Debate Magazine

What We Should Look for in the Next President (in General)

Posted on the 20 July 2015 by Mikelumish @IsraelThrives
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.

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