Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Bush-Rumsfeld legacy

Assessing presidential legacies is risky. They evolve over time as events unfold long after the actors leave the stage. Ronald Reagan’s legacy was in doubt when he left office in January of 1989. The collapse of of the Soviet Union and then the performance of the military in Gulf War I ratified his most controversial foreign policies and turned a former actor into a visionary statesman.

Often legacies hinge on decisions that have little to do with the matters that leaders are most remembered for. Lincoln is the Great Emancipatorthe man who ended slavery after a terrible war. Yet he is remembered as such only because he found Grant in 1863. With Grant he got Sherman. Grant was the strategic genius who won the war, but Sherman was the general who took Atlanta in 1864 and secured Lincoln’s re-election.

It is quite possible that without Sherman’s victories Lincoln would have lost to McClellan. We (in the North) might remember Lincoln as the divisive, ineffective bumpkin whose ineptitude and meddling wasted hundreds of thousands of lives in an ill-considered war that ruined all chances of a political settlement.

The Bush-Rumsfeld years hinge on two similar failures. First, they could never define the strategic-military key to the situation in Iraq. They never found the equivalent of Vicksburg and Atlanta: those battles that made victory inevitable. Second, Bush never found his Sherman or Grant: the generals who could win those decisive battles.

Those two tasksdefining the key to victory and finding the men to win it-- are crucial but they are also inter-related and messy. Roosevelt found Marshall and it was with Marshall’s advice that he forged the grand strategy for World War II. Lincoln shuffled through a half dozen generals before he found Grant. Churchill appointed and relieved more than that before he found the right men and had them in the right place.

Bush has been notably quiescent on that score. He stuck with Rumsfeld and Rice and treated his military commanders as though they were interchangeable functionaries.

That, too, may be a result of his MBA training. Harvard case studies are big on analysis and decision. They ratify the conventional wisdom and promote a safe uniformity of opinion. What they do not do is capture the importance of the singular individual. A good pre-HAPW MBA will select Bradley over Patton every time; Grant and Sherman will never make the cut if a Burnside or McClellan is available.

See also:
Eating our seed corn

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