Last night, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared on the Daily Show to discuss his new book, Known and Unknown. Through the jostling back and forth between the architect of the Iraq war kerfuffle and the critic, one cannot help noticing the theme that being too sure of yourself can have negative consequences. About a month ago, I read George W. Bush’s memoir, I unfortunately have not gotten the chance to read Rummy’s. Most of the Bush’s work is filled with anecdotes and low points of despair from the former commander in chief. Even the title Decision Points implies a certain amount of hubris when making decisions. Bush was often called the “Decider” and known for his “Gut Thinking,” which might have gotten him into a trouble a few times.
The motto of the Bush administration, as fully exemplified in the Rumsfeld-Stewart interview, was that of reaching a decision, going with it, and never turning back to question that decision. If the decision was questioned you could always just pull the sin of omission by uttering the words “I don’t recall” during congressional testimony. Total self assurance is not a new theme to the presidency. The sainted conservative figure Ronald Reagan had similar characteristics. Every few years, the American electorate wants completely reassured leaders, probably for public comfort. Then, they grow weary of such nonsense and elect leaders who try to split the bill and don’t take a black and white view of the world.
Enter President Barack Obama. He is a person who comes from academia and has a habit of seeing grey areas, especially on foreign policy. Not surprisingly, conservatives attack the the president for his shrewd questioning of the world as it is. Look at Egypt, the president was not quick to ask for Hosni Mubarak to step aside until the final day because he was unsure what might happen. In Libya, the President has not called for the eccentric Moamar Quaddafi to go into exile for another fear of a power vacuum.
His lack of courage to stand up against the Middle East autocracy has not hurt him. 66% of Americans supported his Egypt policy. Granted, that was one scenario. If the president continues to dawdle on criticizing dictators his rating probably will start to plummet. Why? The American people like decisive action at some point. They elected Bush for that reason and then they got sick of it. ”Sureness” ebbs and flows as a policy, but the right balance must be struck with each president. I fear Obama’s doctrine of silence and non-interference may be open season for the GOP in 2012, especially if true democracy happens.
In his defense, it is not easy to have a strong policy, or be like the former president in being 110% sure all the time, but a lack of strong will can be just as damning as being to strong willed.