efforts, which afterall represent the nation and the people you are leading, have the best chance of fitness and success, rather than catastrophic success and/or failure.

But critics say that Iraq illustrates the risks of an approach that narrows the definition of a problem and fails to look at the ramifications of a proposed solution. Accounts of Bush's decision-making about Saddam Hussein describe repeated and detailed briefings on plans for the military assault on Iraq. But no such attention appears to have been directed toward the ethnic and religious differences within that country or on plans for pacification after the hoped-for military victory. In recent interviews, Bush has acknowledged that he misjudged the political and social climate of Iraq and therefore was unprepared for the resistance that has cost so many American lives.

Some administration officials complained that one problem with Bush's reliance on his gut instincts is that often officials who have to sell or implement a policy are unsure how he arrived at it. The president told Woodward in "Bush at War": "I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel I owe anybody an explanation."

As for being unsure at how he arrives at his decisions, you can count the American people and world as well. For a while, half of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9-11, among other fanciful and numerous theories of why we went to war in Iraq. As a particular reason has been shot down, like WMD, it is merely replaced with one of other half-dozen reasons chosen. This may be effective for Lincoln-Douglass debate, but it is hardly the measure of a good leader, and flexibility ought to be reserved for action, and not rationalizations and excuses if a stubborn policy that doesn't consider changing course (or it's too late the course is committed) needs new reasons to support it.

A variety of academic researchers have conducted in-depth studies of Bush's decision-making style, and several of them have found that greater curiosity about the nitty-gritty details of policy substance, and less hasty decision-making, could have saved him considerable grief.

Greenstein, for one, said: "People no longer think he's dumb or not capable, but he clearly does not consider downsides and alternatives. Decisiveness is a good thing, unless you're leaping to the gun."

Alexander L. George, a Stanford University professor emeritus of political science and author of a text about presidential decisions, said Bush "does not look for complexity."

"He doesn't appear to have second thoughts about anything, which is worrisome when things aren't going so well," George said.