Daniel W. Drezner

Grading the Obama administration’s foreign policy process

Your humble blogger has long been a believer that, in matters of American foreign policy, the process can matter just as much as the outcome.  Sure, sometimes fortuitous foreign policies emerge from bad decison-making structures, and sometimes bad foreign policies have been thoroughly vetted.  On the whole, however, good decision-making processes should lead to good decision-making ...

Your humble blogger has long been a believer that, in matters of American foreign policy, the process can matter just as much as the outcome.  Sure, sometimes fortuitous foreign policies emerge from bad decison-making structures, and sometimes bad foreign policies have been thoroughly vetted.  On the whole, however, good decision-making processes should lead to good decision-making outcomes. 

What makes for a good foreign policy decision-making process?  That question comes to mind after reading David Sanger and Peter Baker’s NYT story on the Nuclear Posture Review that’s going to be unfurled today: 

The strategy to be released on Tuesday is months late, partly because Mr. Obama had to adjudicate among advisers who feared he was not changing American policy significantly enough, and those who feared that anything too precipitous could embolden potential adversaries. One senior official said that the new strategy was the product of 150 meetings, including 30 convened by the White House National Security Council, and that even then Mr. Obama had to step in to order rewrites.

That’s a lot of meetings for a document of questionable utility

This also backs up the themese from last week’s excellent  Financial Times story by Daniel Dombey and Edward Luce on the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision-making process that’s gotten a lot of play.  Over at Shadow Government, Peter Feaver provides some useful cautions about reading too much into stories like this.  For the purposes of this blog post, however, I’m just gonna throw those cautions right out the window.  Because after reading Dombeyand Luce, I’m both horrified and impressed by what the Obama administration is doing. 

Let’s start with the good.  It’s clear that this White House has centralized foreign policy decision-making in a way that we haven’t seen since the Bush/Scowcroft years.  Presidents have to claim ownership of their foreign policies, so this is cheering news.   

There’s also a lot of praise in the story for the revival of the NSC interagency process — particularly the way Tom Donilon is running the deputies’ committee:

Also the organiser of Mr Obama’s 9.30am national security briefing, Mr Donilon reinstated the paper trails needed to prevent intra-governmental anarchy, using the model de-vised by Brent Scowcroft, national se-curity adviser to George Bush senior and Gerald Ford. Vice-president Joe Biden’s team was also incorporated to prevent the kind of "parallel process" Dick Cheney used to circumvent the bureaucracy under George W. Bush.

"If you look for the 2002 or 2003 meeting where the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken, you cannot find it," says the senior official. "By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions."….

The refurbished machinery was perhaps most in evidence during the build-up to Mr Obama’s decision in December to send another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan – a journey that took four months and involved him in 40 hours of Oval Office meetings.

Now, the bad — and there’s more of it than I would like to see. 

First, while the White House appears to be running the foreign policy machine, the parts of the White House that are involved should provoke serious consternation.  The National Security Advisor, James Jones, is characterized as disengaged.  As a result, we get this anecdote: 

The lack of a strong national security adviser has created recurring difficulties. Perhaps the best example is the Arab-Israeli peace process, which Mr Obama launched on his second day in office when he appointed George Mitchell as his envoy. Three months later, Mr Obama insisted Benjamin Netanyahu freeze all settlements activity in order to boost Arab confidence in the talks.

In a heated showdown in the Oval Office last May, in which Mr Netanyahu refused to accede to Mr Obama’s demand, the only officials present were Mr Emanuel and David Axelrod, senior adviser to Mr Obama in office and during the campaign. Gen Jones was not there. The fallout put the talks in abeyance and damped high Arab hopes for Mr Obama.

"The question is, which bright spark advised the president to demand a settlements freeze without working out what the next step should be when Netanyahu inevitably said ‘No’?" says Leslie Gelb, an official in the Carter administration and former head of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Why wasn’t George Mitchell in the room? Where was Jones?"

Um… what Gelb said.  Seriously, having only Axelrod and Emanuel in the room is doubly disturbing.  First, they’re not foreign policy experts.  Second, having political operatives in the room sends the signal to Netanyahu that the U.S. Israel relationship really is all about domestic politics for Obama.  I don’t think that’s true, but if Netanyahu thinks that it’s true, then it could explain a lot of his recent behavior. 

Now we get to Obama himself.  The implicit message in the story is that he’s his own NSC advisor: 

Only briefly acquainted with Mr Obama beforehand, General Jones, a retired four-star marine corps general, shows little interest in running the "inter-agency" process – a key part of the job. Somewhat unconventionally, Gen Jones travels frequently and is thus often out of town. Unusually, it is Mr Obama himself who usually chairs the weekly national security council, known as the "principals meeting", not Gen Jones.

Yeah, this is very unusual.  Sure, you might think, "hey, this is great, POTUS is really involved!!"  Except that when the boss is in the room, the staff will often have a tendency to bite their tongues and refrain from airing discordant views.  This will be true even with someone like Obama, who use to lead seminars for a living and by all reports likes having provocative discussions. 

There’s more in the article, including what looks like growing resentment among the principals for Denis McDonough (though for compensating good quotes, check out this Ana Marie Cox blog post). 

Dombey and Luce note in the end that, "Mr Obama has a sharp learning curve, which means his administration continues to evolve."  I hope so, because if the article is accurate (and it seems to jibe with prior stories) then there are definite areas for improvement. 

My provisional grade:  a straight B. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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