Who Should Be in Charge of the COVID-19 Response?

During the past few months, how many times have you heard a pundit on TV say, “We must listen to the experts.”  Every time I hear this, I wonder if the pundit has ever sat around a conference table with a group of scientists—or for that fact, lawyers, economists, senior military leaders or other such “experts”. 

I have.  

During the past two decades I have spent many hours—in fact, entire days, listening to distinguished experts engage in exhausting, ferocious debates while failing to reach consensus on a wide variety of national security issues. This is in no way a criticism–it is the essence of policy debates. Such “real-time peer review” is even more pronounced when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. There is so much we don’t yet know about the virus, the disease and the social and economic consequences–and no one dealing with the current pandemic has ever faced such a challenging crisis–at least not in the “real world”.

I say “real world” because I have nearly 50 years of experience with table top simulations, or what is often called war games. I participated in tactical and operational level war games during three decades of military service, and then moved on to designing and facilitating war games at the strategic level during my time as a professor and department chair at the National War College in Washington DC.

Since retiring from military service in 2000, I have designed and facilitated more than a dozen executive level simulations. Participants included 

U. S. Senators (Sam Nunn, Jim Talent, Tom Daschle, and Pat Roberts), senior leaders from the executive branch (Secretary of State, FBI and CIA Directors, CDC Director, FDA Commissioner, Deputy Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services) plus governors, prime ministers, ministers of health and leaders from the private sector. 

One of the most common lessons learned from these war games, many of which were focused on pandemic scenarios, is illustrated by Senator Sam Nunn’s experience during the “Dark Winter” exercise in June 2001. Senator Nunn was playing the role of the President responding to a smallpox attack on America. At the time, America was poorly prepared for such a scenario, and “President Nunn” was faced with a multitude of very difficult decisions. At one point, as President Nunn struggled with a particularly challenging choice, he declared “I will do what the experts tell me to do.” 

There was a moment of silence in the room, and then one of the senior policy officials said: “Mr. President, this decision, and many others you will have to make is ultimately a political decision.”  The point being that, of all the experts assembled, Senator Nunn’s expertise and perspective as an elected political leader carried the most weight.  

That moment in the Dark Winter exercise has stuck with me during the past couple of decades. I have seen it repeated many times since. The most important decisions during a major crisis are ultimately political decisions. These decisions must be informed by scientists, lawyers, economists, senior military leaders and other experts, but ultimately, an elected official—a president, governor, county executive or mayor will be the decider.

This is true, not only for public health crises, but all such national security scenarios. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the military and national security experts advised President Kennedy to launch preemptive air strikes against the Soviet nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General Curtis LeMay, a world-class expert on warfare and air power, forcefully demanded that President Kennedy launch a massive series of air strikes against the Soviet missiles being deployed in Cuba. 

It was many years later that we discovered the senior Soviet commander in Cuba had orders to launch the nuclear-armed missiles at American cities if the U. S. conducted a preemptive strike. Thankfully (for the human race) President Kennedy carefully considered the advice from the experts, but made a decision far different from the actions recommended by General LeMay and other senior advisors. Kennedy understood that it was his responsibility as an elected leader to decide in consultation with–not at the direction of–the experts.  

Today, we are embroiled in a contentious and highly polarized debate about many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic response, most particularly regarding when and how to reopen America. There is no universal agreement on the science, and a “no-risk” option simply does not exist. Every potential choice carries with it a cost in terms of human life and suffering. The president, governors, county executives, and mayors clearly need to listen to the experts, both inside and outside of government, but ultimately, the decisions will be made by elected officials. 

This fact is as true today as it was during the military crisis in October 1962 when the fate of the human race was decided by President Kennedy—an elected leader, not a military expert.