Egypt, Iraq and the Limits of Presidential Power

One of the enduring debates among presidency scholars is whether and to what degree presidents are more powerful in foreign than in domestic affairs. The answer, as you might expect, depends in large part on how one defines “power” and “foreign” affairs. I won’t bother taking you through the extended debate among scholars, much less deign to provide an answer (as with most complicated questions, the best response is “it depends”), but the intellectual roots of this controversy date back at least to a famous article published in 1966 by Aaron Wildavsky in which he claimed that presidents in fact wield much more power in foreign affairs, in part because they have a near monopoly on crucial information pertaining to international events and because there are fewer competing power centers within the foreign affairs bureaucracy.   Two recent events remind me of why I have long been skeptical of this portion of Wildavsky’s argument, and why I don’t think presidents view themselves as very powerful in foreign affairs at all. .

To begin, as most of you know, yesterday in Egypt (their time) it appeared that President Mubarak was poised to step down. Testifying today (our time) before the House Intelligence Committee, CIA director Leon Panetta seemed to confirm that expectation.  When Mubarak subsequently went on state television to announce that although he was relinquishing some, or all, of his powers, he was not stepping down, the CIA had to put out a public clarification noting that Panetta was reacting to news stories, and not basing his statements on any inside intelligence gathered by the CIA.  Panetta’s actions come on the heels of reported exasperation within the White House regarding the intelligence community’s failure to give any hint of the impending uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt.

Meanwhile, it is clear that the Obama administration is unsure of how to respond to the unrest in Egypt. Most noticeably, the President’s national security team and the State Department issued different responses to news stories reporting that Mubarak’s son had been removed from power and that Mubarak was ceding power to his new vice president Omar Suleiman. (Predictably news stories covering this internal debate focused on the role of Frank Wisner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unofficial Egyptian envoy who is also working with lobbying firm Patton Boggs – a firm that has Mubarak as a client. As I have written on many previous occasions, the divide between the White House and State Department is rooted in differing institutional vantage points more than in personalities – this runs deeper than Clinton/Wisner vs. Obama).

The second piece of evidence pertaining to the Wildavsky thesis came courtesy of my coauthor Andy Rudalevige, who forwarded me a link to documents released by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as part of the publicity tour associated with the publication of his memoirs Known and Unknown.   The partially redacted nine-page document from Rumsfeld to Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was declassified last month, and contains an assessment of the status of Iraq’s WMD (weapons of mass destruction) biological, chemical and nuclear programs. Its contents are succinctly summarized in Rumsfeld’s cover letter to Myers, which states, “Please take a look at this material as to what we don’t know about WMD.  It’s big.”  As it turned out, that knowledge gap regarding WMD’s was even bigger than Rumsfeld or the intelligence community surmised.

This, of course, was not the only intelligence summary that got the Iraq WMD issue wrong – declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate from that period show that in the collective judgment of the U.S. intelligence agencies Iraq did possess WMD’s. In reading Bush’s own memoirs, Decision Points, it’s not clear if the uncertainty associated with these intelligence estimates was correctly conveyed to him (“Slam Dunk” anyone?)  But he was clearly blindsided by the failure to find WMD’s – just as Obama has been blindsided by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

My point is not to defend Bush for acting on faulty intelligence, or to criticize the divisions within the Obama administration regarding how best to respond to the Egyptian crisis.  It is instead to point out something that is abundantly clear to anyone who spends even a modicum of time reviewing presidential archives pertaining to foreign policy decisions (as I have spent a good portion of the last decade doing): presidents may feel greater pressure to lead in foreign affairs, but their actual capacity to shape events in this sphere is distinctly limited – often more so than it is at home.  And, as Bush’s memoir reminds, presidents certainly don’t feel any more powerful in the international arena compared to the domestic one.  Indeed, the frustration is often greater in foreign affairs. This is in large part because, in contrast to the Wildavsky thesis, presidents are often acting on incomplete or even inaccurate information, and the foreign affairs (or national security) bureaucracy is no more monolithic or responsive to presidential direction than is its domestic counterpart.  Indeed, the notion that the president is “in charge” of the national security bureaucracy and can use that authority to act unilaterally in foreign affairs is, in my view, a dangerous perspective, in no small part because presidents quite naturally feel pressured to act on that misperception.  The end result of such unilateral efforts is often a weakening of their power base.

Already we are beginning to see an undercurrent of restlessness, especially among progressives, wondering why Obama hasn’t acted more forcefully to push Mubarak out. (Presumably they believe there is a happy medium located somewhere between toppling a ruler through invasion versus watching and waiting – but this leaves a very very large grey area for U.S. intervention).  We can’t be sure what behind-the-scenes steps Obama is taking, of course, but the complaints are a reminder that even in foreign affairs, presidents are not as powerful as we think they are or that they might wish to be.


  1. Matt,

    A different question might be, “Does a President appear more powerful in foreign v. domestic affairs?” Probably depends on the situation.

    However, if one assumes that information available to Presidents has a higher probability of being incorrect in foreign situations than with domestic situations, then it follows that how a President acts when confronting a foreign affairs crisis would relate to willingness to take on risk; risk of making a mistake, risk of appearing weak, risk of appearing stupid.

    My sense is that the opportunities to appear very powerful or very weak are greater in foreign affairs than in domestic, because decisions made with imperfect information will drive outcomes to the extremes.

    The latest news on Egypt suggests that the intelligence information was not incorrect, just a bit out of synch with the timing of Mubarak’s relinquishing of power. Perhaps the old man wanted to show he still had a little piss and vinegar left in him.

  2. Peter – Interesting observation, particularly the notion that presidents differ re: the amount of risk they are willing to take on. I think this is true – Bush made it clear that he was not interested in playing “small ball” and that he wanted to leave office having spent his political capital down. Obama, I suspect, is more cautious – at least his previous career suggests a tendency to adopt pragmatic, moderate actions.

    I’m intrigued by the idea that decisions made with imperfect information will drive outcomes to the extremes. Can you elaborate the logic behind this – how are you defining “extreme”? Away from the “true” state of affairs?

  3. Matt,

    By suggesting that outcomes would be driven to the extremes, I inelegantly am defining outcomes as the President being perceived as very weak or very strong on the basis of a decision made.

    When decisions are based on well documented facts and information, they are likely to require less “selling” on the part of the executive. Less selling, combined with a possibility that the public in general understands the issues, would result in a perception that the decision did not require great brilliance or strength. The results of the decisions may vary from poor to good.

    On the other hand, when decisions are made with imperfect information, where the stakes may not be clear to the public, the executive needs to push hard and put lots of skin in the game. Due to a high degree of uncertainty, the outcomes of decisions made with imperfect information will tend to run from the very bad to the very good, a wider range of perceived outcomes than when information was excellent. Couple the wider range of outcomes to a greater executive investment in political capital, and I see the President as having a higher probability of looking really strong and smart, or very weak and stupid.

  4. Peter – this is a really perceptive observation. I’m trying to think of other cases in which this reasoning applies. I guess it partly depends on how one defines a presidential “decision”. For example, Obama’s decision to – at least publicly – remain somewhat distant from the Egyptian uprising while urging restraint and reforms has sparked some concern that he wasn’t forceful enough, while others feel he went too far in pushing Mubarak to step down. In this case, it seems as if he decided not to decide one way or the other, but instead to let events run their course.

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