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The Islamic State group has unleashed a new set of coordinated terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and seeks to provoke deeper fear, hatred and militarization.

Unfortunately, it is succeeding.

As we tend to the victims and their families and reassure the shaken, the trumpets of war and exclusion are already elevating their sound in both Europe and the U.S. And maybe rightfully so, as it is indeed cathartic to lash back at those who have hurt us in despicable, devilish ways.

We in the West have a long history now of combating modern terrorism, dating back to at least the 1970s, continuing through the years after the 9/11 attacks, to the recent attacks in Paris and now Brussels. And we have learned some hard lessons. We should remember a few of them as we approach the precipice of a new phase in our reactions to the current threat.

First, violent reactions to terrorism must be focused, discriminate and carefully planned.

A general resort to war has been almost completely ineffective in Iraq and other regions, and overreaction fuels the resentments and recruitment of more terrorists. Excessive violence undermines more of our friends than our enemies. The best counterterrorism operations have been clearly targeted as law enforcement, not war, and when necessary, killing those who have committed and abetted the worst of the crimes.

We must also articulate our values and live up to them. Terrorism shines a spotlight on our societies and the frequent mistreatment of people, including immigrants. We are not responsible for the terrorists, but we aid their hatred when we act in hateful ways.

During the past decade, the rhetoric of intolerance in the United States, especially in Texas, has given false evidence to terrorist claims about our alleged tyranny of Muslims and other minorities. As we fight individual terrorists, we must flagrantly display how much we value, love and cherish the millions of good people who happen to share the same religion, ethnicity and background. We are not fighting a religion or a race. We are fighting criminals, and some of them are white Christians, too.

Finally, and most important, we must show patience. Quick reactions have almost always failed to produce their promised results. Time is on our side, and we should use it to investigate, understand and plan before we react. We are better off absorbing another terrorist attack and preparing more effectively to interdict the terrorists, rather than overreacting and creating a multiplying effect of new terrorist threats down the road.

Despite the fear and suffering, the basic security of our society is not imperiled as it was by Soviet missiles during the Cold War. We are best served by addressing the core sources of criminality rather than locking down to anticipate the next fire. We must play the long game because that is our greatest interest and our greatest advantage.

The fear of terrorism is real and legitimate. Strategic leadership, however, must do more than react to fear. Strategic leadership involves deep analysis, historical perspective and policymaking for the long term.

We must use all of our capabilities, but we must use them wisely and effectively. Feel-good reactions are self-defeating and play into the terrorists’ hands. Courage comes in careful planning, close attention to our values, and considered timing. In the end, we will be judged by how we react more than how we have suffered.

This article originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, 22 March 2016

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No modern president has been prepared for the responsibilities of office. The leader of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is much more than a CEO, a general, or a party leader. The American president is closer to a mythological figure, expected to rise above normal human limitations and manage a constant barrage of local and international problems. The pace is breathless, even on the quietest day, and the stakes are enormous, even for the smallest decisions. Nearly every waking hour is monumental for the president of the United States. Mere mortals do not live (or survive) in these circumstances.

Despite the crushing intensity, the president is expected to be ever-ready for crises and forward-thinking for strategy; deeply connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force. Although no human being can do all the things expected of the president, each individual elected to this mighty office must claim that he or she can. The sensationalist rhetoric of social media only reinforces that unrealistic claim. Like the power of the Greek gods, the promise of the presidency always exceeds what is possible.

Every president struggles with this gap between promise and possibility. Some try to leverage an ever-larger group of advisers, others seek to centralize authority with a small set of loyalists. Most do a little of both, relying on their own energy, insight, and instincts to differentiate which issues require attention at a given moment. Bill Clinton, with his enormous intellectual capabilities, was the master of ad hoc leadership. In a matter of hours (sometimes very late night hours), he could become an expert on the smallest policy details, understand their interconnection, and sell a new initiative to diverse audiences with unparalleled clarity. He remains the greatest policy entrepreneur of his generation.

But that was not enough. In his first year, President Clinton was blindsided by crises in Yugoslavia, Russia, Somalia, and Rwanda that he initially under-estimated, and then misunderstood. For all his focus on domestic issues, especially the economy, Clinton also struggled to manage racial conflict and other social issues at home in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and the urban riots that preceded his election. In his own words, Clinton was an extraordinary maneuverer and “counter-puncher,” but that left his leadership short of national (and international) expectations. Even he was overwhelmed, beaten down, and humbled in his first White House year.

No president will ever escape the gap between the expectations of the office and the limitations of the individual. The way to begin, however, is to replace denial with frank recognition that presidents are destined to fail more than they succeed. To conduct an effective presidency, the next holder of the office must choose his or her battles carefully, conserve energy, and direct maximum effort at the issues that really matter most. Less is more and planned disciplined, rather than rapid maneuvering, is absolutely crucial.

Presidents must have priorities that they connect closely with policy. Ideology is not enough. Nor is energy and determination. To manage the impossible, the effective American president enters office ready to formulate a strategy that allocates overtaxed time and resources to things that will matter most for his or her conception of the national interest. Keeping less important issues off the presidential agenda is absolutely essential, and that involves discipline and delegation.

In his best moments, when working to reduce the deficit and stimulate the economy, Clinton followed this model. In his worst moments, when hopping from one foreign policy crisis to another, he did not. The next president would do well to study this experience.

This post originally appeared at: http://firstyear2017.org/blog/leading-the-impossible-presidency (26 January 2016).

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of seven books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.

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