Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bush Tackles the Cuban Missile Crisis

As part of my research for a book I'm editing, which deals in part with decision making, I'm rereading a wonderful book called Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (Free Press, 1986). It was written by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, two academics and high-level government policy advisors, and I highly recommend it for the light it sheds on how effective decisions get made and on the right and wrong ways to go about tackling complex problems.

However, I was incidentally struck by one element from Neustadt and May's account of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which they discuss as an example of the value to decision-makers in time of stress of sophisticated historical awareness. They describe the make-up of ExComm, the hastily-assembled working group of six to ten key advisors chosen by Kennedy to deliberate in secret about what to do in response to Krushchev's placement of missiles in Cuba:

[Kennedy] included in ExComm men who did not have to be there. [Treasury Secretary Douglas] Dillion is one example. The Treasury Department had no title to representation . . . Since Dillon had been Under Secretary of State for Eisenhower and was the most conspicuous Republican in the subsequent Administration, Kennedy may have wanted him for the sake of seeming bipartisan. The same could hold true for his inviting former Defense Secretary Robert A. Lovett to join ExComm, for Lovett was a leader of New York's Republican establishment. Or Kennedy may have turned to Dillon and Lovett just because he valued their judgment. Whatever the case, he got as a bonus the benefit of long and wide-ranging experience.

And Neustadt goes on to detail the specific contributions to the debate that Dillon and Lovett made during the eight days of the crisis.

It's stunning to turn back the calendar by a generation or two and see how much has changed. Can you conceive of George W. Bush inviting two prominent Democrats, including a member of Clinton's administration, to be among the handful of people meeting with him in secret to make crucial decisions about Iraq or Iran? Even among Republicans, it's well known that the spectrum of opinions Bush is willing to hear is very narrow. And as you recall, when he invited past secretaries of state to visit the White House for a ceremonial photo op, he allowed almost no time for actual conversation, lest he be subjected to a point of view not his own.

I don't know about you, but I find it pretty scary to picture the people that Bush would gather around him if he had to tackle the Cuban missile crisis today.

I mustn't exaggerate Kennedy's wisdom. It was his team that soon got us into Vietnam (although historians still debate whether or not he would have gotten us back out if he'd lived).

Also, the changes since 1962 aren't purely personal. Back then we still had the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of the Cold War (a mixed blessing of course), which meant that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats wasn't as deep and wide as today.

But Neustadt was writing in 1986, by which time the Cold War was over and Reagan was in power, and he doesn't express any astonishment over Kennedy's bipartisanship in a time of crisis. Whereas today such openness seems unimaginable--yet another deplorable legacy of the Bush presidency.

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