Sunday, October 18, 2009

McNamara, Again

In his last extensive interview, offered to the Washington Post in August 2007, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who died in July, lashes out at President Johnson for failing to listen to his advice about Vietnam. It was too early for the Post to apply McNamara's insights about Vietnam to President Obama's agonized reappraisal of the Afghanistan war, though the reporters, Bob Woodward and Gordon M. Goldstein, sum up as follows:

The debate now unfolding -- in the White House, in Congress and in the public square -- about the way ahead in Afghanistan is one that McNamara and Bundy, given their efforts late in life to come to terms with Vietnam, would have no doubt followed with keen interest. In his final interview, McNamara was asked how a country truly learns from its mistakes. "I think you break" from replicating history, he said, "by writing thoughtful retrospective reviews of what we've done in the past that may apply to the current situation or the future."

Fair enough. But I wish I read as much about what Democratic congressional leaders could have done in 1973-75 to save South Vietnam as I do ritualistic flagellations of Johnson and McNamara for what they did in escalating the war. The war wasn't lost until it was lost, after the Watergate Congress systematically set about to deprive our allies of bullets. As a matter of fact, there's a lesson in that for Obama, too.

Hat tip to Maarja Krusten


MK said...

What I found most interesting was the discussion of information flow and decision making. Whether it is LBJ or RN or any of their successors, in discussions issues with his senior advisors and staff, the President is dealing with at-will employees. He can fire the people around him at a moment’s notice. He needs to get the right type of information and pushback but in managerial terms, creation of the right environment for that depends in large part on the executive himself. What a burden to place on any man’s shoulders, especially one who takes office after an often brutal campaign to win the job.

The article notes that “Bundy criticized Johnson's manipulation of the deliberations over the war. The president ‘wants to be seen having careful discussions, and he does indeed want to hear what everybody is saying," Bundy observed. . . .Strategy meetings and conversations on the war were a facade, Bundy said. "The principal players do not engage in anything you can really call an exchange of views. . . . That was prevented by him, and the process he used was really for show and not for choice.’

The discussions Johnson valued most, Bundy believed, occurred privately and reflected his instincts as a dealmaker and consensus-builder. . . .Johnson's shifting political calculations were often opaque even to his closest advisers, Bundy despaired, compromising the way the president engaged with his senior military and civilian counselors. "The process of decision, explanation and defense is unsatisfactory, frustrating, destructive and impossible to fix," he concluded in one of the dozens of plaintive notes he wrote for an unpublished memoir, a book he struggled with before dying of a heart attack at age 77

. . . .As McNamara looked back at the pivotal decisions to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he recalled Johnson's resistance to confronting his advisers. "I am absolutely positive that most leaders wish to avoid confrontation among their senior people, particularly in front of them," McNamara said. "And that's a serious weakness. I think every leader should force his senior people to confront major issues in front of him."

So much at stake, yet so much depends on relationships in which the boss can fire subordinates whenever he wants. It’s a job which, to have decision making work out well, in terms of management science, you need a President who has a high Emotional Intelligence Quotient, can sense when people are not giving him what he needs, understands how the players react to him and why, and can draw from them what is needed for good decision making. To say nothing of having a good staffing system in the White House itself, with a chief of staff and other senior staff who act as honest brokers in dealing with top officials and with paper flow.

And, nowadays, at the same time, having a press operation which depends on a press secretary going out every day and doing gaggles and press briefings designed to assure the public that all is going well and the President and his team “are doing the people’s business.” All while political operatives on both sides who often take potshots at each other rather than saying, “you know what, some of this just is hard.” No management expert would set up an organization to work quite that way but that’s the way things often works at the highest level of the executive branch. Just another reminder that it really comes down to people. What a fascinating world in which to try to resolve high stakes issues!

Fr. John said...

Thanks. MK. I'm wondering about the stress points between:

-- The kind of rational, authentic media profile you describe and the imperatives of a partisan environment.

-- A leader's EIQ and his or her capacity for being decisive, even ruthless when the nation faces an existential threat.

-- A President's need for plain speech from advisers and the powerful dynamics that swirl around the most powerful human being in the world.