In the months after September 11, Team Bush seemed to struggle to find its voice—and to reshape its strategy. Policy battles raged and new, unexpected issues surged to the forefront. The president either had little to say about them or, when he did speak, did not convey a clear sense of the administration’s policy. Aides publicly voiced competing ideas about what the policy might—or should—be. Analysts and talking heads speculated about whether the administration’s wheels had come off, whether the president had lost control of his staff and of the terrorism issue, and what the policy ultimately would be.
Reporters, looking for some edge in covering the story, parsed Bush’s remarks for some shaded meaning from which they could deduce the forthcoming policy. From a distance, observers wondered if it was a deep pathology in Bush’s management style, or whether that style was hard-wired into an approach that ultimately produced sharp policy and clear guidance.
After the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan, the question was how the Bush administration would define the next stage of foreign policy. Would it focus narrowly on nation-building in Afghanistan, a prospect that ran against the president’s 2000 campaign themes and his recurring criticism of Bill Clinton? Would it launch a broader strategy of engaging other nations in a global war against terrorism, even if that risked undermining the urgency of the effort by the inevitable bargaining with potential coalition allies? Would it try to shore up its relationships with Arab nations, or target states that seemed to pose the greatest terrorist threat? For weeks, speculation bubbled in the media. With his 2002 State of the Union address, however, Bush’s famous condemnation of the “axis of evil”—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—sealed the decision.
No sooner did the administration settle on this new strategy than turmoil in the Middle East boiled over, with Palestinian bombings in Israel followed by Israeli counterattacks on Palestinian strongholds. Bush advisers believed that the Clinton administration had seriously overextended American diplomacy and credibility in its last months by trying to force a peace deal. They saw the Middle East as a morass, and they believed other problems—especially the “axis of evil”—were bigger, so they determined to keep their distance.
But as was the case with every presidency for decades, continuing turmoil in the Middle East forced the administration to act. But what to do? Should the United States try to force Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from power? Try to nudge the Israelis from the occupied territories to create a Palestinian homeland? Get involved directly as peace broker or try to enlist a multination diplomatic effort? Different administration officials voiced different views, and some analysts suggested that the administration’s “policy of the day” was defined by whoever talked to the president last.
Bush sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East to try to broker a cease-fire, but Powell came back empty-handed. Vice President Cheney did no better. Bush decided to establish, firmly and unmistakably, his administration’s strategy with a Rose Garden speech in late June 2002. He firmly called for the Palestinians to replace Arafat, hold new elections, and work toward regional reform. The speech did not solve the problem, but it did sharply define America’s strategy. It also eased calls, from home and abroad, for a more active American role.
After the Middle East decision came fierce internal debate about administration policy toward Iraq. Bush had identified that nation as one of a three-part “axis of evil.” In the months after his State of the Union address, administration officials focused on Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, calling him the world’s most dangerous leader, rather than focusing on Iran or North Korea. They connected the Iraqi leader with the spread of terrorism, claimed that he was linked to the September 11 attacks, and argued that he had to go.
What to do and how to do it, however, were anything but clear. A blizzard of reports filled the media. Some stories reported that the United States would make short work of the Iraqi army. Others said it was likely that Saddam would lure U.S. forces into fierce door-to-door urban fighting through the streets of Baghdad. Some stories described the threat that Saddam’s biological and chemical weapons posed—for American troops, for Israel, and even for America itself. Detailed war plans appeared in some newspapers, some purportedly from the Pentagon, though administration spokespersons repudiated them.
In fact, the stories appearing in the nation’s most influential newspapers reflected the fact that the administration’s hawks and doves were locked in a bitter internal battle. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld believed that the threat from Iraq was significant and that extended diplomacy would tie the nation’s hands as Saddam grew closer to deploying nuclear weapons. Secretary Powell, supported by some members of the intelligence community, feared that a go-it-alone strategy would alienate the United States from its European allies and heighten Arab-American tensions, which were already high because of the September 11 attacks. It took little imagination to guess the source of most of the newspaper stories. They clearly were competing leaks signaling deep division within the administration, an administration that had earned its stripes on its no-leak policy.
The president publicly said little, except to repeat his condemnations of Hussein. Reporters again suggested that Bush’s policy was adrift. In fact, some analysts pointedly asked whether Bush was fatigued by the nonstop intensity of post-September 11 events, was unsure about what to do, or perhaps had lost control of his foreign policy apparatus. The debates continued into Bush’s monthlong August vacation. During that time, opinion pieces by old-time Bush family advisers Brent Scowcroft and James Baker sharply suggested that Bush was on a dangerous course. Analysts speculated that Bush 41 was using trusted former aides to send messages to his son, and to warn him off a risky confrontation with Iraq. As the administration moved ever closer to a confrontation with Hussein, a strategy for how to pursue the campaign seemed elusive and internal divisions seemed to rule the day.
The internal disputes and uncertain drift came to a halt in early September 2002. Bush and his advisers crafted a two-step rollout of a crisp policy. On September 11, Bush visited the sites of the terrorist attacks a year before. He gave an evening speech in front of the Statue of Liberty in which he said:
This nation has defeated tyrants, liberated death camps, raised this lamp of liberty to every captive land, . . . We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history’s latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power. . . . Now and in the future, Americans will live as free people, not in fear, and never at the mercy of any foreign plot or power.
The next day, he went to the United Nations to throw down the gauntlet. He bluntly told the General Assembly:
The just demands of peace and security will be met, or action will be unavoidable. . . . And a regime that has lost its legitimacy will also lose its power.
Within the administration, Colin Powell and his allies had won a commitment to seek a Security Council resolution and international support for military action against Iraq. For their part, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others ensured that the conditions for the UN resolution were high. Meanwhile, Bush and his aides worked with British prime minister Tony Blair, America’s strongest ally in crafting the U.S. resolution in the UN. As the resolution worked its way through the Security Council, administration negotiators pushed hard to keep the basic policy intact, even as some nations—especially France and Russia—tried to soften it. The administration wanted a resolution that included threatening terms if Iraq did not cooperate with inspections, but had to settle for something less. Still, Bush won international support for the administration’s tough position, including a provision forcing Hussein to disclose facts about his weapons program.
More than any other episode, the Iraq decision showed a recurring Bush strategy. Focus on one key issue. Allow aides to debate, and be patient if some of that debate spills over into the public arena. (Many previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, would have been apoplectic about such public airing of internal disputes.) Use the public debate to weigh the policy issues, gauge the alternative most likely to work, and assess the strategy around which political support was most likely to build. Set the course through a strong, firmly worded speech, in a venue that used the presidency’s trappings to get as much publicity as possible. And then ensure that dissension ends and team members fall into line behind the new policy.
Other presidents famously pitched their advisers against each other to shake out the best policy. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, enjoyed tossing a tough issue to his aides and watching them battle. But few if any presidents have allowed such battles to be fought out in public, and for such long durations. Few demonstrated Bush’s patience in allowing the issue to gel before deciding. Few have responded with such a crisp decision—and few have enforced such strict discipline after the fact to shut down further leaks and public debate.
Could a manager or CEO implement such a strategy? The answer is, it depends—on the situation, the organizational culture, and other factors. Corporations are not democracies—any more than the way presidents run the White House. However, organizations have become more democratic in recent decades. There is nothing wrong in permitting debate in an organization, at least for a set period of time. This can let the CEO (or manager) know where others stand on an issue. It can also give people the feeling that their voices will be heard. But don’t forget the key lesson: Make a final decision to end the debate on a definitive note so the organization can move forward. Otherwise, the ongoing debate risks spilling out over subsequent issues and ruining any chance for cohesion around the basic strategy.