A tale of two crises

President
Bush’s leadership skills have been put to the test in the past few months.
Faced with two different crises, how have his strategies fared? By Paul
Simpson 

11
September 2001, the world has all but stopped work to watch the shocking images
of destruction on television. Meanwhile in Florida, the President of the
stricken nation has announced his intention to return to Washington DC.

But
when Air Force One takes off, news comes through of a "credible
threat" to it. What advisers would later call the "fog of war"
is beginning to surround the President. The millions watching horrified in
their offices probably imagine that the President of the US knows much more
about what’s going on than they do. But Bush doesn’t have better information,
because all the channels of communication are feeding a mixture of truth and
rumour back him. He reluctantly decides not to fly to Washington and is taken
to a base in Nebraska.

The
threat never materialised and the diversion of Air Force One subsequently
looked like a mistake. As Karen Hughes, a Bush adviser would later say,
"We are realising an old combat rule that says the initial reports are
always wrong." Since then Bush and his advisers have acted to make sure
the "fog of war" does not confuse them again. How well they have
succeeded is best illustrated in a tale of two crises: the war against the
Taliban and Osama Bin Laden and the anthrax scare.

War
tactics

Twice
a day, in the morning and at the end of the day, three Americans (one civilian,
two generals) meet to review the progress of the war against terror. The
civilian, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld meets with General Richard B Myers,
the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and confers down the phone with
General Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command.

Franks
runs the war in Afghanistan on a day-to-day basis and has fairly broad leeway.
When he wants to make significant changes, such as deploying AC-130 gunships,
Rumsfeld and Myers have to sign off the decision. Only when there’s a major
escalation, such as the use of ground troops, is Bush called in.

This
approach draws on the model set by Bush Snr who left the running of the Gulf
War to general Norman Schwarzkopf and that used by Clinton in Kosovo where
civilians reviewed bombing targets, deciding they were too risky. The military
has a freer hand than under Clinton – the targets are drawn up by an Air Force
Commander reporting to Franks – but not as free as in the Gulf War.

Bush
has a 10-member war cabinet which feeds into this process. Two of them,
Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, have direct
executive experience of the Gulf War. Rumsfeld is also a Washington veteran,
having led the Defense Department in 1975.

Devolved
decision-making

The
big danger, as President John F Kennedy found in the abortive invasion of
Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, is making sure that the case against any course of action
is adequately heard. Because the 1961 invasion was secret and supposed to be
led by anti-Castro Cubans, with covert American support, the generals who
unanimously recommended the plan later admitted that they hadn’t been able to
properly evaluate their plans’ feasibility. In the Cuban missile crisis, as
seen in the film Thirteen Days, Kennedy asked his brother to form a group to
debate the appropriate response to the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba
and ensured that the case against the initial preferred option, air strikes,
was analysed. Consensus then shifted to the use of a naval blockade.

Bush
has been similarly cautious in resisting any knee-jerk responses, although he
has approved the escalation of the war, with the deployment of special forces
and more lethal bombs, like the daisy cutter. Although questions remain over
the strategy, on a tactical basis this devolved decision-making in the war
against terror has meant that although the resistance of the Taliban has
surprised some commanders, the administration has not been caught out by any
nasty surprises.

Signs
of weakness

The
same cannot be said of the handling of the anthrax scare. Bush has not been
able to bring the same experience or certainty to this crisis but opinions
differ over whether this is due to the quality of the people advising him or
the nature of the attack.

Bush
likes to get his facts straight and have a clean decision making process. He is
not alone in this – President Eisenhower famously refused to read any memo
longer than an A4 sheet of paper. But on anthrax, his information was quick,
clear and inaccurate. The initial advice given to the public and to employees
was wrong – scientists later decided that anthrax could be transmitted through
unopened mail and the postmaster general John Potter was forced to advise
people that they should wash their hands after handling their post.

Like
any CEO who has been given bad advice, Bush’s response was to knock heads
together. He called in Tom Ridge, head of the new Office of Homeland Security,
and said, "Tom, get these people together. We need to get to the bottom of
this."

Much
criticism has been levelled at Ridge, Potter, attorney general John Ashcroft
who are less experienced than Rumsfeld, Powell or Cheney. The FBI has also been
criticised for its failure to find the source of the deadly spores although the
Bureau has been going through its own personnel crisis, with 40 per cent of its
11,700 agents having joined in the past five years.

In
truth, the mistake was understandable. Non-scientists look to scientists for a
certainty that they can’t always deliver, just as companies always seek to build
certainty into a process as unpredictable and variable as R&D. The very
chain of delegation which has helped focus operations in Afghanistan worked
against Bush here. Such chains tend to filter out doubts, shades of grey, as
information is passed on. At the same time, the public demanded certainty from
an administration which was seeking the same certainty from science. The need
to reassure seemed vital and the administration, with the best intentions,
goofed.

Bush
maintains that the secret of being a good President is to build a great team
and let them do the work. His team didn’t look so great as the count of anthrax
cases grew with his own party telling him that the public only trusted four
members of the administration (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell). And although
these four are seen in public most often, he hasn’t, unlike many managers who
talk the talk about teamwork, called for heads to roll.

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