Stephen M. Walt

Obama’s dilemma: change the system or change the policy?

Yesterday’s New York Times contained three interesting items that deserve to be read together. Taken as a whole, they tell you a lot about the fundamental challenge facing Barack Obama. The first item was Frank Rich’s op-ed column, a jeremiad about Washington’s insider culture. Rich nicely describes a world where out-of-touch elites with the right ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 6: President Barack Obama greets guests after speaking in the East Room of the White House February 6, 2009 in Washington, DC. President Barack Obama and Economic Advisory Chair Paul Volcker held the event to introduce members of the PresidentÕs Economic Recovery Advisory Board. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Yesterday's New York Times contained three interesting items that deserve to be read together. Taken as a whole, they tell you a lot about the fundamental challenge facing Barack Obama.

The first item was Frank Rich's op-ed column, a jeremiad about Washington's insider culture. Rich nicely describes a world where out-of-touch elites with the right connections continue to enjoy ready access to power. Rich focuses his attention on Tom Daschle's fall from grace and the prominent role of economic advisors "who are either alumni of the financial bubble's insiders club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe." His broader point, however, is that Washington is infused with a culture of non-accountability and intellectual incest that helps explain why so many policy initiatives are ill-conceived or ineptly executed, or both.

Yesterday’s New York Times contained three interesting items that deserve to be read together. Taken as a whole, they tell you a lot about the fundamental challenge facing Barack Obama.

The first item was Frank Rich’s op-ed column, a jeremiad about Washington’s insider culture. Rich nicely describes a world where out-of-touch elites with the right connections continue to enjoy ready access to power. Rich focuses his attention on Tom Daschle’s fall from grace and the prominent role of economic advisors “who are either alumni of the financial bubble’s insiders club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe.” His broader point, however, is that Washington is infused with a culture of non-accountability and intellectual incest that helps explain why so many policy initiatives are ill-conceived or ineptly executed, or both.

The second article was a page 1 profile of special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who is now Obama’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke is a long-time Washington insider who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and was the driving force behind the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian civil war. (He was also managing editor of Foreign Policy back in the 1970s). Since 2001, he has been vice-chairman of Perseus LLC, a Manhattan-based private equity firm. According to the article, “During the Bush years, Perseus was Mr. Holbrooke’s base, providing him with what friends say was a relatively undemanding job and lavish compensation as he bounced from topic to topic, almost as if seeking a problem tough enough to rivet all of his attention.” Unfortunately, one of the topics he landed on was the invasion of Iraq, which he strongly supported. Holbrooke said Colin Powell’s infamous U.N. Security Council speech “documenting” Iraq’s fictitious WMD programs (an episode Powell later recalled as the “lowest moment of his life”) was “a masterful job of diplomacy.” While critical of the Bush administration’s pre-war diplomacy, Holbrooke nonetheless argued that Saddam Hussein “was the most dangerous governmental leader in the world,” and that the United States had “a legitimate right to take action.”

Which brings us to item No. 3 (also on page 1): an unflattering article describing how Afghan President Hamid Karzai has gone from being Washington’s best hope for success to being regarded as a weak and ineffective leader of what may be the most corrupt regime in the world. Buried in the article is a telling sentence: “Many Afghans and Western officials here believe that it was the Iraq war, more than any other factor, that deprived Mr. Karzai of the resources he needed to help the Afghan state stand on its own and to prevent the resurgence of the Taliban.” That’s right: the same Iraq war that Holbrooke backed.

Put these three separate articles together, and you get a good sense of how U.S. policy gets made. Powerful people with the right connections rise to important roles in government. When not in power, they land lucrative jobs that still leave them with lots of time to engage in public life, spending most of it hobnobbing with other people with similar backgrounds, advantages, and world-views, while building the connections they will need to get back into power later on. (Holbrooke apparently spent some of his Perseus earnings hosting an annual dinner for Hillary Clinton, replete with a set of A-list guests). And then the political wheel turns, and they return to public life, eager to solve the very problems they helped create.

Like most elites, the current policy establishment is a forgiving culture that cherishes conventional wisdom and rarely punishes anyone for being wrong — even about big things — provided that they know the right people. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it exactly wrong: for at least some American lives, there’s no end to second chances.

My point here isn’t to single out Ambassador Holbrooke, who is talented and tenacious and has some genuine accomplishments to his credit, and who is hardly a poster child for the adage “to get along, go along.” In fact, given our current circumstances, I wish we had a few more Holbrookes to put to work on our current challenges.

My aim is simply to highlight Obama’s basic dilemma. He has huge problems to solve and not a lot of time to do it. So he needs to work with the institutions and individuals that are currently entrenched in the Washington-New York nexus. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “you go to work with the government you have.” But it is those same institutions and individuals who created the mess we’re in. If Obama tackles that dysfunctional power structure head-on it will go to the mattresses to defend itself, thereby making it harder to address the immediate problems we face. But if he doesn’t establish new ways of doing the public’s business, the old problems will persist and derail his efforts anyway. I don’t see an obvious way out of this box, so I’m hoping the President is a lot smarter than me.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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