Home The Washington Diplomat October 2008 Learning from the Past May Be Greatest Battle for New President

Learning from the Past May Be Greatest Battle for New President


The office of David M. Abshire, president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, is packed with photographs of prominent American leaders he has known and mementos he has collected during his participation in public affairs for more than half a century. But the most striking artifact is a bugle that was used to summon British soldiers to attack German trenches during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. That battle was one of the bloodiest in history — on the first day alone nearly 20,000 British soldiers died — and it is often cited as an example of the futility, desperation and senseless waste of human life.

For Abshire, the battle and the bugle are reminders that successful leadership requires courage as well as wisdom.

“For me, the bugle symbolizes stupidity. More than 300,000 people were killed for nothing. That tells me that courage is not enough. There has to be a strategy behind courage,” he said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat.

Abshire is convinced that the next U.S. president will need both valor and strategic thinking if he is to successfully confront the crises that await him in the Oval Office.

“The next president needs to face up to the dire situation and to tell the country. And he needs the best minds to come to grips with this. We face daunting challenges at home and abroad that amount to a crisis as grave as almost any the nation has faced before,” Abshire said. “Pearl Harbor hasn’t been bombed. Fort Sumter hasn’t been fired upon, but we face challenges that are co-equal,” he added, referring to the battles that started World War II and the Civil War for the U.S.

Abshire is widely viewed as one of Washington’s wise men. A native of Tennessee, he grew up near the legendary Lookout Mountain. He studied at West Point, served in the Korean War, and earned a doctorate in American history from Georgetown University. Abshire has served as an assistant secretary of state — working out the plan that saved Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from extinction — as well as U.S. ambassador to NATO and a special advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

In 1962, Abshire co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of Washington’s most respected think tanks. He is still a vice chairman of CSIS, but spends most of his time at the Center for the Study of the Presidency, which he has directed since 1999.

The mission of the center is to promote leadership in both the executive and legislative branches to generate innovative solutions to serious problems. It also seeks to preserve the historic memory of the U.S. presidency and to draw on a wide range of talent to better organize an increasingly compartmentalized government. In addition, the center tries to educate and inspire the next generation of leaders to incorporate civility and inclusiveness into their work.

Abshire has written a number of books on U.S. politics and international affairs, including “A Call to Greatness: Challenging Our Next President,” a stimulating and plaintive plea for strong presidential leadership that was released earlier this year.

A longtime veteran of the Beltway, Abshire says the challenges facing the next U.S. president are difficult to overstate: continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a faltering economy, massive long-term fiscal challenges, global terrorism, a crippling energy crisis and climate change, to name a few.

“We’re at a tipping point. We may be over it,” he warned. “Things are far worse than they were a year ago. We need to confront the president-elect with this and he needs to tell the nation this. And if he doesn’t, he gains ownership of it. He must sound the alarm.”

Abshire predicts that the American people and the world will know by the middle of next year whether the new U.S. president is up to the job, and he believes the period between Nov. 5 and Jan. 20, when the next president is sworn in, is especially critical. That’s because during this time, according to Abshire, the president-elect will have to pivot dramatically out of campaign mode and not only demonstrate that he understands the enormous problems ahead, but also assume full leadership of his party, reach out to the other party, build strong bridges with Congress, and set up a skilled Cabinet and White House staff.

Once the new president is sworn in, Abshire says he should spend the next four months taking careful inventory of the nation’s situation, creating teams to examine the problems of health care, the budget, the economy and the status of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These reviews, conducted with the help of Congress, should help him formulate a grand strategy and specific plan of action that he must then present to the American people.

But Abshire clarifies that a grand strategy is the opposite of a static blueprint in that it must be able to adapt to new circumstances while also maintaining unity in the overall effort.

In addition to planning for a post-war Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Middle East, Abshire argues that this new American strategy should reframe the battle against terrorism by more carefully defining the enemy while also increasing the national effort to confront it. The strategy should also acknowledge the severity of the coming fiscal crisis that is poised to swamp the nation. In all, it must tell the truth about the hard choices that need to be made, but also offer a vision and plan for renewal and progress.

“We need to relearn the art of strategy. Good strategists throughout history have been agile — Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Robert E. Lee — they had agile minds and were agile in the use of their forces,” Abshire said.

As a passionate student of history and the U.S. presidency, Abshire believes the next president should study the challenges that his predecessors confronted and the lessons they learned. In particular, he cites Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt as highly effective war presidents who rescued the nation during times of great peril. Both were grand strategists who were also agile, pragmatic and flexible.

Abshire notes the next president can also learn from Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, both of whom undertook careful planning and created durable institutions to implement U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

Abshire said the struggles of other presidents can be instructive as well. For example, Jimmy Carter brought idealism and a message of change to the White House in 1977, but he failed to develop strong relationships with Congress and overloaded his policy agenda. This contributed to his well-intentioned but seriously flawed presidency, according to Abshire.

On George W. Bush, Abshire said he has been a decisive president, but has failed in important respects. By deciding to wage war in Iraq before the battle in Afghanistan was won, U.S. forces became stretched to the limit in two theaters. Subsequently, the United States lost its focus in trying to capture Osama bin Laden. Bush would have been wise, Abshire said, to ponder the simple words of Lincoln: “One war at a time.”

Likewise, Abshire does not believe the 44th president should take on more than he can handle by directing his initial efforts to creating new domestic or global institutions.

“I would not go out and create new institutions just to look good. It is so easy for them to fall on their face,” he said. “I would focus on modifying what we got. We need leadership more than we need to create a new bureaucracy.”

Abshire said the next president can succeed if he outlines a clear plan, speaks honestly to the American people, and reaches out to other leaders in a spirit of civility. On that note, he argues that more political leaders need to recognize that it is possible to passionately support an idea or cause and at the same time deal with adversaries in a way that is respectful and tolerant. The great American leaders, at their best, have embodied that type of civility.

“There are some on the extreme right and the extreme left who would rather bring the country down than compromise. But the majority of people, when you get them away from politics, want to save the country. There is a vital center that can be built,” he said.

Although he admits the current situation in the United States looks grim, Abshire points out that the nation has struggled through tremendous crises in the past — and has not only survived but eventually prospered.

“Fear can be paralyzing. Our grand strategy must move us from peril to promise, at home and abroad. This country has survived civil war, two world wars, a protracted nuclear standoff in which the very existence of civilization was threatened, terrorist attacks, and several presidential assassinations. There are still many reasons to be hopeful.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.