Wednesday, November 22, 2006

David Brooks: Building a Team of Rivals

Over the next few months, I’m going to ask the presidential hopefuls the following question: What lessons do you draw from the Iraq experience about decision-making in the White House?

The candidates are going to answer by saying something like this: The lesson I draw is that the president has to have intellectual curiosity and access to all the necessary information. He can’t run a faith-based policy relying on certainty and instinct. When I’m president, I’m going to hear all sides.

Then, I’m going to respond: Oh, please. Save that stuff for the campaign rallies. If you know anything about how the Bush administration actually worked, you know that people at the midlevels were consumed by doubt. There were interagency meetings galore, and dozens of memos written by subcabinet officials fully aware of how badly things were going. Aside from the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld personalities, it was the decision-making process itself that was screwed up. Did you draw any lessons from that?

Then the candidates will level with me in that low-toned voice they adopt when speaking the truth, and if they’re smart, they’ll say something like this:

O.K., you’re right. There are structural problems that have emerged during the past several administrations that crippled planning for Iraq. Here’s what I think they are:

First, the vice president can’t have his own secret policy channel. He can’t sit silently at meetings and then, during private lunches with the president, countermand all that was accomplished.

Second, the White House can’t obsess about leaks. This administration in particular twisted itself into knots to prevent leaks, and you know what? Everything came out anyway. It’s stupid to narrow decision-making to small, insular circles of trust to prevent leaks. Everybody correctly assumes their private comments will be made public in any case.

Third, the White House staff has too much power. We understand how this happened. Presidents get sick of parochial cabinet secretaries who become special pleaders for their agencies. The president needs people he can trust, and who believe in his policies, so he shifts power to those around him who worked on his campaigns.

The problem is the White House is staffed by younger people who are feverishly devoted to the president. Especially in the first years, they try to make every day pleasant for him, which means not bringing him bad news, or setting up a meeting that might turn nasty. Furthermore, while the White House staff is big enough to insulate the president, it is not big enough to carry out policy. When it is asked to, you get thousands of ad hoc meetings attended by people who have limited power to control facts on the ground.

Which leads to the fourth and most important lesson: There is a yawning gap between those who decide policies and those who carry them out. This hurts in two ways. The people who have run an operation for decades, who have some expertise, have little input before a decision is made. Then, after the decision is handed to them, they have no investment in its success and discover they can go off and subvert the policy and no one can do anything to stop them.

In the Iraq occupation, Rumsfeld became a rogue secretary, not committing enough troops, not returning phone calls, not sharing information, and nobody did anything to discipline him. The National Security Council had to jump in and try to run operations, which it’s not equipped to do.

To address these problems, the next president has to restore cabinet government — set up teams of rivals, as Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan did. For example, during his first term, President Reagan had more than 500 cabinet committee meetings, according to Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. Each cabinet committee consisted of four to six department heads, who would work out policies and put them into effect.

A president who vests power in cabinet members gives himself colleagues, people of similar age and stature who can argue with him face to face. By formalizing a decision-making process he balances egotistical secretaries against each other. A Rumsfeld would have to go to meetings and explain himself to his rivals. Entire departments couldn’t be shut out of the loop, the way Treasury and State were. The agencies that carry out policy would have a link to the people who decide it.

It’s possible to screw up cabinet government too — Jimmy Carter did. But the next president has to be a thoroughgoing reformer, which means reforming the way the executive branch works too.

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