Decision making at highest level

The Virginia Gazette

Retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served eight years at the side of Gen. Colin Powell as special assistant when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later as chief of staff during Powell's service as Secretary of State, is scheduled to be the speaker at the forthcoming public forum sponsored by The James City County Democratic Committee.

Col. Wilkerson will discuss presidential decision-making and the art of making the most difficult decisions of all, those that put young men and women in harm's way in the name of the state, according to a statement by James City County Democratic Committee. "Making such decisions is one of the ultimate measures of a president and his advisory team. Ultimately, such decisions inform the history and the very power of the nation."

Considering that Wilkerson has been at the center of decision making at the highest levels of the U. S. government for a long time, I asked him what his experience taught him.

Should a president in his decision making relay mostly on his close advisers or seek outside advice?

"In general, a president should do both. Trusted advisers, composed of a team that can offer the president its advice, is at the heart of the concept the National Security Council created by law, in 1947," Wilkerson said. "But as with any such a team of close, institutional advisors, over time these tend to offer views that are static, non-creative, and even sclerotic ... and thus contaminate decision-making. So, a president needs to have a network of people – subject matter experts, in academia, business, and elsewhere -- to whom he or she can reach out and gather views that are fresh, creative, and often challenge the views of the institutional advisory team"

Wilkerson cited President George H. W. Bush as a superb example in this respect. "While he solicited and often employed the advice of his trusted team of Jim Baker, Dick Cheney, Bob Gates, John Sununu, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft, he did not hesitate to reach out to business leaders, academicians, economic experts, etc., when he was making an important decision on domestic or international affairs. Moreover, Bush would frequently telephone leaders in London, Paris, Bonn, Moscow and elsewhere to solicit their advice and counsel before making a decision that might impact their countries."

I have also asked Wilkerson, who has spent 31 years in military service, which recent armed conflicts that involved American intervention would he classify as a success or failure. He used as an example of success, the First Gulf War.

"The First Gulf War, in 1990-91, resulted in real success," Wilkerson said. "Conflicts, such as Grenada in 1983, the 1986 raid on Libya, and the invasion of Panama in 1989 are hardly episodes that challenged the U. S. military. Thus, the First Gulf War has become a quintessential example of "doing it right." President Bush decided to kick the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait after that Army invaded Kuwait in an act of outright aggression."

Wilkerson pointed out that President Bush sought international legitimacy by going to the United Nations, by forming a formidable international coalition, including major Arab countries and limiting his political objectives to precisely that demanded by the U.N. The result was reversing the Iraqi aggression, a resounding military success, the maintenance of the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, and the restoration of the non-aggression principal of the United Nations.

Reflecting on previous armed conflict like the Korean War, Vietnam, the Second Gulf War, and Afghanistan, he said, "These are at best stalemates, and at worst tragic defeats. In each of these conflicts the circumstances and decision-making show similarities, bad decision-making, poor intelligence, and incompetent execution. But the overriding similarity is that the use of military force is not the best use of national power."

He added: "The nature of modern conflict is that there are rarely any winners, only those who lose less than others."

Frank Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place." The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and on Amazon.com

Want to go

When: Monday, Feb. 15, 7 p.m.

Where: Williamsburg Library

Free, open to the public

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