COLUMN

Competence Not Required

Julia Pierson’s ouster is the exception that proves the rule: In Washington it is nearly impossible to get fired.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Something unusual happened in Washington, D.C., this week: A federal official was fired ("resigned under pressure") for doing her job badly. I refer to former Secret Service chief Julia Pierson, who stepped down after a series of embarrassing revelations, most notably the recent incident during which an intruder managed to scale the fence, get across the grounds, and then get all the way inside the White House. And the Secret Service couldn't even get its version of events straight for several days.

But the remarkable thing about Pierson's departure is how rare something like this is. Politicians and government bureaucrats are sometimes ousted over a sex scandal, embezzlement, or bribery, or for saying something that is wildly inappropriate, but they rarely get fired for just doing their jobs poorly, especially in the realm of foreign and national security policy. This inadvertent form of job security may help explain why U.S. foreign policy hasn't performed very well in recent decades, and it may also explain why some major foreign-policy endeavors -- such as reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- have been plagued by mismanagement and billions of squandered dollars.

For starters, take George W. Bush's administration (please!). Its foreign policy was mostly a train wreck -- 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hamas's rise to power in Gaza, a declining global image, Abu Ghraib, the torture regime, North Korea's nuclear test, the failure to find Osama bin Laden, etc. -- but the architects of all these failures kept their jobs for years. In those days, the only people who lost their jobs were folks who pointed out the cliffs Bush was steering toward -- such as economic advisor Larry Lindsey.

Something unusual happened in Washington, D.C., this week: A federal official was fired ("resigned under pressure") for doing her job badly. I refer to former Secret Service chief Julia Pierson, who stepped down after a series of embarrassing revelations, most notably the recent incident during which an intruder managed to scale the fence, get across the grounds, and then get all the way inside the White House. And the Secret Service couldn’t even get its version of events straight for several days.

But the remarkable thing about Pierson’s departure is how rare something like this is. Politicians and government bureaucrats are sometimes ousted over a sex scandal, embezzlement, or bribery, or for saying something that is wildly inappropriate, but they rarely get fired for just doing their jobs poorly, especially in the realm of foreign and national security policy. This inadvertent form of job security may help explain why U.S. foreign policy hasn’t performed very well in recent decades, and it may also explain why some major foreign-policy endeavors — such as reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan — have been plagued by mismanagement and billions of squandered dollars.

For starters, take George W. Bush’s administration (please!). Its foreign policy was mostly a train wreck — 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Hamas’s rise to power in Gaza, a declining global image, Abu Ghraib, the torture regime, North Korea’s nuclear test, the failure to find Osama bin Laden, etc. — but the architects of all these failures kept their jobs for years. In those days, the only people who lost their jobs were folks who pointed out the cliffs Bush was steering toward — such as economic advisor Larry Lindsey.

Donald Rumsfeld was one of the least competent defense secretaries since the post was created, yet he remained in place into Bush’s second term. Bush thought it was a good idea to hire convicted (and pardoned) Iran-Contra felon Elliott Abrams to run Middle East policy at the White House, only to watch as Abrams helped engineer an ill-fated coup in Gaza that left Hamas in charge. Bush also thought it made sense to have Gen. Tommy Franks command the invasion of Iraq, even though Franks’s flawed command over U.S. forces in Afghanistan had allowed bin Laden to evade capture in 2001.

The list goes on. Paul Wolfowitz’s performance as deputy secretary of defense was woefully deficient (as was his optimistic forecast that the occupation of Iraq would pay for itself), but that didn’t stop Bush from nominating him to be president of the World Bank. (Making matters worse, Wolfowitz was neither an economist nor a development expert and left the bank after two years amid a flurry of accusations about ethics violations.) Condoleezza Rice was by most accounts a failure as Bush’s national security advisor, yet he promoted her to be secretary of state in his second term. And so on.

Barack Obama’s administration is scarcely better on this score, however. To be sure, Dennis Blair did not last long as Obama’s initial director of central intelligence, and neither did national security advisor James Jones. But both men departed because they never found their footing inside Obama’s highly politicized White House, not because of any obvious policy failures. Obama also fired Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal for indiscreet (that is, insubordinate) remarks to a Rolling Stone reporter, and Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki took the fall following embarrassing revelations about deficient care at Veteran Affairs hospitals.

But the number of officials let go for poor job performance is small, and even dramatic failures don’t seem to have much (any?) impact on prominent foreign-policy careers. By most accounts, Samantha Power and Susan Rice led the charge behind the ill-advised U.S. decision to topple Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya; the result is a failed state there, yet both women received important new posts in Obama’s second term. Director of Central Intelligence James Clapper has admitted to misleading (i.e., lying to) Congress regarding the National Security Agency’s surveillance, yet Obama has kept him in his post. CIA chief John Brennan has displayed even more impressive Teflon-like qualities: Obama apparently still retains "full confidence" in him despite his prior role in Bush-era torture, his false or misleading statements about various CIA activities, and his declining public support. And it’s not like the CIA has doing such a great job in its principal mission — providing intelligence — given its failure to anticipate a) the Arab Spring, b) Russia’s response to events in Ukraine, or c) the recent emergence of the Islamic State. One might also ask why the geniuses who helped provoke the crisis in Ukraine still have their jobs too, but that’s another story.

What’s going on here? Why is there so little accountability in the conduct of foreign policy? (This problem also applies to the punditocracy, of course. How else to explain why so many commentators who have been repeatedly and tragically wrong somehow retain positions of prominence inside the U.S. foreign-policy establishment).

I can think of at least six reasons that very few public officials ever suffer negative consequences (or the loss of their jobs) even when they screw up big time.

For starters, judging performance in these jobs is not like calculating a baseball player’s batting average or a quarterback’s efficiency rating. Failure to achieve a stated goal might reveal incompetence, but failure might also occur because the official was asked to do the impossible or simply because of bad luck. Moreover, nobody is infallible, and anyone who stays in office more than a few weeks is bound to make mistakes at least part of the time. If presidents or cabinet officials fired subordinates after the first mistake, after a few months there would be no one left to run the government.

Second, even though the United States is a country of 300-plus million people, there isn’t a deep talent pool for a lot of policy jobs, especially when one has to worry not only about a person’s competence but also his or her loyalty and political acceptability. So even when it’s clear that an important official isn’t doing an especially effective job, he or she might still be the best person available and so they stay on.

Third, some officials aren’t chosen because they are known to be effective policy entrepreneurs or bureaucratic operators, but because they reinforce a president’s political base or appease an important domestic constituency. Here policy success isn’t what is critical; it is the contribution the person makes to continued presidential popularity. One could argue that this explains why Republicans and Democrats keep recycling the same failed Mideast peace negotiators: It would be nice if these individuals managed to deliver a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but nobody really expects it and their real job is to keep that issue from blowing up and hurting the administration back home.

Fourth, it is harder to hold individuals accountable when foreign policy is made by committee via an elaborate interagency process and with dozens of people weighing in. The buck may stop at the president’s desk — and the voters will hold him responsible — but it can be hard to tell whose fingerprints are really on a policy if lots of people have weighed in and many of them hedge to qualify their advice. When a policy succeeds, everyone involved looks good and they will try to claim credit; when it fails, those involved will point fingers, kick up dust, and try to make it harder for journalists, historians, and the public to identify exactly who was most to blame. Or as President John F. Kennedy famously remarked, "Victory has 100 fathers, and defeat is an orphan."

Fifth, lack of vigorous accountability is also an artifact of America’s dominant global position. It isn’t good when U.S. foreign policy fails, and it does involve real costs (especially to others). But none of the mistakes of the past 20 years — and there have been some real doozies — has left the United States open to invasion or even at much risk of a genuine threat to Americans’ way of life. If pressed, I might even argue that the 2008 financial collapse did more to harm to America than any single foreign policy screw-up. Because the United States is so powerful and so secure, it can fail big time in lots of places and still end up mostly OK. When this is the case, however, the need to bring in the A Team and let it do its job will decline.

There is a final reason that accountability is rare. Members of the foreign-policy elite are often reluctant to hold each other to account because they know that it may eventually be their turn in the cross-hairs. "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is a sound career principle for foreign-policy insiders, and it encourages them to pull their punches when dealing with their counterparts’ failings. Really big and visible mistakes can’t be ignored and will have professional consequences, but even these errors tend to be forgiven over time.

None of this is to suggest that the United States (or anyone else) would be better off by trundling out the guillotine at the first sign of a screw-up. As noted above, we have to be somewhat tolerant of policy failure or policymakers will never try anything innovative or "outside the box." But at the same time, the United States probably shouldn’t be as complacent and forgiving as it is. If people can make enormous errors repeatedly and still land top jobs when the political winds are blowing in the right direction, why should we ever expect U.S. foreign policy to improve?

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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