Big Adjustment

Big Adjustment

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fuming at the Obama administration for listening in on her phone calls. Egyptians and Jordanians distrust the United States. Pakistanis and Yemenis seem to overtly dislike the United States, to say the least, despite fewer drone strikes. Their outrage and distrust undermines President Obama’s policies and the image of America abroad.

The job of enhancing and repairing that image and building support for U.S. policies rests with the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. In February, after a protracted process, the Senate confirmed Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time magazine, for the post. For Stengel, getting the job is a significant professional achievement. But for the last decade, the task of promoting America to the world has been a struggle. In the aftermath of September 11, many Americans asked, "Why do they hate us?" Today, Americans are still asking the same question about countries in the Middle East and South Asia. A recent Pew Research study found that while the Philippines, Israel, and Ghana, among others, view the United States in a favorable light, majorities in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, and Pakistan share a dim view of the United States and even see the United States as an enemy rather than a partner.

It’s easier as an editor and author to come up with solutions to better sell U.S. policies and values abroad than to translate those ideas into policy from inside the U.S. government. Stengel’s job matters because, in theory, if citizens in Pakistan, Egypt, and elsewhere have more trust and respect for U.S. policy, there might be less violence and conflict. That would save U.S. lives and money. Stengel should know five things to succeed. 

First, as Stengel learned, Senate confirmations are like divorces: Even the easy ones are difficult. It’s well established that the confirmation process takes too long and is too intrusive. Stengel was nominated last September; he was confirmed in mid-February. For six months, Stengel could not work at Time and he could not yet work at State (to do so would be illegal). On top of that, the White House, State, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee most likely demanded years of income tax forms, new financial disclosure statements, every article, story, and book he wrote as a journalist going back years, and much more. For the FBI, he had to come up with old addresses, names of friends who could verify he lived there, and answer questions about whether he used drugs or sought mental health counseling. The vetting process and six-month delay had to be a source of great frustration for him and his family.

That said, to succeed in government, Stengel will have to shed his identity as an author and editor. In fact, as I learned when I was laid off from a regional newspaper in 2008 and moved to "the other side" — to the State Department’s arms control bureau in 2009 — Stengel will need to distance himself from his friends and colleagues in the media. He will need to live in Washington and let go of his life in New York. Stengel’s friends and colleagues — fellow journalists, editors, and television hosts — won’t be able to help him turn ideas into policy inside the government. Stengel is going from the top man at a magazine to work in one of the largest bureaucracies on the planet. And his friends really won’t understand the personal journey he has embarked on either, or the new challenges he will face. He will be alone — almost — in making the leap from journalist to bureaucratic knife-fighter, skilled manager, and smooth talker. Others have left journalism to work for the Obama administration — Jay Carney, Shailagh Murray, Glen Johnson — but not as a Senate-confirmed appointee.

Second, running a government bureaucracy is one of the toughest jobs out there. As head of Time, writers, editors, and sources needed him. Now Stengel is the one who’s going to be making the calls and depending on others at the White House, his five fellow under-secretaries, countless assistant secretaries, and others who make up the "interagency." They are the key to advancing his goals; they could be the obstacles, too. If Stengel wants to do something as simple as give a speech to announce a new public diplomacy initiative, he’ll first  have to hold meetings with other State Department officials who have a stake in the initiative. He’ll have to bring the White House into the decision, and by the time it’s approved, the national security adviser, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the Pentagon will all have had their say.

Third, Stengel’s relationship with Secretary of State John Kerry will change. As head of Time, he and Kerry were peers, insofar as they each ran big, important enterprises. But now, Kerry is the principal and Stengel is a staffer. He won’t be giving orders so much as cultivating relationships and allies. He will need White House staff to promote his ideas. He will need skilled and loyal staffers to help bend the State Department bureaucracy. The White House and Kerry probably will place their loyalists in his office, and a chief of staff with close ties to the White House or to Kerry would help. A good scheduler is essential. He will need others to manage different portfolios. But Stengel should curb the number of political appointees in his office and rely on career Foreign Service officers who have seen political administrations come and go. They should know how to navigate the bureaucracy and make sure that his goals are translated into action.

Meanwhile, he will be overshadowed by the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Doug Frantz and the cheery, unflappable State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Frantz previously worked for Kerry at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and knows what it’s like to be a staffer; Psaki worked on Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004 and travels with him. They report to Stengel on the organizational chart, but on a daily basis they have more personal access to Kerry.

Fourth, the White House will expect him to implement some policies, and foreign policy crises will force some policy development, but Stengel will want to have his own bold prescriptions, too. That’s a difficult balancing act, and that’s why Stengel hopefully went into the job with his eyes open. Many who have served as senior advisers in the government have seen Senate-confirmed political appointees take a job just because they think it is a logical next step in their careers. The reality is that they quickly become unhappy, because the bureaucracy is designed to wear down those who think the job is meant to be glamorous. I don’t know what Stengel thinks, but he’ll have to prove to his new colleagues that he’s a workhorse, not a show horse.

Fifth, finding the time to do everything he wants will be his biggest challenge. In government, the crisis-of-the-day and intense travel schedules hinder the achievement of long-term goals. Stengel can’t avoid crises, but he can limit his travel schedule. Travel for senior government officials, while necessary, becomes a respite from the unrelenting pressure of the job and it gives the illusion that they are doing something. But, as Kerry’s aides made clear to reporters early in his tenure, "odometer diplomacy" is a poor metric for accomplishment. Scaling back travel might be difficult — after all Stengel is a diplomat — but in the short term, he won’t be as jet-lagged. In the long term, he will have more energy and time to push his ideas through the bureaucracy.

Stengel should forget the "Morning Joe" crowd. He should pour all of his considerable intellectual and physical energy into making and figuring out how to package and message U.S. foreign policy. Let Joe and Mika talk about decisions already made. Stengel will be making them.