Monday, 15 March 2010

“Presidential Command”, by Peter W. Rodman (Vintage)

Rodman-PresidentialCommandPower, Leadership, & the Making of Foreign Policy

An account from a Washington insider of how modern presidents have succeeded — and failed — in making foreign policy. An in-depth look at what actually happens in the Oval Office from a respected expert who has held high-level positions in several governments.

Illuminating the qualities of personal leadership that determine a president’s ability to guide his staff (character, determination, persuasiveness, and consistency), Rodman shows how these qualities shape policy and determine how policy is implemented.

Rodman’s tour through the past forty years recounts both high points and dismal lows, looking at each president since (and including) Richard Nixon, the first Chief Executive the author would serve. Rodman offers an original and telling survey of modern presidential policy-making, challenging many conventional accounts of events as well as many standard remedies.

A vivid story of larger-than-life Washington personalities in action, an invaluable guide for our new president, and a deeply insightful primer on executive leadership.

This is a very good book. Rodman’s prose are very accessible, yet detailed, offering plenty of insightful analysis to complement his fair historical treatment – all of which helps to remind us of the importance of a president’s vision for the world, his ability to make this vision a reality, as well as the forces within government that he must contend with.

After providing a short history of the Natonal Security Council and pre-Nixonian foreign policy-making, the author writes a long, largely sympathetic chapter about Nixon (who he worked for). Rodman shows how Nixon’s deep knowledge of the world combined with his personal paranoia to produce great victories (China) and deep failures (the demoralization of State and other departments).

Rodman then proceeds to work his way through the following administrations, up to George W. Bush, offering some advice for the next administration and an outline of what these seven administrations can teach us about US foreign policy. Gerald Ford is portrayed as someone who was far more in control than many people believed at the time.

He demonstrates how Carter suffered from his own indecisiveness, and how Reagan’s determined focus in dealing with the Soviets contrasted with his lack of attention to the Middle East, which helped lead to the disastrous events in Beirut. And, finally, he illustrates how George W. Bush put too much stock in bureaucratic consensus and, until the surge, failed to push hard enough for new strategies in Iraq.

The running theme throughout the book is the importance of presidential engagement in foreign policy and international relations. Regardless of the issues that confronted the seven chief executives covered, it was presidential engagement (or lack thereof) which led to success or failure in foreign policy. For Nixon, Reagan’s second term and Soviet policy, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton’s second term, especially, this was evident. Rodman does a magnificent job of detailing the decisions and players involved in each administration – how they broke with previous administrations, the continuities that existed, and the internal forces that helped make or break policies.

If I had one criticism (and I know I’m being rather presumptuous to offer criticism to someone as versed in foreign policy as Rodman), it would be the relative lack of China coverage in the book. Yes, the Nixon chapter covers the president and Kissinger’s overtures to Beijing and the subsequent opening of China (though not, I must say, in the depth that could have provided some great content). Later, there is no mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in George H.W. Bush’s chapter (it’s mentioned in Clinton’s chapter, for a little over a page). This I feel is a real shortcoming – given the importance of China to US relations today, this was unfortunate and surprising: Rodman must have acquired some interest in China, not to mention expertise, through the simple fact/act of working with Kissinger, not to mention having him as his PhD supervisor.

Despite this omission, however, Presidential Command is easily one of the best written, most incisive and accessible books on American foreign policy-making and the President’s place within it, as well as the forces he must battle against (the immovable bureaucracy frequently being a huge issue; but also himself), Presidential Command is essential reading for everyone with an interest (professional or personal, deep or passing) in the presidency and American foreign policy.

Very highly recommended.

Further Reading: Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power & The Modern Presidents (1991) ; Arthur Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (2004); Julian Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy (2010); Ivo Daalder & I.M. Destler, In The Shadow of the Oval Office (2009); Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (1995); Karl Inderfurth & Loch Johnson, Fateful Decisions (2004); David Rothkopf, Running the World (2006)

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