The rise and fall of the czars

If U.S. health care reform passes the Congress and is signed into law anytime soon, the bickering and hullabaloo over the process by which the bill was hammered out will be as relevant as Einstein’s mother’s morning sickness in light of her son’s reimagining of the universe.   Ok, perhaps that overstates it. But the ...

GPO via Getty Images
GPO via Getty Images
GPO via Getty Images

If U.S. health care reform passes the Congress and is signed into law anytime soon, the bickering and hullabaloo over the process by which the bill was hammered out will be as relevant as Einstein's mother's morning sickness in light of her son's reimagining of the universe.  

Ok, perhaps that overstates it. But the inside-the-beltway food fight of the past few months will likely fade quickly from memory as Americans start to "own" the provisions of the bill. (If not, all of Washington is going to soon have to see what provisions the new law will make for people with cable news-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.)

And if it passes -- which, flawed as it is would be a landmark and long overdue revision to America's social contract -- White House health care czar Nancy DeParle's reputation would be made because she would be seen as a key player in advancing a long-elusive goal of progressives from coast to coast. Whatever missteps the White House may have made along the way, she will be among those redeemed by finally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Of course, if the bill fritters out at the last minute, her career prospects will follow a different trajectory.)

If U.S. health care reform passes the Congress and is signed into law anytime soon, the bickering and hullabaloo over the process by which the bill was hammered out will be as relevant as Einstein’s mother’s morning sickness in light of her son’s reimagining of the universe.  

Ok, perhaps that overstates it. But the inside-the-beltway food fight of the past few months will likely fade quickly from memory as Americans start to "own" the provisions of the bill. (If not, all of Washington is going to soon have to see what provisions the new law will make for people with cable news-induced post-traumatic stress disorder.)

And if it passes — which, flawed as it is would be a landmark and long overdue revision to America’s social contract — White House health care czar Nancy DeParle‘s reputation would be made because she would be seen as a key player in advancing a long-elusive goal of progressives from coast to coast. Whatever missteps the White House may have made along the way, she will be among those redeemed by finally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (Of course, if the bill fritters out at the last minute, her career prospects will follow a different trajectory.)

This fact raises in turn another question. Just how are the rest of President Obama’s Romanov dynasty full of 30-odd czars doing?

The answer is hard to tell judging from the newspapers. This is true in part because newspapers have devoted most of their coverage recently to Eric Massa‘s permanent tainting of the once wholesome sport of snorkeling. It’s also true because there were so many darned czars created that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But mostly it’s true because the president’s decision to appoint so many "czars" was a classic rookie mistake that has not really worked out very well for anyone.

Certainly, it did not work out well for the czars who came and went like "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones who was Glenn-Becked into oblivion or "Car Czar" Steve Rattner who is now trying to work a deal to avoid further legal headaches associated with his allegedly unsavory practices in winning business from the New York State pension fund back in his hedge fund days.

But most of the czars who were originally appointed are still in place. It’s just that in most cases the only people who know it are their families or the bureaucrats they scuffle with every day. You see one of the big problems with the whole idea of "czars" is that on the day after their investiture each of them discovered that the government is full of other people who thought they had the same responsibilities.  

Just ask AfPak Czar Richard Holbrooke who has been largely overshadowed by the military’s big man in the region, General Stanley McChrystal, and the State Department’s other man in Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Some of this may be, according to reports, Holbrooke’s own doing, due to rough patches in his relationships with the Afghans, the Pakistanis and some of his colleagues in Washington. (It was probably a miscalculation to try to apply strong-arm tactics with Hamid Karzai that were reminiscent of his very successful tough-guy confrontations with Slobodan Milosevic years ago. The problem being that whereas Milosevic was a bad guy who was going down, an enemy being defeated, Karzai was a bad guy who was our alleged ally, one who strongly believed we needed him more than he needed us.) Holbrooke has also, according to White House sources, not been a great favorite of Obama’s. This is particularly bad in an administration in which seeking the favor of the president has taken on an importance that is in fact, much more reminiscent of the historical czars than is the role being played by anyone with this now devalued moniker.

This is a key point. Not only have the czars seen their role diluted by bureaucratic competition but they were never really given the authority their informal titles implied. This is a classic failure of government and business managers everywhere — giving people responsibility for an issue without truly giving them the authority to manage or lead it.  

Does anyone for a moment think George Mitchell is really in charge of America’s role in the Mideast Peace Process? Does anyone even really know what Mitchell is doing? In the State Department there is constant buzz that Mitchell is an inscrutable "black box"… and that people like Under Secretary Bill Burns, people in the regional bureau and, of course, Secretary Clinton can and should be playing a more central role in shaping strategy than Mitchell. Mitchell’s team hasn’t helped his standing with the White House much by going around taking shots at White House Middle East expert Dennis Ross in private meetings with Middle Eastern governments.  Which has led the White House … both within the NSC and the Vice President’s office to get more involved, etc. The point is … there are lots of players and Mitchell is no more a czar than was Ingrid Berman playing Anastasia

Paul Volcker was a "czar" with responsibility for advising the president on financial reform. But for most of his term he has been ignored, being rolled out periodically for photo ops to show him as a validating grey head. His Volcker Rule gained traction when it was clear many other reforms were faltering.  But the reality is Volcker, like the others is more a prop than a czar.  It’s not that he or they are unwilling to work or even that they don’t have a huge amount to contribute. (I suspect we’d all be better off if AfPak were really quarterbacked by Holbrooke or financial reform were led by Volcker. These guys are among the very best the Dems have and the way they are being treated is like turning Albert Pujols or Kobe Bryant into reserves, playing them off the bench.)

I suspect Holbrooke at the moment has to be wondering whether he actually had more influence … or a higher profile … as a private citizen who deservedly was seen as a Democratic Secretary of State in waiting. Volcker, I am told, knew what to expect and took on the job because he knew it would periodically afford him influence, that sooner or later he would be needed or heeded.  

"Green Czar" Carol Browner must feel the same way. Not only have her priorities faltered but she has been overtaken in traction by other members of the "Green Cabinet" and compromised by the fumbling on the Hill. On international matters, the State Department’s climate negotiator had the clear lead although his efforts have encountered stiff headwinds, on other issues Science Czar John Holdren has won more traction, on others Steven Chu’s team at Energy have. And while all this would be denied by the players in question if asked about it in public, you have to ask yourself why the experienced and respected Browner, in the middle of an issue the president has set as one of his priorities, would be on everyone’s short list to be among those making an early departure from the administration?

Other czars have simply faced the bandwidth problem … their issues have not risen to prominence in the midst of an agenda set largely by an economic crisis and a desire to move on a couple key issues such as health care and managing the revolving door that is our Middle East troop deployment strategy. Or alternatively, they just haven’t been able to make much progress  or have faced unforeseen setbacks. Our Auto Industry Recovery czar, Ed Montgomery, and our manufacturing czar Ron Bloom, have seen their efforts remain hostage to the sluggish economy … and it doesn’t look like our bailout of Chrysler is, in the end, going to do much good. Our Guantanamo czar has found getting out of Guantanamo is tougher than expected. Our Wall Street Pay Czar has had influence over only a few companies and while he has tried to manage that the rest of the financial community has been thumbing their noses at any idea of bonus restraint. Dennis Ross who was designated as the "Central Region" (Iran) Czar has worked hard — and he like Holbrooke is one of the very, very best out there — but ultimately U.S. policy will cede nuclear weapons status to Iran and our earnest but likely-to-be ineffective sanctions efforts will be seen as futile.  

And so on. Admittedly our "Great Lakes Czar" can report that Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior are all roughly where we were when Obama came into office and Joshua DuBois our Faith-based Czar certainly has not seen a major fall in America’s collective need or hope for some higher power to make sense of things. Because, as is almost always, the higher powers we create — even when they are given grandiose titles like czars — almost always disappoint for one reason or another. Hopefully, soon Obama will recognize this and make a long over-due return to the kind of simpler org chart that is almost always more effective.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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