Monday, April 15, 2002

Is Bush going wobbly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, appeasing radical Arabs by putting unjustified pressure on Israel? Or is he engaging in a clever "rope-a-dope" strategy, making meaningless diplomatic gestures to placate fussy Europeans and Arabs while tacitly giving Israel a green light to take care of its terrorism problem as it sees fit? That's the debate convulsing conservative circles these days. Andrew Sullivan and "Instapundit" Glenn Reynolds are in the "rope-a-dope" camp; George Will, Bill Kristol, Jeff Jacoby and Michael Ledeen suspect otherwise (although they're careful to target Powell rather than Bush himself). Mark Steyn is on the fence.

Of course, all of these people are pundit types: academics, journalists, political operatives--the kind of folks who, as Michael Kinsley has recently pointed out, don't have a clue what being a manager is all about. In their eyes, the president, as an executive, makes decisions, and they're just trying to figure out whether he's made the right one.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, really is a manager, by nature, training and experience, and he understands what pundits, who thrive on decisive opinions (however rashly embraced) don't: a good manager avoids making a major decision unless it's clearly correct and overwhelmingly supported by both superiors and subordinates. Pundits aren't really accountable for their missed predictions and horrible advice, but the real-world cost--both personal and organizational--of an executive's mistaken "bet the farm" decision can be devastating. Thus, when faced with a controversial dilemma that pits multiple factions of subordinates and superiors against each other, a careful manager gives encouraging hints to all factions, so that they will each work hard to demonstrate the superiority of their preferred path, confident that the manager is actually pulling for them to win. Then, once it becomes blatantly obvious which faction has demonstrated its correctness, the manager simply falls in line with the winners, professing to have supported them all along.

And that's clearly how the president has been handling the latest crisis in the Middle East. Had Colin Powell returned to the US with solid commitments from regional leaders to support a campaign against Iraq in return for an immediate Israeli withdrawal, while revelations of Israeli atrocities prompted harsh retribution from the Europeans and huge protests in the streets of Tel Aviv against a suddenly-deeply-unpopular prime minister, you can bet that Bush would be laying down the law to Sharon right now, demanding a complete pullout as of yesterday and threatening all manner of punishment for any delay. As it turned out, though, Powell got the bum's rush from America's Arab so-called allies, the Europeans confined themselves to their trademark tasteless harrumphing about ill-bred Jews, and the crowds in the streets of Tel Aviv--and Washington--are marching in support of Sharon, not against him. All of this makes Bush's decision (for now) a no-brainer, and the president's rhetoric about withdrawal has accordingly been toned down to the level of a whisper--where it was all along, he (now) claims.

Pundits and other fantasists will no doubt decry this managerial style as "incoherent", "mealy-mouthed" or "disingenuous"; but the real-world truth is that an American president involved in a worldwide war against terrorism can't afford to blow his credibility on snap decisions that backfire. And those of us opinion-mongers who have true confidence in the practical superiority of our prescriptions are not afraid to have skeptical executives hold them up to the harsh scrutiny of empirical trial.

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