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Government by obsession

THE Tower Commission report on the Iran-contra affair places the emphasis on the staff's lack of adequate response to the President's management style. But the problem was more than that; it was also one of controlling the obsessions of those in the administration with the hostages and Nicaragua. The dictionary defines obsession as the ``influence of a feeling, idea, or impulse that a person cannot escape.'' It is easy to understand how a president and his staff can become haunted by issues. They face constantly the pleas of families of hostages and encounter the frustrations of attempting to organize resistance to a Marxist regime in Central America. Even before taking office and having access to the information and expertise within government, however, the Reagan team showed a tendency toward single-minded preoccupation with certain issues. Campaign rhetoric assured the public that the new team would be tough on communists and on terrorists. To be strong became a preoccupation; the fear of being seen as weak - of repeating the perceived errors of the Carter administration - became an obsession.

Goals, objectives - even dreams - are commendable in a political leader. But such visions, if seen to be impracticable or dangerous, can encounter serious skepticism and even opposition at home and abroad. Most leaders, if they cannot persuade the people to adopt and work for a particular goal, will accept the popular decision. Disaster results when a president or those around him are so obsessed with an idea that they seek to circumvent the opposition by bypassing constitutional procedures, laws, and objective reviews.

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The Reagan administration is not the first to be obsessed with goals that could not be achieved. Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam. Richard Nixon's preoccupation with domestic opposition to the Vietnam war led to Watergate. The present administration, however, seems to have as long a list of overriding concerns as any before it: hostages, Angola, Libya, Nicaragua, and ``star wars.''

Each of these is an appropriate presidential concern, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in each instance, policy was driven by predetermined conclusions rather than by a continuing review of the total environment and likely success of each action. Ensuring the success of the outcome then becomes the overriding objective, whether it is to trade arms for hostages, get the Cubans out of Angola, eliminate Colonel Qaddafi, overthrow the Sandinistas, or put weapons into space.

Such approaches reduce the nation's capacity to remain credible in opposition to terrorism, to play a role in southern Africa or the Middle East, to respond to initiatives in Central America, or to conduct meaningful arms negotiations with the Soviets. Such obsessions skew national foreign policy priorities and create an atmosphere within government in which contrary views and contrary intelligence are unwelcome and disregarded. Lower-level officials, believing they know the mind of the president, act on their own. As actions fail that were undertaken with insufficient consideration of consequences, secrecy to hide the actions and protect the president becomes a further obsession. Consultations with the Congress or with other governments, if undertaken, become efforts either to convince or to conceal. Reverses lead, not to reevaluation, but to an even greater determination to prevail on the predetermined course. That determination is reinforced by the intensity of pressures from supporters in an era where ideology has become a factor in politics.

The making of foreign policy in the United States requires constant adjustment among institutions, individuals, ideas, and external realities. It can be ponderous and frustrating, but over the decades the processes of American democracy have produced dramatic initiatives and sound directions. The most serious failures in recent history have resulted not from the process, but from efforts, driven by obsessions, to circumvent that process.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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