Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Concensus Is...

Interesting nugget from an interview of Donald Rumsfeld on the release of his new book conducted by the WSJ's Kimberley Strassel that appeared in Tuesday's paper:

Mr. Rumsfeld devotes an early chapter to his meditations on the purpose of the National Security Council (NSC), accompanied by his judgment that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice did a poor job of airing and debating substantive disagreements between the State and Defense departments. Rivalries between State and Defense are nothing new, yet Ms. Rice's most "notable feature" of management, writes Mr. Rumsfeld, "was her commitment, whenever possible, to 'bridging' differences between the agencies, rather than bringing those differences to the President for decisions."

"Condi Rice is a very accomplished human being," he says in our interview, and "she had an academic background. Blending things and delaying things is okay in the academic world. She developed a very strong relationship with the president, which is critically important. And yet one of the adverse aspects of the way things functioned—and I wouldn't use the word 'dysfunction'—is that things did get delayed, and the president didn't get served up, in a crisp way, options that he could choose among."

The memoir relates notable instances when this dynamic played out, but none with more consequence than the muddled plan for postwar Iraq. The Defense Department pushed early on "to do what we'd done in Afghanistan"—where a tribal loya jirga had quickly anointed Hamid Karzai as leader. "The goal was to move quickly to have an Iraqi face on the leadership in the country, as opposed to a foreign occupation." Mr. Rumsfeld's early takeaway from NSC meetings was that "the president agreed."

Yet Colin Powell's State Department was adamantly opposed. It was suspicious of allowing Iraqi exiles to help govern, claiming they'd undermine "legitimacy." It also didn't believe a joint U.S.-Iraqi power-sharing agreement would work. These were clear, substantive policy differences, yet in Mr. Rumsfeld's telling, Ms. Rice allowed the impasse to drag on.

The result was the long, damaging regency of Paul Bremer as the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority—which Mr. Rumsfeld believes helped inspire the initial Iraq insurgency. Mr. Bremer, who set up shop in one of Saddam's opulent palaces, continued to postpone the creation of an Iraqi transitional government. He instead appointed a "governing council" of Iraqis but refused to give even them any responsibility. The result: delays in elections and in building post-Saddam institutions.

"You are always better having a president look at each option, at the pros and cons, and make a decision among them, than trying to merge them," says Mr. Rumsfeld, especially when positions are "contradictory to a certain extent."

One of the greatest pitfalls for a leader in any position is an insistence on seeking consensus among their staff before making decisions. LBJ was at times paralyzed in his decision making during the Vietnam War because he wanted a consencus to emerge from his advisors on what to do next. As Rumsfeld notes, leaders need to be presented with options for action and when those options conflict with one another, as they usually do, the leader needs to clearly decide on a option to pursue. In some cases, compromise is necessary and desirable, but in the most critical situations trying to do some of one option and some of another in order to placate all parties involved will almost inevitable end in failure.

Rumsfeld's revelations on the flawed decision making process in the Bush Administration help explain why the management of post-war Iraq was such a cluster-farg. It also serves as a helpful warning that those at the heart of this muddled leadership will not likely be the kind of people we want to put into similar positions in the future.