A friend of mine values competence. You should hear her post-action remarks when she observes or encounters incompetent people – people who ought to know how to do their job, and do not. She builds to a rhythm of indignation that reminds you what is at stake when people are incompetent. You don’t just see unnecessary mistakes, but a whole array of bad results that didn’t have to happen. Even minimal competence results in far better outcomes. Think of surgeons and airline pilots.
Why we want smart leaders, or say we want them, is something of a mystery. Many good leaders have average intelligence; many poor leaders have stronger intellects.
I first started writing about presidential competence shortly after 2002, when George W. Bush showed he did not have basic skills required to do his job. His opponents kept saying how dumb he was, but that was not the problem at all. He had more than enough intelligence to perform the tasks required of presidents. The job in fact does not require an excess of intellect, as many presidents of average intelligence have shown. Why we want smart leaders, or say we want them, is something of a mystery. Many good leaders have average intelligence; many poor leaders have stronger intellects.
So what did George W. Bush lack? He lacked judgment, curiosity, maturity, ability to learn from mistakes. He also lacked a basic grasp of relationships between military actions and political aims, nor did he have political judgment that accompanies these perceptions. He did not know how to use observations to guide his plans. More importantly, he did not know he lacked these skills, so he did not seek them in other people. His senior advisors could not compensate for his deficiencies, as he surrounded himself with people who had the same weaknesses he did.
So what did George W. Bush lack? He lacked judgment, curiosity, maturity, ability to learn from mistakes.
I would not describe President Obama the same way, but he and his foreign policy team – especially the group inside the White House – showed they were amateurs throughout the eight years he held office. He did not care enough about foreign policy to develop the skills he needed, either in himself or in his team. From the day he took his oath of office, he focused his energy on domestic policy. That showed a fundamental misunderstanding of his job.
No one comes into the office with skills required to lead foreign policy. Presidents learn them only on the job. To see a president make beginner mistakes after eight years leads one to ask: “Are you just not interested? Don’t you care how people regard your time or your contributions?” Only the president can lead foreign policy. Only the president’s top lieutenants can execute it. How President Obama could reach the end of his presidency with the same level of skill he had at the beginning indicates he just didn’t see foreign policy as that important.
The world has entered a highly unsteady state, with no nation to enforce norms.
Now we have another beginner in the White House. Whatever happens during the next year and a half, that is about how much time Trump has to learn his job – all of it. He has shown no qualities – through his character or in the things he has said – to indicate his performance as a leader will be better than George W.’s or Obama’s. He is too egoistic to do what leaders need to do.
The world has entered a highly unsteady state, with no nation to enforce norms. In this environment, we need need good foreign policy leadership in Washington. We need a president who knows what he does not know. We need someone who has good judgment: someone like Lao Tzu, who can stay in the background while he draws adversaries into mistakes. Donald Trump’s egoism assures all of us, every day, that he is not like Lao Tzu. We can only wait patiently to see what new misjudgments, misperceptions, and other errors lie beyond our current apprehension.