Lessons for the Modern-Day President
The experience of the past three decades offers vital lessons to President Bill
Clinton and other U.S. leaders as they make foreign policy and manage
international crises in a television age:
- Television offers presidents a superior weapon for framing issues and
selling policy in crisis. From Kennedy and Cuba to Bush and Somalia, the
access to television time afforded a president and the extent to which the
White House can help to shape television coverage give a president an important
advantage in dealing with a foreign crisis.
- Television also amplifies public opposition; most presidents forget it,
but this can improve and strengthen policy. Television coverage of antiwar
movements during Indochina and the preparations for the Gulf War, for example,
forced presidents and Congress toward greater clarity and candor, which, in the
end, benefited those leaders and the democratic process.
- Television can encourage presidents to favor crisis management over
long-term planning. Because television focuses on the tangible and the
dramatic, it rewards crisis management over crisis prevention.
- Television can drastically reduce the time, secrecy, and calm available to a
president for deliberating with advisers on an urgent foreign problem. No
future president will have the leisure that Kennedy had to think about the
Soviet missiles in Cuba, but presidents should seriously consider buffering the
early decision-making process as much as possible.
- Presidents cannot presume that they can maintain a monopoly on information
for long. Thanks in part to television, just as a Kennedy in 1993 could not
keep the missiles secret for six days, Bush could not expect to keep the shape
and timing of the initial attack on Baghdad secret for long.
- Television allows presidents to communicate with adversary leaders and
populations. Just as Kennedy spoke to the Cuban people and Ford spoke to the
Cambodians, Bush tried to use CNN and other networks to influence Saddam
Hussein and his people.
- Television can seriously affect relations with allies. Had Saddam learned
from television of the American deployment in Saudi Arabia before it was
announced, the troops and the Saudis could have been badly endangered. Had
Israelis not seen the effectiveness of the Patriot on television, they might
not have been so willing to stay out of the Gulf War.
- LBJ's notion that Vietnam was lost on television is questionable. Americans
tolerated five years of a television war; it is equally plausible that the
public grew inured to the televised bloodshed.
- Nonetheless, experience suggests that it is in a president's interest to
design U.S. military ventures to be as brief and telegenic as possible. Since
it is hard to argue that the bloodshed necessarily strengthens public support
for war making and since the modern attention span is ever shorter, a president
benefits from brevity and bloodlessness.
- Presidents shouldn't obsess themselves in public over hostages. Beware the
negative lesson of Jimmy Carter and Iran, and honor the positive lesson of
George Bush and Iraq: minimizing television attention to hostages lowers their
value to the captor and prevents Americans from rating the president on how
quickly he is able to free them.
- Unexpected events shown on television can have inordinate influence on the
public's perception of a foreign crisis. This, for example, encourages
military planners to avoid bombing churches, hospitals, and other civilian
sites. Had the CNN "boys in Baghdad" been badly injured by American bombs,
American public support for the Gulf War would likely have been eroded.
- When appearing on television during a crisis, a president and his high
officials must be absolutely honest with the public. A modern-day "credibility
gap," with inaccurate White House statements shown endlessly on television, can
be fatal to a modern president in crisis, although, as the Gulf War shows, the
public has a considerable tolerance for military disinformation that can later
be shown to have saved American lives.
- Censorship can risk a damaging backlash. Vietnam and the Gulf War are
excellent examples -- the former being a case in which the backlash occurred,
the latter, a case in which it might have occurred had the conflict lasted
- During use of force, there is such a thing as too much military success.
Vivid television pictures of violence against Iraqis could have damaged U.S.
public support for the Gulf War.
- Television can help create an unexpected agenda, especially during the
run-up or the endgame of a war. Examples: the post-Gulf War Kurds and Somalia
and what might have happened over the Mayaguez.
- Presidents who fail to craft an implicit or explicit television strategy
while dealing with a foreign crisis do so at their peril.