Barack Obama in Oval Office 2010

The Administration’s Biggest Challenge: the Office

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Written by Paul Nadeau, Contributor

Already, foreign policy pundits are making predictions about the global challenges that the United States will face in President Obama’s next term. It is an intimidating list, including everything from nuclear weapons, fiscal crises, global economic stagnation, and more.

They are all wrong. While any of those possible crises are troubling, the threat that a crisis poses is directly proportional to a policymaker’s ability to respond. That requires understanding and management of the bureaucracy and the ability to react quickly while maintaining a vision of the long-term view. Rosa Brooks published a scathing but insightful piece in Foreign Policy about how Obama’s White House has mismanaged the foreign policy process. For her, President Obama’s problem has not been a lack of vision so much as it has been the mundane details like personnel and process.

The Administration’s first problem is long-term planning. For example, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff was created “to take a longer term, strategic view of global trends and frame recommendations for the Secretary of State to advance U.S. interests and American values.” Its current problem is not that it is incapable of this, but that through a slow evolution, the State Department became analogous to the Defense Department in the sense that each is an agency responsible for executing foreign policy rather than planning it, as foreign policy planning moved from the State Department to the White House’s National Security Council. None of that makes the Policy Planning Staff irrelevant—members of the staff were responsible for pioneering the State Department’s use of new media and it drafted the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).

There are a few issues with this structure. First, the Policy Planning Staff can’t take a “whole-of-government” approach since it is split off from planning in the other agencies involved in foreign policy creation. Integration with the planning staffs in other departments is problematic because few others have the structure or institutional memory as the State Department’s Staff. Second, no analogous office has filled the same role in the National Security Council—the National Security Policy Planning Committee was created to emphasize interagency planning and to critique existing policies but Professor Brooks wrote that the office has been “reduced to a speech-writing shop.” The White House does not need a policy planning staff so much as it needs what it represents: a long-term view and a sense of perspective–and neither of these comes easily when the job is to react to crises.

The Administration’s second problem relates to staffing. This is difficult to objectively measure partly because there are no quantitative measures that relate staffing to efficacy, and because if personnel issues become public it can be because of settling personal scores rather than a dysfunctional office, not to mention that the information is secondhand anyway. That said, the stories that have made it to the public are troubling, from General Jim Jones being frozen out by NSC staff for going home too early, to insiders reporting difficult relationships with and between Tom Donilon and Denis McDonough, to reports that some senior staff are professional but lack foreign policy vision. If true, this all directly affects staff morale and retention, which in turn affects institutional memory and eventually efficacy.

A lack of long-term thinking combined with low morale is a terrible mix. Long-term policy concerns, such as climate change or demographics, get ignored because there are insufficient procedures for considering and responding to these issues. A high-stress environment tilts the incentives towards short-term results because the emphasis is on resolving crises and securing affirmation from bosses, both of which disincentivize long-term planning. If the White House staff cannot do it, then departments and agencies may do their share of strategic thinking (and certainly do), but their ability to affect policy is undermined if there are no channels to deliver that thinking to the highest levels. If no one is doing it, then the result will be a repeat of the first term: strong ideas that are haltingly executed or deferred.

It is easy to understand why foreign policy “vision” gets the attention instead of process: it is overt and public while process is covert and private—in fact, if it becomes public, it is a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. Expressions like “covert” and “private” should not be considered pejoratives because they provide the process with insulation from partisan politics and public audience costs, giving the Executive more freedom to explore and execute policy alternatives. This freedom has its drawbacks, as in the case of drone policy, but the constraints created by excessive public and congressional oversight would probably be worse since an administration’s transgressions are usually checked in the long run.

The corollary is that this puts extreme pressure on the Executive to get the internal process correct. If the process goes wrong, then the ability to respond is diminished and the threats get worse. The threats that could face the next administration are frightening, but it would be more frightening if the administration lacked a good process to face those threats.

Photo: Official White House photo by Pete Souza.