Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy From Richard Nixon to George W. Bush
by Peter W. Rodman
(Knopf, 351 pages, $27.95)

A president who hopes to guide world affairs must first gain control of his own Cabinet and its attendant bureaucracy. That’s the challenge President Harry Truman dwelt upon in 1952 when he began contemplating the prospect of being succeeded by the former five-star Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. “Poor Ike,” he said. “It won’t be like the Army. He’ll sit here and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.” Peter W. Rodman, an architect of the Iraq war and an advisor to every Republican president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, died last August before he could personally convey to Barack Obama how a chief executive can avoid such frustration. Instead, he left behind a book that stresses how rarely chief executives have gotten the formula right.

Rodman’s behind-the-scenes study certainly “should be on the short list of readings” for Obama’s new team, said former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart in The New York Times. The onetime Henry Kissinger protégé takes far too strong a rooting interest in seeing Washington’s career bureaucrats humbled by authoritative presidents. But Rodman is perceptive about the management mistakes that each of the past seven presidents have made, and his general advice makes sense. “His central insight,” said former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton in National Review, is that the president must make his own decisions rather than seek internal consensus. Secretaries, in turn, must understand that their mission is to push the president’s policies down through the bureaucracy. 

George W. Bush apparently wasn’t the “decider” he imagined himself to be, said Craig Seligman in Rodman says that the outgoing president and his hero Ronald Reagan both tended to slow down decision-making and sow confusion by waiting for their advisors to reach consensus. The author was “much more impressed” with the elder George Bush, who gathered a diverse range of opinion from his advisors and then called his own shots. One hopeful sign for the Obama administration is that Rodman’s “brilliant tutorial” heartily recommends a “strong and loyal” secretary of state, said Jonathan Karl in The Wall Street Journal. By that standard, the choice of Hillary Clinton for that role appears to be at least half right.