Iraq and the 7 Habits of Highly Defective Presidents
Since he first stepped into the Oval Office, much has been made about George W. Bush as America's CEO, our first MBA President. In the wake of the Iraq Study Group report, the nation has been eagerly awaiting President Bush's now-delayed new strategy with the baited breath surrounding a major new product announcement. But as is becoming increasingly clear, when it comes to Iraq, George W. Bush the MBA President is managing the war like a failed business.
As a 20 year technology marketing executive in firms large and small, I've seen the all the telltale signs of strategic bankruptcy before. Facing declining sales, aging products, sagging market share and growing competitive disadvantage, some business leaders reach a strategic impasse. They stop talking about their products, customers and their vision for the future. Instead, these failed managers speak of "the process," point to key dates and upcoming events, deflect blame towards other people and external factors, all while looking to others to provide strategic salvation.
The same George W. Bush who so proudly declared himself a "war president" is leading the United States to strategic bankruptcy and geopolitical disaster. As Commander-in-Chief, President Bush displays all the hallmarks of the failed executive. With a nod to Stephen Covey, call them the "Seven Habits of Highly Defective Presidents."
- Name Names and Outsource Responsibility
- Focus on the Process, Not the Plan
- Set Dates to Turn Corners
- Use New Slogans for An Old, Failed Product
- Find New Uses for An Old, Failed Product
- Announce Your New Product Before It's Ready
- Don't Do The Market Research
Habit #1: Name Names and Outsource Responsibility
Unable to define the objective or even what constitutes victory in Iraq, President Bush at almost every critical turn in the war pinned responsibility for success or failure on others. For example, the politically unpopular prospect of increasing troop levels has been a decision "for the generals." Ever since effectively disemboweling former Army Chief General Eric Shinseki for his January 2003 statement that the occupation of Iraq would require "several hundred thousand soldiers," President Bush has laughably claimed he would look to his general to request more boots on the ground. In January 2006, Bush repeated that "I'm going to continue to rely upon those commanders, such as General Casey...his recommendations will determine the number of troops we have on the ground in Iraq." By October, the President was still singing from the same hymnal, proclaiming "if the generals tell me they need more troops, I'll send them."
From almost the moment the invasion was launched, Bush treated political developments in Iraq no differently. The make-or-break decisions of 2003, including the dissolution of the Iraqi army, privatization of state-owned businesses and the harsh policy of de-Baathification, were left to Paul Bremer, Bush's man in Baghdad. That August, Bush told the American Legion Convention that "The coalition provisional authority, led by Ambassador Paul Bremer, is implementing a comprehensive plan to ensure a successful, democratic Iraq, and a better future for the Iraqi people." But in 2004, as Ayatollah Sistani led Shiite resistance to Bremer's plan for Iraqi elections, the writing of a new constitution and the handover of sovereignty, a cornered President Bush turned to the United Nations of all places to save his bacon:
"At this moment, United Nations Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is conducting intensive consultations with a wide range of Iraqis on the structure of the interim government that will assume control on July the 1st. We welcome this U.N. engagement."
Fast forward to 2006 and President Bush is again making the case that success or failure in Iraq squarely hinges on someone else. Despite the misgivings of his own national security advisor, Bush this past November hitched his wagon to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, claiming "he is the right guy for Iraq."
Of course, one of the corollary benefits of naming those vested with responsibility for new strategies is the opportunity to conveniently blame them for later failures. For example, President Bush moved to quickly sack Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld following the GOP's 2006 midterm election disaster. (Whereas Bush claimed on November 8 that "win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee," Rumsfeld concluded that his dismissal was based "the outcome of the election.") And even as the President supposedly readies his new "way forward" on Iraq, rumors abound in Washington that incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates is going to pin the blame on the generals, effectively shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Habit #2: Focus on the Process, Not the Plan
One of the classic symptoms of a leader without a strategy is his high-profile announcement of a process to come up with one.
That is certainly now the case with President Bush and Iraq. While delaying a strategic announcement until after the holidays, Bush has engaged in a "listening tour" with State Department, DOD and military officials. In parallel with the congressionally-mandated Iraq Study Group "process" of James Baker and Lee Hamilton, the Bush administration has pursued a simultaneous Pentagon "review process." Early reports suggest that process will offer Bush the three options of "Go Big" (more troops), "Go Long" (an extended American presence in Iraq) or "Go Home" (withdraw ASAP). But as Bush himself made clear on December 13, no revisions to Iraq strategy will come before he has completed his own process:
"There's a lot of consultations taking place, and as I announced yesterday, I will be delivering my -- my plans, after a long deliberation, after steady deliberation. I'm not going to be rushed into making a difficult decision, a necessary decision, to say to our troops, we're going to give you the tools necessary to succeed and a strategy to help you succeed."
As Thomas Ricks details in his book "Fiasco," the Bush administration simply never had a plan for the post-conflict phase occupation of Iraq. As a result, the United States has faced mounting chaos, Al Qaeda terrorism, Sunni insurgency and a militia bloodbath. And ever since the looting started in May 2003, President Bush in the absence of a strategy has offered Americans a "process." In April 2005, the President summarized the progress in Iraq, "This is a free country, and in free countries, governments get to decide -- sovereign governments decide their future. And so we look forward to working with the new government. As you know, it's a process" But it was U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad who in October 2005 perhaps best captured the White House spin on Bush's strategic quagmire: "Well, Iraq is succeeding but it's a process."
The Iraqis themselves, too, as President Bush has been quick to point out, are part of "the process." On April 10, 2006, for example, Bush declared that "they are undertaking a difficult process with little democratic experience" and that the carnage in Baghdad showed "elections are the beginning of the process, not the end."
The dependence of the Bush White House on process as a substitute for a new Iraq policy can even be quantified. The word "process" itself appears 37 times in the Administration's stillborn November 2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.
Habit #3: Set Dates to Turn Corners
Lacking a strategy in the present, failed leaders like George W. Bush will simply resort to a citing a date for concocting one in the future. In a nutshell, at each point that you fail to turn the corner, just create new corners.
From the capture of Saddam, the June 2004 handover of sovereignty and the drafting of the Iraqi constitution to national elections and the formation of an Iraqi government, the Bush White House has offered Americans a never-ending flow of corner turning moments. On July 31, 2004, President Bush told throngs of supporters at a campaign event that "When it comes to spreading the peace, we're turning a corner, and we're not turning back." Despite the growing violence and bloodshed over the next year, Vice President Cheney declared the insurgency in its "last throes" even as the President crowed over the corners he helped turn:
"I am pleased that in less than a year's time, there's a democratically elected government in Iraq, there are thousands of Iraq soldiers trained and better equipped to fight for their own country [and] that our strategy is very clear."
As events on the ground in Iraq led to disappointment and a deepening crisis, the administration produced its own set of mythical milestones to mark a new era of progress. For example, the White House hyped the President's June 28, 2005 address to a friendly Fort Bragg military audience as a major strategic statement. That made for TV appearance was followed in November by a full-throated marketing campaign in the form of the now rightly forgotten "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." It's no wonder a now very defensive President Bush says he won't "be rushed" before making his next much-anticipated January 2007 pronouncement on Iraq.
(It is also worth noting that President Bush's predilection for meaningless milestones has enablers among the chattering classes. The New York Times' Tom Friedman has so frequently used the expression "the next six months are critical" about events in Iraq that Atrios has termed those half-year periods FU's or "Friedman Units.")
Habit #4: Use New Slogans for an Old, Failed Product
Another hallmark of the failed business manager confronting his dying product and dead-end strategy is to engage in marketing semantics. That is, when your current offering isn't selling, just try a new slogan.
President Bush and his pitchmen in the White House have offered up a cornucopia of tag lines to sell their disastrous Iraq policies to an increasingly skeptical American public. "Operation Iraqi Freedom" featured "Shock and Awe," a staggering display of military might which led President Bush on May 1, 2003 to proclaim "Mission Accomplished." The outbreak of looting led Donald Rumsfeld to announce that "Democracy's Messy." In response to the nascent insurgency, the President offered Americans a dose of reassuring bravado with his taunt of "Bring 'Em On."
But as events on the ground in Iraq spiraled out of control, the Bush White House and its amen corner turned to platitudes and sound bites to fight off critics. Democracy, "God's Gift to Humanity," brought us "Purple Fingers." If Americans would only "Stay the Course," U.S forces could "Stand Down When Iraqis Stand Up." Administration opponents were "Defeatocrats" who would "Cut and Run" at the soonest opportunity. Only after the Republican midterm disaster and the blistering Baker-Hamilton report did President Bush decide that the situation in Iraq called for "Fresh Eyes" and a "New Way Forward."
Habit #5: Find New Uses for an Old, Failed Product
The corollary to remarketing a failing product is to come up with new uses for it. "Product X is not only a powerful carpet cleaner; it's a tasty snack treat!" is a familiar formulation for any viewer of infomercials or the Home Shopping Network. For President Bush, selling the Iraq conflict is no different.
As each rationale for the war in Iraq dissolved in the light of day, the Bush White House merely manufactured new ones. The first causus belli for the Iraq campaign was the threat of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. In the fall of 2002, then National Security Advisor Condi Rice warned that "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," while President Bush emphatically declared to the United Nations that Iraq was a "grave and gathering danger." Of course, the final report of the Iraq Survey Group concluded that Saddam had no WMD. The only open question is whether during his February 2003 pitch to the UN Colin Powell, like the proverbial car salesman, knew he was lying.
With the war in Iraq no longer useful as a solution for cleansing a brutal regime of WMD, President Bush to turned to the Iraq-Al Qaeda linkage. On the eve of the invasion, President Bush told the American people that Iraq "has aided, trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al Qaeda." Weeks later while proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush crowed "We've removed an ally of al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding." After the 9/11 Commission definitively concluded that Saddam had no operational relationship with Al Qaeda, President Bush on September 17, 2004 grudgingly admitted, "we've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th." Still, Bush couldn't help himself, returning to deceptive advertising with his June 2005 claim that "we went to war because we were attacked."
With the WMD claims and the Saddam-Al Qaeda-9/11 link utterly disproved, a new Iraq war rationale was needed. Enter "Democracy Promotion" as the reason for American sacrifices in the Middle East. The mythical Bush Doctrine of no safe havens for terrorists and preemptive war was expanded to include the expansion of democracy. The same George W. Bush who came to office in 2001 advocating a "humble" foreign policy was by 2003 describing the American mission in Messianic terms:
"Americans are a free people, who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation. The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity."
Americans, of course, did not back the war in Iraq to bring purple fingers, attack ads and Jack Abramoffs to Baghdad. But thanks to the skilled marketing of the team surrounding America's first MBA President, as late as March 2006 a significant percentage of Americans - and a majority of Republicans - continued to believe the Bush's bogus WMD and Al Qaeda claims.
Habit #6: Announce Your New Product Before It's Ready
Desperate to change their companies' sagging fortunes, many a failed business manager will rush to announce a new product before it is ready. But rather than dramatically changing a firm's public image or miraculously jump-starting its revenue stream, such premature launches of products which may never materialize often serve to further shake consumer confidence and erode corporate credibility. In the technology industry, this is known as vaporware. In wartime, it's a national tragedy.
President Bush's madness in Mesopotamia has been plagued by such premature Iraq elation from the very beginning. For example, in September 2002 Bush chief of staff Andrew Card tipped his boss' hand regarding the upcoming Iraq campaign, admitting in a moment of shocking candor that "you don't roll out a new product in August." The cavalcade of speeches by Rice, Cheney and Bush in September and October (including his bellicose address to the United Nations and shot across Saddam's bow in Cincinnati) kicked off the campaign for the invasion which inevitably came the following March.
Bush has been jumping the gun ever since. Standing before a banner declaring "Mission Accomplished" on May 1, 2003, "in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." But by June of 2005, a chastened President Bush grudgingly acknowledged "this mission isn't easy, and it will not be accomplished overnight."
In July 2003, the President was praising his administration's plan for a new Iraq Governing Council to draft a new constitution to create the groundwork for district elections. Shiite Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani had other ideas, however, issuing a fatwa demanding an accelerated transfer of sovereignty and immediate direct elections prior to the nation's constitution writing. As the Washington Post described in detail, Paul Bremer and the CPA ultimately yielded to Sistani on the constitution issue to secure the November 15, 2003 compromise. By the next spring, the Shiite leader won on direct elections as well.
Habit #7: Don't Do the Market Research
Behind the entire fiasco of George Bush's Iraq war leadership is Habit #7 of failed business managers: an aversion to doing the basic research before going to market.
Bush's "by-the-gut" decision making style and belief in his own infallibility is legendary. In 2006, President Bush proclaimed, "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best." On April 13, 2004, he rejected the suggestion that he name any mistake he might have made, explaining "I'm sure something will pop into my head here." And as Ron Suskind reported, Bush's neo-conservative handlers only enabled his sense of certainty, lecturing Americans that:
Guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actor...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
It's no wonder, then, that President Bush invaded Iraq with neither sufficient troops for the occupation or nor a plan for the political transformation of the post-Saddam state. The Bush White House ignored warnings about the lack of WMD, dismissed CIA assessments about uranium in Niger or Saddam's infamous aluminum tubes. And grave predictions about a looming post-invasion insurgency fell on the President's deaf ears.
None of the above should come as a surprise to the American people. Prior to assuming the presidency, George W. Bush failed at virtually every business endeavor he pursued, only to be bailed out each time by James Baker and other of his father's global network of friends. Sadly for us, Bush is now president of the United States and is failing again on the global stage.
Chalk it up to bad habits.