"We're never going to get people all in agreement about force and use of force. But action -- confident action that will yield positive results -- provides kind of a slipstream into which reluctant nations and leaders can get behind." So spoke President Bush in a reflective interview with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward. The syntax is characteristically challenged, but the idea expressed is exactly right. And many, many presidents, including the past two, have often failed to grasp it.
Woodward's series on George W. Bush's handling of the presidency post-Sept. 11 makes for very interesting reading because it sheds some light on the combination of qualities that make some men good leaders. These traits are not always evident from a resume (though George Bush's resume, which included Yale undergrad, Harvard business school and governor of Texas, was just fine).
Woodward recounts, mostly through National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice's eyes, an early challenge during the Afghanistan campaign. It was two weeks into the war, and the Northern Alliance was making no progress. Pundits, including respected conservative opinion makers, were calling for a more aggressive strategy. Sen. John McCain was demanding American ground troops. The press was full of lament and hand-wringing, and The New York Times predicted a Vietnam-like "quagmire." Even Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, an ally (sort of), told Peter Jennings on television that the United States was headed into a dead end. More worrying were reports from Afghanistan showing that Taliban strength at the front was increasing.
When Rice briefed the president, she reported the rumblings of dissatisfaction and even hand-wringing within the government. As is her job, she offered that "there is always the thought that you could use more Americans in this. You could Americanize this upfront." The president was calm. "It hasn't been that long," he said, noting that American participation in the fighting had been initiated only 18 days before.
The following day, the president focused his national security council, which includes Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as Rice and CIA Director George Tenet, on staying the course. First, he asked each person in the room if he or she remained confident of the plan they'd all had a hand in putting into place. Each said yes. He then asked if anyone had new ideas to put on the table. All said no. Bush then repeated what he had told Rice in private: "We need to be patient," he said. "We're entering a difficult phase. The press will seek to find divisions among us. ... We've been at this only 19 days. ... We've got to be steady and cool. Don't let the press panic us."
That turned out to be the wise course. Rice told Woodward it was one of the key moments in the presidency thus far. If the president had signaled doubt, the war Cabinet would have run off in a million different directions coming up with alternatives instead of honing the plan they had and making it work. The situation called for steady nerves, and that's what Bush provided. "A president has got to be the calcium in the backbone," Bush said. "If I weaken, the whole team weakens. If I'm doubtful, I can assure you there will be a lot of doubt." We don't yet know whether he has the complementary gift of knowing when to depart from a plan that isn't working and improvise, but one suspects that he does.
Being an effective president requires so much more than mere intelligence. It requires an ability to manage people and get the best from them -- and when dealing with the hefty egos who nearly always surround the president of the United States, this can be daunting. It requires terrific self-confidence and the ability to inspire others. It also requires the kind of humility that permits a man to heed good advice, and the judgment to know it when he hears it.
Though he asks lots of questions about details and is known as an exacting boss, Bush stays focused on the big picture. "The vision thing matters," he said, in an oblique reference to his dad's troubles in office. And the vision Bush pursues is vast in scope. He sees the United States as a liberator -- a conqueror not of nations, but only of tyrants.