The next president will face a world in turmoil, and the first months of a new presidency can be an especially complicated moment. It is then that the new president is most vulnerable. The new chief executive will be untested, inexperienced, and will not yet have built up a strong team of advisers. History suggests that if national security problems occur—and they will—the new president will struggle to meet the challenge.
The Miller Center’s First Year project examined the first-year national security record of five key presidents (Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 41, and Bush 43). We asked five historians and two policy experts to extract lessons from past presidencies that might help the next administration “see around the corner” in preparing to deal with national security and foreign policy.
View the detailed cases studies.
While every presidency differs in the nature of the crises confronting the country, we found presidents often face many of the same management and leadership problems when dealing with national security crises in their first year.
There are five keywords that can assist the new chief executive in preparing to lead the world in a time of great crisis. They are: Goals, Staff, Information, Focus, and Restraint.
Presidents must know before they enter the Oval Office what they want to accomplish in foreign policy, and communicate those goals effectively to the bureaucracy and to the public.
Our project shows that perhaps the best at this was the great communicator, Ronald Reagan: what did he want to do? To end the Cold War and maybe eliminate nuclear weapons. At the time his advisers thought that unrealistic. Reagan didn’t. He stuck with his broad ambitions, with of course dramatic effects.
By contrast, Bill Clinton was not very good at this. He used inflated rhetoric about engaging civil society but provided few specifics and did not think about foreign policy much at all before he took office. And his presidency suffered for it.
Why does this matter? Because in the first months, a new president will be assaulted by many crises, both domestic and foreign, and will over-react, tend to jump on the first crisis that appears, and see it as a test case of his skill. But this can lead to trouble and confusion, and draw you away from your main goals.
Probably the hardest thing a new president has to do is transition from the campaign to the work of governing.
During the campaign, the candidate listens to political advisers and campaign staffers. But after the election, a new expert team has to be created. Who is going to be the president’s point person on foreign affairs? Will that person be a member of the inner circle and have the president’s ear? Will he share the president’s goals?
A lot of good presidents handle the staff issue badly in the first year.
John Kennedy appointed Dean Rusk as Secretary of State. Rusk was a cautious, mild-mannered professional who never really had much heft in the Cabinet. The much stronger personalities of McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara were able to circumvent and overshadow Rusk. This lack of clear roles for the staff weakened the team and hurt the president.
George W. Bush made precisely the same error: he appointed Colin Powell to State, but gave the real power over national security matters to his Vice President, Dick Cheney, and his Defense Secretary, Don Rumsfeld. Both Presidents Kennedy and Bush 43 were not well served by having divisions within the national security team.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan made a bad choice in selecting Al Haig as his Secretary of State; and he compounded the mistake by not getting rid of Haig fast enough when it was clear he disagreed with Reagan’s main foreign policy objectives. But Reagan corrected the mistake by bringing on board the best Secretary of State since Dean Acheson: George Shultz.
So finding the right people, making sure they share your goals, and giving them power and authority within the bureaucracy: this is crucial to First Year success.
A new president and his/her staff must know: How does the president get information? Not just classified intelligence, but other sources of information as well? Then, what does he do with it? How is policy developed? How is it implemented?
One of the more interesting themes that ran through the essays pointed out that the actual way the “policy sausage” is made is now broken. In the 1950s under Eisenhower, it worked well. A powerful NSC, chaired weekly by the president, read and discussed policy papers, and then assigned implementation to specific officers. In the Kennedy years, this kind of rigid planning was tossed away. Kennedy liked to improvise. The result was lack of clarity and implementation.
The problem was not adequately addressed until George H.W. Bush and his National Security team, led by Brent Scowcroft, imposed order, and above all, put only the really important issues on the president’s desk. But then Bush focused on them, in detail, and gave key issues his personal stamp. It has also been reported in our essays that Robert Gates was among the most gifted formulators of policy proposals because he knew how to think through the process and get key issues before the president in a clear and precise manner.
Information is power. The president has to have the best possible bureaucratic system to provide well-thought out policy proposals – and alternatives – so that he or she can make well-informed decisions. As of today, much of this system has become bloated, inefficient and unreliable, as the presidency of George W. Bush tragically revealed in the debate in 2002-2003 before the Iraq War.
The pressure on the president to attend to domestic policies and constituencies is very strong right after an election. Presidents are elected to solve American crises, not global ones. Yet unless he or she focuses equally on foreign policy and national security, bad things will happen. Presidents must integrate foreign policy and strategic thinking into their list of priorities. Crises will come: the key is to anticipate them.
Bill Clinton wanted to focus only on domestic issues like health care and welfare reform. He failed to think about places like Bosnia, or Rwanda, or Somalia, or Haiti—but these places would create major problems for him in his early years. Likewise, George W. Bush before 9/11 had been thinking mainly about education and faith-based initiatives. He failed to attend adequately to the growing terrorist crisis.
The lesson: Remember to think about foreign policy, even when the people want you to address domestic issues.
Sometimes, wait. Do not overreact.
Compare the two Bushes: Bush 41 demonstrated strategic patience. He knew the value of waiting for developments to unfold. The Cold War was unravelling in 1989. Why push things along even faster? To do so might encourage a Soviet reaction. Bush 41 proved a master of restraint.
But Bush 43, following the 9/11 attacks, wanted to demonstrate resolve and ferocity. Having destroyed the terrorists’ base of operations in Afghanistan, he wanted to do more. He was impatient and determined to use the 9/11 crisis to destroy other possible enemies. The result was an invasion of Iraq that caused the United States a great deal of trouble. Bush 41’s patience proved the better path.
Some of these observations sound like common sense. And they are.
But common sense is in short supply in the first year of a new president because of the glow of victory and the lack of experience. These five keywords can help a new president avoid some of the typical rookie mistakes that have tripped up many previous presidents.
William I. Hitchcock is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and Director of Academic Programs at the Miller Center.