Just when we thought we knew everything about how to manage crises, another book comes out to change our minds. Or it has less to do with our minds, but more to do with how history views events. In a hundred years, George Bush may be touted as a genius (I doubt it) and Kennedy may simply be adored as a lucky gambler (possible).
Last week, an article in the Washington Post by Michael Dobbs dispels some myths about the heroic efforts of Kennedy and his team during the crucial minutes of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He noted how surprisingly little the White House knew about the events on the ground and at sea, how the military misread the strength of the Russian contingency in Cuba (including the existence of nuclear tipped cruise missiles that could have destroyed Gitmo), and how the generals were all advising Kennedy to invade Cuba. That he stubbornly refused could have been traced to his reading of a book—The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman-- that depicted how World War I started.
In a NY Times Op-Ed piece, David Brooks claims that George Bush’s stubbornness may have resulted in the only right decision of the Iraq War—The Surge. Iraq is arguably safer, more stable, and may even have a chance as a result of the surge. That he ignored most of his senior advisors could be viewed as his brilliance as a leader, or that, in the words of an old Japanese saying, “If you fire a gun enough times, you’ll eventually hit something.” Brooks argues that Bush’s adversaries give him some credit for his luck.
The common theme from both of these articles seems to be that crisis management is largely art. There are few right decisions or right judgments, since ultimately, the only appropriate judge of a decision’s correctness is the outcome. And what makes it even more difficult is that the outcome is often undetermined for a long time.
In the game of poker, professionals often say, “well, I went in with the best hand,” when they make a move to either go all-in or to call one. But one wrong card, and that move could mean the end of his tournament life.
What’s the lesson in all of this?
“I’d rather be lucky than good.”