The Transition Has Started. Release the Op-Eds!
Every four years, Washington’s ideas industry indulges in its favorite ritual: trying—and mostly failing—to influence the next U.S. president.
The ideas industry has been busy in the last few weeks. Since the U.S. presidential election was called for Joe Biden on Nov. 7, Washington has been awash in advice for him and his incoming administration. A rough count reveals at least 100 commentaries, op-eds, blog posts, special reports, and policy memos outlining what Team Biden should be doing on various issues of import, though my count was restricted to foreign-policy issues with a heavy bias toward the Middle East. Add in China, Russia, cybersecurity, climate change, COVID-19, repairing relations with NATO, and other topics, and one can only marvel at the pace—if not always quality—of production.
This outpouring happens every presidential election cycle. It seems that in the evolutionary development of the species called “wonks,” offering unsolicited advice has become part of their DNA, which is why they never stop to ask, “Why do we do this?”
I don’t mean to be critical or offend, but it is worth it to take a step back sometimes and get some perspective on what it is think tank land—of which I have been a proud citizen for almost two decades—is doing and how it goes about it. To be sure, some of the articles that have been published making recommendations for the Biden administration are thoughtful and well crafted (even if I might disagree with parts or all of them), but I am afraid there is a far higher proportion of this work that reflects the ethos of getting it written, posted, and tweeted that has sadly become the norm in Washington. Of course, there is an added urgency for some authors given that not a few are part of the cavalcade of Biden administration job seekers. These pieces tend to be ideological and tendentious, all the while repeating what has by now become not only conventional wisdom, but also the president-elect’s policy: rejoin the World Health Organization, get back into the Paris climate accord, and negotiate anew with the Iranians. The biggest problem, though, is the way in which a lot of this work is shot through with politics.
Like everything in Washington these days, foreign policy comes in two varieties: red and blue. And given the professional pressure to sign up with either the Republicans or the Democrats—especially during an election year—the spate of articles in the aftermath of a presidential election tends to reflect this distressing state of partisan affairs. This makes it hard to address certain issues. Take, for example, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign. These are the holy of holies of Democratic and Republican foreign policies respectively. Raise questions about either the 2015 agreement or the Trump administration’s approach to Iran and an analyst might be suspect in the minds of people who keep score on these issues—and they are the ones who tend to have influence. There are all kinds of incentives for analysts to sign up for either the red or blue team and write articles advancing their causes. This work warms the cockles of partisans’ hearts and generates lots of likes and retweets, but it serves little practical use to people tasked with addressing difficult issues as senior government officials.
Even some of the best, more objective transition literature has drawbacks, too. It is a special conceit among those of us outside of government to believe that we have discovered solutions to problems that the smart folks in government have not. Nevertheless, when it comes to preparing the next president—even one with as many decades of experience as Biden, to say nothing of his seasoned foreign-policy team—it has become a convention in Beltway writing to declare that “policymakers must do X” and “the president should do Y.” It is as if think tankers have collectively forgotten the way foreign policy is made—which is an often messy combination of goals, resources, politics (both at home and abroad), and the art of the possible. The end result is often at variance with what an administration is told it must and should do.
This does not make Washington think tanks obsolete or irrelevant. These organizations don’t just exist to influence a given administration. They also have a role to play in educating the public. And some have had success in influencing policy—though a 1,500-word piece addressed to the incoming administration offering what to do about the Syrian civil war, Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, or the human rights catastrophe in Egypt is unlikely to do it. For all the time wonks in Washington spend with and among policymakers, we haven’t yet learned what they need from us, which is best summed up in a single word: context.
Imagine a National Security Council senior director and their directors who handle myriad issues at a grueling pace. When they actually have a moment to read, some think tank senior fellow’s declaration about what the White House must or should do—likely ideas these staffers have already considered—is probably not helpful. Rather, placing an uprising, border skirmish, or some seemingly surprising political development in broader historical and analytic context seems to be the key that unlocks an official’s weekend reading folder, which may influence the way they approach a problem. This is not the kind of work that gets posted and shared quickly, and it’s not the kind of analysis that someone pulls off in an afternoon, which is why it is so rare.
Transitions in Washington are a combination of politics, pomp, heartwarming symbolism, hard work, and a good deal of silliness. Us wonks are contributing to it with our often well-intentioned but often misplaced advice. It isn’t a good look. Think tankers are supposed to be a resource for policymakers. We are not supposed to reinforce their political convictions, offer them the conventional wisdom wrapped up in either a blue or red bow, or revel in the warm glow of retweets and an increased number of followers. If experts want to contribute to a sound foreign policy, they should dispense with the now familiar conventions of “providing advice to the next administration” and focus on writing well-researched, well-argued articles and books. It is amazing how influential that can be.
Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook