When Don Rumsfeld dragged Syria into the spotlight recently by complaining about arms shipments to Iraq, I assumed he was articulating a worrying new policy of the Bush administrationâ€™s. The development suggested that even after Iraq had been dealt with the axis of evil would continue to have three members, with Syria drafted to take Iraq’s place.
The timing of the remarks was also ill-considered, since any deterrent value the administration might have hoped to squeeze from the threat was easily outweighed by a predictable backlash to the remarks. This is a delicate moment, as the world digests news of civilian casualties in Iraq and decides anxiously how to respond to a newly aggressive U.S. Aggressive rhetoric always does damage to the standing of the U.S. in the world, but never so much as when it comes in the middle of a major conflict.
Whatâ€™s more, it was never really necessary to balance the desire to deter Syria against the threat of a backlash, since the administration might have communicated its displeasure privately instead of publicly, and so made a positive gain without paying for it in unfortunate consequences.
Yet through all this I assumed it was the administration’s policy, worked out within the administration, and approved by it.
So I assumed until I read a recent piece in the New York Times. It begins as follows:
WASHINGTON, April 5 â€” Shortly after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld issued a stark warning to Iran and Syria last week, declaring that any “hostile acts” they committed on behalf of Iraq might prompt severe consequences, one of President Bush’s closest aides stepped into the Oval Office to warn him that his unpredictable defense secretary had just raised the specter of a broader confrontation.
Mr. Bush smiled a moment at the latest example of Mr. Rumsfeld’s brazenness, recalled the aide. Then he said one word â€” “Good” â€” and went back to work.
If this is true, then we should be concerned about more than flawed policy. We should also be concerned about the way the Bush administration arrives at policy decisions.
We shouldn’t doubt that it’s policy that Rumsfeld is making in his rash and unilateral way (and so we find a new way to criticize the administration for being unilateral!) Comments like Rumsfeldâ€™s make policy because they help to define the U.S.â€™s official position, and by doing so, significantly constrain options available to it in the future.
Now, I donâ€™t mean to suggest that anything is settled for once and for all as soon as Rumsfeld has spoken on the matter. I mean that public statements of this sort are an important part of the way matters like this do get settled. You can guarantee that when Syria figures in the new debates over policy, hawks will underline ‘credibility’ as a major concern, and Rumsfeld’s comments – off the cuff or not – will play an important role in defining what credibility requires. And of course, by raising the temperature diplomatically, such remarks often help to bring about the crisis they warn of.
This lack of coordination between key players and responsible oversight of the administration as a whole is reminiscent of Reagan’s whitehouse, and many of the same objections apply to it. It was often said in Reaganâ€™s defense that although he was no great shakes as a thinker, he had a broad vision which gave his administration coherence, and an ability to delegate, which ensured that his broad vision was implemented properly.
Itâ€™s true that Reagan had a broad (though deeply flawed) vision, and also that his administration accomplished quite a bit that was compatible with that vision. But accounts of Reaganâ€™s administration show pretty clearly that this wasnâ€™t enough. Infighting in the Reagan administration was intense, and this partly reflected the fact that any broad vision always needs to be worked out in considerable detail before it becomes effective policy. When the details overwhelm the intellectual powers of the guy calling the shots, no grand vision can save the resulting policy from incoherence and crippling contradiction. And one feature of such administrations is that players within it come to rely increasingly on leaks and preemptive announcements to make policy.
It’s also important to see what kind of policy Rumsfeld is formulating. Recall for a moment that Rumsfeld is not the Secretary of State. Heâ€™s supposed to be in charge of defense and his job is not to run foreign policy, or even to formulate it. It would be worrying â€“ excuse me – it is worrying, when Colin Powell tries to formulate policy by unilaterial pronouncement, but at least we have the consolation of knowing that formulating foreign policy is part of his official job description.
It’s true that Rumsfeld was commenting on a military matter, but the decision to threaten another country is properly a diplomatic one. So it’s no excuse to say that Bush was acting consistently with his general approach, which is to provide considerable freedom to his top officials to exercise their own judgement. This wasn’t Rumsfeld’s decision to make in the first place, and there’s nothing in Bush’s management philosophy to excuse this kind of departmental cross-dressing. (And what good is a management philosophy if you don’t have the brains to notice that an underling isn’t following it?)
None of this is to suggest, of course, that Syriaâ€™s violation of the sanctions regime is excusable. The administration has a point that many of the fiercest critics of the current war had done the least to uphold the sanctions regime that was supposed to be a credible alternative to the war. And at the top of the list of no-nos are weapons. Much of the force of American criticism on this, however, is undermined by the selectivity of the complaint. Syria was not alone in its misdeeds, and when criticism which applies broadly to many countries comes piecemeal and aimed at one, it looks like a pretext to send a warning signal, rather than a principled objection. Anyway, it looks like small potatoes, militarily. If you want an example of outrageous military shipments to an international pariah state, think of the Iran-Contra affair.