Sunday, July 19, 2015

What we should look for in the next president (in general)

Sar Shalom

In previous posts about what to look for in the next president, I have examined issues of particular interest to us as supporters of Israel. In this post I'd like to suggest two traits to look for in the next president that are not particular to any political leanings. The first one is that the next president should be modest enough to recognize that he or she can never know more about a particular policy area than a specialist in that topic. The second trait is how he or she would evaluate whose advice is sound and whose is not.

To illustrate these two points, or the absence of them, I refer to a recent post by Abu Yehuda about Mideast policy by the two most recent administrations. What I would suggest is that the problems in the Middle East are not due to decisions of recent administrations to intervene or not, rather the problem is either one of immodesty or an inability to evaluate competing advice soundly.

Starting where one of the character flaws is at work, Obama acts as a know-it-all when it comes to the Middle East. This should not be surprising given that he previously stated, "I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors." With regards to Iran, the source for Obama's policy can be described as Obama knowing, just knowing, that underneath the facade of Iran's revolutionary regime there is a responsible regional actor that will come out if only the right coddling incentives were provided. The result is that when his Director of Central Intelligence, Defense Secretary, Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all called for arming and training the Syrian rebels in Jordan, Obama felt confident in his possession of "The Truth" about Iran and how such an action would undermine the coaxing of the hidden responsible actor out from the revolutionary facade.

While there were know-it-alls involved in Bush's Iraq War policy, Bush was not one of them. (Disclosure: I supported the Iraq War from the beginning, albeit with reservations about Bush's commitment to the establishment of a democratic order in Iraq after Saddam fell. From the time the statue of Saddam fell until the announcement of the "surge," there was little if anything that I supported in the way of decisions made in Washington and then I completely supported the nationalization of the Anbar Awakening embodied in the "surge.") Instead, Bush's problem was that he trusted two know-it-alls, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and mistook their confidence and calls for decisive action for sage advice. Notwithstanding that I think Bush should have followed the script that a team from the Army War College drafted for the Phase IV reconstruction in Iraq, and the fact that events have supported my view, Bush's decision to follow Cheney and Rumsfeld could have been defended at the start. However, as events transpired in Iraq, a principle enunciated by a restaurant chain manager to Atul Gawande about what he would do if running a neurology unit should affected Bush's approach going forward:
This is pretty obvious. I’m sure you already do it. But I’d study what the best people are doing, figure out how to standardize it, and then bring it to everyone to execute.
In Iraq, this would have meant looking at the record of MAJ James Gavrilis in Ar-Rutbah, MG David Petraeus in Ninewah Province, MG Peter Chiarelli in Sadr City, and COL H. R. McMaster in Tal Afar. In each of those cases, the Bush administration was happy to pocket the results of those operations, even citing McMaster's success in Tal Afar as reason to believe that the Iraq War was not hopeless. However, for Cheney and Rumsfeld, those officers committed the unpardonable sin of straying from The Truth about how wars are to fought and Bush trusted Cheney's and Rumsfeld's assurances about The Truth about how to fight wars rather than the experiences of the aforementioned officers.

Bush eventually did turn around on his approach to Iraq, after receiving a "thumping" at the polls in 2006, in part due to the situation in Iraq. At that time, there were two proposals for how to proceed. One was the Baker-Hamilton report, also known as the Iraq Study Group. The competing proposal was from Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and retired Army Vice Chief of Staff Jack Keane, what later became known as the surge. While the Kagan-Keane report did incorporate the lessons from what did and did not work in Iraq to that point, I cannot rule out the possibility that Bush selected because it was the only one of the two options in front of him that was not an effective surrender in Iraq. Whatever his motives, Bush's selection of the Kagan-Keane report, the leadership of GEN David Petraeus in Baghdad, and Bush's support for GEN Petraeus built on the progress being made at that time in Ramadi by COL Sean MacFarland and brought those successes to the rest of Iraq.

Unfortunately, by the time Bush came to realize that the approach of Cheney and Rumsfeld was not working, Iran had embedded itself in Iraq's political structure. While the Kagan-Keane plan did address the security threats plaguing Iraq at the end of 2006, it did not address the political structure in Iraq. It is Iran's continued control over Iraqi politics that plagues us today, control which evolved over four years of Bush refusing to address the security situation in Iraq in any manner that challenged Cheney's and Rumsfeld's "Truth."

Returning to the issue of evaluating the candidates, Abu Yehuda wrote, "Bush did not understand the complexity of the situation or the intentions of the various players." In actuality, we should not expect the president to understand the complexity of the situation. However, there is something we should expect from the president that would prevent situations both like what arose from Bush's waging of war in Iraq and Obama's withdrawal from that war. The first expectation should be for president to have the humility to recognize the limits of his or her understanding. The second expectation should be for the president to have some means of weighing competing offers of advice other than simply favoring what jives with his or her pre-existing views. While it would be ideal to be able to do so a priori, at a minimum this should mean being able to follow the consequences of natural experiments with an eye towards evaluating competing theories on how they performed rather than by their conformance to preconceived notions.


  1. That's a toughie and would take for ever to answer, if ever.

  2. A president should first make or have a case for doing something, or anything. Obama has made no such case. Sweet sounding vaguely revolutionary words aside, his pronouncements in Cairo in 2009 (which were twice as long as his inauguration speech) stand firmly on nothing. No stance, no belief, no doctrine, no philosophy, no world view. There were unassailable platitudes that the left loves to enshroud itself in such as 'it's nice to be nice', 'poverty is icky', 'angry people are complaining about something they feel is legitimate', 'even terrorists are human beings'.

    The Idiot Conundrums of an Idiot God.

    So as first things go, the first thing a president should articulate is how the see the role and existence of the US changing, expanding, shrinking, modulating or whatever, in the framework of the US itself. Not Iran, not the UN, not NGO's, not Islam, not the media, but the US and the people who live here. And that can be whatever it is, good or bad. But the case has to be made. President MacGuffin has stood on his soap box waiting for everyone else to impute their own beliefs into the blankness that is him for his entire presidency. Of course he has no plan. Plans are for people who 'plan' to do something. When you're not planning on planning to do anything other than basking in the glow of adulation 'what difference does it make anymore??'

    I guess what I'm saying is don't elect a nihilist and a narcissist who does not believe in the very idea of believing in anything.

    1. "President MacGuffin"

      Well, that caught my attention.

      For those of you who may not know - as I did not - according to a MacGuffin (or McGuffin or maguffin) is a "term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. It won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance."

      Thus when Trudy refers to President MacGuffin she means a president with no actual goals, merely rhetorical significances that advance the plot.

      Is that a fair characterization, Trudy?

      {Watch. She'll say "no."}


      "In crook stories it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is most always the papers." - Alfred Hitchcock

    2. In Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction", the mysterious briefcase is a MacGuffin. No one sees what's in it, it's never described or talked about. All you see is a golden light. So yes, that's precisely it.

  3. There is much that can be said about this criticism, which essentially has two parts.

    The first part is a criticism of Obama's arrogance and the second part is a criticism of his soundness of judgment.

    I will limit my comments to the first part.

    Obama has a reputation throughout the country for not coping very well with dissent and seeking to marginalize it as much as possible, including the use personal smears against those who disagree. This is as much a measure of the man's arrogance as his insistence that he knows better than his own experts on the relevant topics. In my view, we certainly saw a measure of this arrogance in his reaction to Netanyahu's recent speech before Congress.

    We also saw it in earlier nasty public criticisms coming from the White House, such as "chicken shit."

    Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2006 book, Team of Rivals, focuses on Abraham Lincoln's relationship with three of his cabinet members, Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Chase, and Attorney General Bates. All three ran against Lincoln for the Republican nomination for the presidency and were shocked to lose to this relative newcomer, an apparent hick from land not all that far from what was considered the western frontier at the time.

    What Goodwin describes is a president Lincoln with an inclusive political ethos. It is for this reason, obviously, that the book is called Team of Rivals. While it is, of course, true that Obama chose Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, no one would ever suggest that the Obama administration represents anything like a team of rivals.

    The mood of this presidency clearly extends to many of its supporters, who I have often found to be self-righteously hostile to even small ideological differences. This is, of course, not true of all Obama supporters. It is merely the general tone of that following from my observations and from what people tell me.

    1. As to the comparison with Team of Rivals, I think the difference is that of allowing rival individuals in ones inner circle and allowing rival ideas in ones inner circle. Obama brought Clinton in to his inner circle and kept Gates in the cabinet to show that he was open to having rival individuals in his inner circle. However, he was not open to rival ideas, which is why both individuals wound up deciding that their best place is elsewhere.

      Not suffering dissent is hardly a trait that is unique to Obama. Note Bush's reaction to when John D'Iulio left his administration describing it as focused on politics over policy or his threat during the debate of the Medicare prescription drug plan to fire an official if he would have told Congress the real estimate of its cost before Congress voted on it.

  4. One is wont to say that leaders are of the milieu from which they come. Easy enough. But let's examine that. Harry Truman was a political hack who did the dirty work of twisting arms and making deals for most of his political history until 1944. He wasn't a bad guy but he was a fixer. He came to the Presidency with zero knowledge of what was going on but he had a depth of skills to get people to do what he needed. Ike was somewhat a disinterested top down delegator who shaped a command and control structure and largely let his subordinates cook their own gooses until it got too hot for him to ignore. The 1000 days of Camelot were too short to analyze so I'll leave it off. Then we had LBJ, the legislative genius, the bully, the man who made you love him no matter what you thought of him. Were it not for Vietnam he'd be considered one of the 3 or 4 greatest presidents ever. Then Nixon who was a queer duck and who entered politics during the formative years of the red scare and who ran dirty nasty campaigns against opponents on a very personal level. In some ways the prototype for politics today. But he also created the EPA, OSHA, expanded welfare and social security, opened up China under Mao of all people and in many ways was further to the left than Bernie Sanders. But he was also a paranoid with crippling self doubt. He got things done and it was the way he did it that finished him. Then we got nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter who micro micro micro managed everything to the exclusion of accomplishing anything and it's debatable whether had he won in 1980 he would have survived all 4 years, his self imposed micro micro managed nearly killed him. Then there was Ronnie who was a master orator and a master manager. Whatever you think of his policies he was a president and administrator in the model of Lincoln. The last truly great manager of the complexities of governance. Then Bush I the ultimate insider, congressman, CIA man, lobbyist, cabinet officer. Bush confidantes say he spent every waking moment on the phone talking to people, cajoling them, threatening them, selling them. Then we got Clinton a man who if nothing else is the greatest master politician since FDR. The man knows how to work a room. A living monument to Louis B Mayer's quote "Kid, if you can fake sincerity you got it made!" And what he accomplished in the face of political opposition is frankly, astonishing. I doubt it will ever be matched. Next came Bush II with all his gaffes and stumbles and misquotes and mistakes in allowing his subordinates too far off the leash. He came from an MBA background and so his style was akin to crisis management. Everything was a short term project to be managed no matter that it wasn't.

    1. "Then we had LBJ, the legislative genius, ... Were it not for Vietnam he'd be considered one of the 3 or 4 greatest presidents ever."

      I would say that Vietnam was an example of the flaw I cited in Bush. LBJ's problem was that he refused to hold Westmoreland accountable for results until domestic support for the war was irretrievably lost. In more detail, Westy's strategy for Vietnam was to attrit the North and its proxies. If the North was mounting a new offensive after each time its forces/proxies took a hit, then what was needed was to bring more force to bear in order to attrit them. LBJ refused to listen to questions of Westy's basic strategy, and its effect in inducing tactics like destroying villages in order to save them, until the 1968 Tet Offensive, after which the public lost patience with the war and started turning critical attention to the tactics that Westy's strategy engendered.

    2. Be that as it may. VN is a good example how not to run things from afar. It's likely that LBJ never wanted to go VN but felt he had to keep the GOP at bay here in the US. Once he was there he couldn't get out. Similar to what the Israelis experienced in southern Lebanon 1982-2000. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    3. If Congress hadn't made the active decision to pry defeat out of the jaws of victory in 1974, we would not be talking about how going in was such an obvious mistake. The reality is that after NVN's 1972 Easter Offensive, they were on the ropes. Their VC proxies had ceased to exist as a fighting force and when they tried to take the South on their in a conventional attack, they found out that their conventional forces made for a perfect target for American airpower, without a single US ground solder present. The result was that it was over a year until they could reconstitute enough force to begin another offensive. By that time, Congress decided to pull the plug and end the air and materiel support for SVN. To learn more about how Westy's strategy was responsible for the failure in VN, not anything inherent in the conflict itself, read Lewis Sorley's A Better War

      What LBJ's directorship of VN shows is the effect of refusing to allow facts on the ground to complicate a nice, neat, elegant narrative. It is the same character trait underlying Cheney's/Rumsfeld's directorship of the Iraq War and Obama's approach to all matters in the Middle East. Instead of looking to say gotcha! with people making the "wrong" decision on any particular matter, what we need to do is look for who is willing to allow facts on the ground to alter preconceived notions.

      A sample question would be "Could you identify a time when you had a strongly held view and then encountered a fact that forced you to reconsider that view?"


  5. Obama comes from a non political background as well but one that's no grounded in business or academia. It's literally what he says it is - 'community organizing' which is a nice way of saying 'top down command and control based rabble rousing that broaches no dissent.' Obama's approach for all appearances as an endless campaign really is styled that way. A campaign. With one leader, one opinion, one talking point. His cabinet is sadly a collection of flunkies by design. They are there to execute his voice, his policy, his thoughts. Not to have policies or thoughts of their own. They are tools to be picked and put down as needed. It would be trite to call it Stalinism. It's more like Corporatism or Peronism. A kinder gentler kind of authoritarian fascism light.

    It all goes to the style with which one has percolated their lives. For instance Senators generally make terrible presidents because their experience trains them to cooperate. Governors make bad senators for the reverse reason. Academics can only make President if they have a belief system, like Wilson did, extraordinary racist that he was...

    One course of action going forward is to attempt to understand the milieu of the candidates today. From where do they come, what does their skill set and experience actually look like. Hillary for her 'life in politics' has only held one elected office - a term in the US senate that she essentially bought in a state she had just moved to satisfy the residency requirements. She's never actually held any other office that any voter has vetted and for the one that she did hold it was with the support of 3.7 million NY voters or a little more than 800,000 more than her opponent. About 800,000 people in NYS are what have kept her alive. She then ran again nearly unopposed in 2006 only to quit the job two years later and turning the office over to the unelected Kirsten Gillbrand to finish her term in preparation for her own special mid term election in 2010 followed by a legitimate election in 2012. Hillary spent more than any other Senate candidate in the US in 2006 to run a lopsided campaign against a disorganized GOP that quite nearly never put up a candidate at all.

    Her milieu is a political knife fighter who will burn the village to her own ends and keep running no matter how many times actual voters send her home again.

  6. Obama didn't bring Hillary into his cabinet. He sent her out of Washington DC on a permanent plane ride so as not to stir up trouble for him. He gave her a do nothing job with lots of status and kept her on a tight leash. You think any of her talking points were from here? They were from Obama and Jarrett to be read verbatim.