Thursday, May 23, 2013

Presidential Leadership (Blair’s Lessons, part VII)

The recent scandals involving the executive branch, and the President’s claims to know nothing about them, have reminded me of a passage in a book I read last fall on President Obama’s developing thinking regarding drone warfare.

In Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman outlines the administration's evolving thinking regarding the war on terror and drones specifically. While the entire book is a fascinating read, one passage stands out over the rest.

The author is describing the decision and subsequent about-face to use civilian court to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), known as the mastermind of 9/11. Through this entire time, the Oval Office kept sending conflicting messages. Here's how Klaidman describes it:
The contradictory moves could be maddening to the “front office,” where Obama’s political advisers worked. Just when they thought he’d signed off on the pragmatic choice, he would reverse course. 
* * * 
Obama seemed content to let different advisers believe different things about his position. Holder had made the decision to try KSM in federal court with the confidence that it was his decision, as attorney general, to make. But he’d also had no doubt that Obama agreed with his judgment. Emanuel had every reason to believe that Obama was with him on KSM; why else would he have authorized the Lindsey Graham backchannel? By early 2010, after one year in office, the great question about President Obama had become: what did he truly believe and how much political capital was he prepared to expend? It was one thing to have a “team of rivals,” another to let them fight without any resolution or action.
Contrast that, for example, with Tony Blair's warning for leaders (given in the context of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein).
There are leaders who agonise too much; who are forever weighing up; whose consideration of the options becomes an end in itself and a substitute for clarity of decision. Of course it’s good to think before you act, but the thinking has to be of finite duration and the action must follow. This is true in and of itself, but it is also true because when leading a country, or indeed any organization, failure to act is an action with consequences. Inaction is a decision to maintain the status quo. Maintenance of the status quo has its own result, and usually its own dynamic.

I'm afraid we have a President who has repeatedly committed Blair's error. In case after case, instead of giving a decisive direction to his own staff, he's wanted to play the analyst. The consequence is a power vacuum in the Executive Branch. When the President doesn't make the decisions, someone else has to. It may help him keep a clear conscience, but it certainly isn't leadership.


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Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)

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