Daniel Drezner has a new piece today in Slate entitled, “Bush the Bumbler – The real trouble with the president’s foreign policy”. It summarizes a theme Dan has been hashing out in his weblog for a few weeks: The problem with Bush’s foreign policy is neither evil intent nor even a flawed premise but rather a shoddy process stemming from a president content to let his subordinates work out the not-so-small details.

Dan cites several examples: State-DOD squabbling over Iraq that led to no obvious plan to handle reconstruction of the electric grid and other infrastructure in postwar Iraq, the ill-timed DOD announcement barring non-Coalition states from bidding on major contracts in Iraq, and some issues with regard to gearing the military up for a fight with al Qaeda.

Process criticisms have begun to appear more frequently in the mainstream media. What’s interesting about these critiques is that they come primarily from Bush sympathizers. Prominent Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Charles Grassley have voiced concerns about the proper management of key foreign policy priorities. Writing about the contract screw-up, William Kristol and Robert Kagan were blunt: “[I]nstead of being smart, clever, or magnanimous, the Bush Administration has done a dumb thing.” George Will described the decision as “a tantrum tarted up as foreign policy.” In his Sunday column, Tom Friedman lamented: “I fear we have a president who is setting the broad guidelines, above a squabbling bureaucracy and a divided alliance–and no one is cracking heads.”


In many ways, Bush’s supporters have devised a more powerful critique than anything Bush’s opponents have come up with. Their complaints point to mismanagement and incompetence, never words one wants associated with foreign policy. Given the high stakes that the administration is playing for in Iraq and the war on terror, Bush’s process failures make him far more vulnerable on national security issues than one might imagine.

Dan issues several caveats in a blog entry announcing the piece: there are some leftist critics pointing this out as well, that “process” is a sufficiently boring criticism that it’s unlikely to stick in an election campaign, and the fact that several recent moves by the Administration may fix some of these problems.

These are well-written pieces and I agree with much of them. But, to quote Shimon Peres (via Rumsfeld’s Rules), “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.” It seems to me that Presidents have two essential options: They can delegate these things to subordinates, leading to precisely these kind of snafus, or they can micromanage things and create a stultified process. Given the impossibly vast scope of the modern President’s job, I’m not sure a happy medium is really possible.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Monday morning quarterbacking – everyone knows how to point out faults and think they could do better when, in fact, they can’t.

  2. Kevin Drum says:

    So it’s just impossible to be president these days? That’s a little hard to swallow.

    Iraq would have been a tough job no matter who did it. But the squabbling and the lack of a consensus vision in the Bush administration was truly astounding. I don’t think he needs to micromanage, but he does need to figure out what he really believes and what he really wants to accomplish. I don’t think he knows.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I think it’s virtually impossible to be president and not have significant policy lapses. Clinton was much more hands-on than Bush, but I’m not sure that there was any real consensus in that team’s foreign policy either–with the exception of a zest for free trade. But the security policy was very much a mishmash, and certainly at least as screwed up as the Bush policy in Iraq.

    State and DOD don’t cooperate well as bureacracies and they tend to coopt their Secretaries. That’s been true for decades, really. I’d like to see it fixed, but think they just have entirely different worldviews–a Brahmin elitism at State and a more rural machismo at DOD.

  4. Paul says:

    It seems to me that Presidents have two essential options: They can delegate these things to subordinates, leading to precisely these kind of snafus, or they can micromanage things and create a stultified process. Given the impossibly vast scope of the modern President’s job, I’m not sure a happy medium is really possible.

    Could be…

    But what is self-evident is that no medium can be achieved that could insulate the President from criticism.

  5. ev mecham says:

    It’s flawed premise rather than shoddy process. The flawed premise is that Bush is qualified to be President.

    It seems that most, now including some of his louder supporters, find that he is not.

    Kevin’s plea for Bush to get his act together is aspirational at best, for it ignores his past 3 years performance and, in particular, his inability to understand management priorities as they relate to the country’s strategic interests.

  6. Paul says:

    AND THAT is why he will always be criticized. When you have ignorant people whose only answer to every question is “Bush is the Devil” it is impossible for him to avoid criticism.

    Historically speaking Bush has had an incredible track record. But the simple minded fools will never admit it. They will just whine and hope for America’s doom on his watch. They are both pathetic and sad.

  7. melvin toast says:

    What’s dumber? Bush’s lack of foreign policy or not knowing what Bush wants to accomplish? I think I know what his foreign policy is… wait I KNOW KNOW what his foreign policy is. He told us what it is. Preemptive attacks on suspected terrorist harboring nations. I think that pretty much sums it up.

    As far as incompetence, I thought Cheney was running the government. You wanna know what incompetence REALLY is. Madeline Albright. You’re telling me that Albright was the best Clinton could get?

    Have there been mistakes. Yes. Are there going to be more? Yes. So what? Is Clinton more competent? Is Howard Dean more competent? Was Lyndon Johnson more competent? What’s the metric? Franklin Roosevelt letting Jews die because he didn’t want to undermine the war effort by saving Jews? Oh I know… It was JFK and his Bay of Pigs invasion. That’s competence with a capital C.

    Oh I forgot… The world is mad at us. Actually 60 countries on our side and France Germany and Russia on the other. France Germany and Russia have alway stood for justice so… Oh and I forgot about all those dictatorships in the UN. They hate us too.

    But as Churchill once said, If people hate you, it shows you stood up for something.

  8. Kate says:

    When the announcement of the barring of non-coalition countries came across the airwaves here, the phone ins on talk radio (which aren’t as uniformly conservative as they are in the US) were overwhelmingly supportive of the US policy. The Little Red Hen was referenced on several occassions and with many there was a real sentiment of embarrassment over the hypocrisy of the Canadian position.