1. Presidents set the tone. Don't be passive or tolerate virulent divisions.
Instead of a team of rivals, Bush wound up with a team of back-stabbers with long-running, poisonous disagreements about foreign policy fundamentals.
2. The president must insist that everyone speak out loud in front of the others, even -- or especially -- when there are vehement disagreements.
Powell was right that to conclude that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden did not work together. But Cheney and Powell did not have this crucial debate in front of the president -- even though such a discussion might have undermined one key reason for war. Cheney provided private advice to the president, but he was rarely asked to argue with others and test his case… This sort of derision undermined the administration's unity of purpose -- and suggests the nasty tone that can emerge when open debate is stifled by long-running feuds and personal hostility.
3. A president must do the homework to master the fundamental ideas and concepts behind his policies.
The president should not micromanage, but understanding the ramifications of his positions cannot be outsourced to anyone.
4. Presidents need to draw people out and make sure bad news makes it to the Oval Office.
Bush sometimes assumed he knew his aides' private views without asking them one-on-one. He made probably the most important decision of his presidency -- whether to invade Iraq -- without directly asking Powell, Rumsfeld or CIA Director George J. Tenet for their bottom-line recommendation. (Instead of consulting his own father, former president George H.W. Bush, who had gone to war in 1991 to kick the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, the younger Bush told me that he had appealed to a "higher father" for strength.)
5. Presidents need to foster a culture of skepticism and doubt.
Presidents and generals don't have to live on doubt. But they should learn to love it. "You should not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder," said Marine Gen. James Jones, Obama's incoming national security adviser, to his old friend Gen. Peter Pace, who was then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- a group Jones thought had been "systematically emasculated by Rumsfeld." Doubt is not the enemy of good policy; it can help leaders evaluate alternatives, handle big decisions and later make course corrections if necessary.
6. Presidents get contradictory data, and they need a rigorous way to sort it out.
In 2004-06, the CIA was reporting that Iraq was getting more violent and less stable. By mid-2006, Bush's own NSC deputy for Iraq, Meghan O'Sullivan, had a blunt assessment of conditions in Baghdad: "It's hell, Mr. President." But the Pentagon remained optimistic and reported that a strategy of drawing down U.S. troops and turning security over to the Iraqis would end in "self-reliance" in 2009. As best I could discover, the president never insisted that the contradiction between "hell" and "self-reliance" be resolved.
7. Presidents must tell the hard truth to the public, even if that means delivering very bad news.
For years after the Iraq invasion, Bush consistently offered upbeat public assessments. That went well beyond the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner that he admitted last Monday had been a mistake. "Absolutely, we're winning," the president said during an October 2006 news conference. "We're winning." His confident remarks came during one of the lowest points of the war, at a time when anyone with a TV screen knew that the war was going badly. On Feb. 5, 2005, as he was moving up from his first-term role as Rice's deputy to become national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley had offered a private, confidential assessment of the problems of Bush's Iraq-dominated first term. "I give us a B-minus for policy development," he said, "and a D-minus for policy execution." The president later told me that he knew that the Iraq "strategy wasn't working." So how could the United States be winning a war with a failing strategy?
8. Righteous motives are not enough for effective policy.
"I believe we have a duty to free people," Bush told me in late 2003. I believe he truly wanted to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. In preparing his second inaugural address in 2005, for example, Bush told his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, "The future of America and the security of America depends on the spread of liberty." That got the idealistic Gerson so pumped that he set out to produce the foreign policy equivalent to Albert Einstein's unified field theory of the universe -- a 17-minute inaugural address in which the president said his goal was nothing less than "the ending of tyranny in our world."
But this high purpose often blinded Bush and his aides to the consequences of this mad dash to democracy. In 2005, for example, Bush and his war cabinet spent much of their time promoting free elections in Iraq -- which wound up highlighting the isolation of the minority Sunnis and setting the stage for the raging sectarian violence of 2006.
9. Presidents must insist on strategic thinking.
Only the president (and perhaps the national security adviser) can prod a reactive bureaucracy to think about where the administration should be in one, two or four years. Then detailed, step-by-step tactical plans must be devised to try to get there. It's easy for an administration to become consumed with putting out brush fires, which often requires presidential involvement. (Ask Obama how much time he's been spending on the Gaza war.) But a president will probably be judged by the success of his long-range plans, not his daily crisis management.
10. The president should embrace transparency. Some version of the behind-the-scenes story of what happened in his White House will always make it out to the public -- and everyone will be better off if that version is as accurate as possible.
On March 8, 2008, Hadley made an extraordinary remark about how difficult it has proven to understand the real way Bush made decisions. "He will talk with great authority and assertiveness," Hadley said. " 'This is what we're going to do.' And he won't mean it. Because he will not have gone through the considered process where he finally is prepared to say, 'I've decided.' And if you write all those things down and historians get them, [they] say, 'Well, he decided on this day to do such and such.' It's not true. It's not history. It's a fact, but it's a misleading fact."
Presidents should beware of such "misleading facts." They should run an internal, candid process of debate and discussion with key advisers that will make sense when it surfaces later. This sort of inside account will be told, at least in part, during the presidency. But the best obtainable version will emerge more slowly, over time, and become history.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
The Bush Legacy: Lessons
In the Post, Bob Woodward, author of four books on President Bush -- "Bush at War," "Plan of Attack," "State of Denial" and "The War Within," provides 10 lessons that Obama and his team should take away from the Bush experience.