Bush 41 Versus Bush 43 on Foreign Policy
Matt Yglesias argues that the hoopla over President Bush’s sudden turn to people from his father’s administration for advise misses the boat:
The purported dichotomy between 41 people (good!) and 43 people (bad!) is dramatically overstated. And it’s not just Cheney. Paul Wolfowitz was on the Bush 41 team. So was Condoleezza Rice. And, of course, so was Colin Powell. Don Rumsfeld, meanwhile, wasn’t. The reality is that presidents almost always — especially in the first terms of their administrations — appoint reasonably diverse groups of people to national security positions. They proceed to disagree with each other. The President of the United States then decides what he wants to do. Bush 41 had some real nutters working for him who pushed some nutty ideas inside his administration. Bush 43 had some reasonably sensible people working for him who pushed some reasonably sensible ideas inside his administration. The difference wasn’t in the advisors, it was in the presidents. More often than not, Bush 41 made reasonable choices while Bush 43 made bad ones.
While I wouldn’t characterize Cheney and Rice as “nutters,” the bottom line here is dead on: The president is ultimately, as a wise man once put it, “the decider.” To the extent we are unhappy with the decisions promulgated by an administration on key matters, then, the ire should focus on the president rather than his appointees. For one thing, he’s the guy who appointed them. Further, he’s the guy who chooses among the myriad of policy options with which he is presented or simply delegates and lets the chips fall as they may. Either way, he should get most of the credit and blame.
Morever, Matt is right that there are always smart people with diverse viewpoints inside a presidential cabinet. Cheney and Powell were highly regarded centrists in the days when they administered Desert Shield and Desert Storm as the SECDEF and JCS Chairman, respectively. Rumsfeld was a respected if unremarkable (except for his youth) SECDEF a generation before agreeing to serve a second stint.
It is not entirely clear, however, that Bush the Elder made such great decisions as compared with those of his son. There’s no doubt that he built a more ambitious international coalition for Gulf War I than his son did for the sequel. Still, he did so by setting goals that were as minimal as his son’s were overambitious. In doing so, he helped set the stage for everything that followed: Saddam’s attacks on the Kurds and Shia, the formation of al Qaeda, the no-fly zones and decade-plus of conflict with Saddam’s regime, the embargo and resultant starvation of untold tens of thousands of Iraqis, and, ultimately, the present war. Whether letting that situation continue to fester rather than invading, ousting the regime, and the mess that follows is certainly debatable.