Destined to Fail: How Political Appointees Endanger Foreign Policy > Dogecointool

Destined to Fail: How Political Appointees Endanger Foreign Policy

Why do such bad ideas get injected into the making of U.S. foreign policy, particularly with an ease rarely found in other advanced democracies?

Much is due to the political appointments system which the country uses to staff its government, including the national security apparatus. The White House has the responsibility to fill roughly 4,000 senior jobs throughout the federal departments and agencies. When it comes to roles concerning foreign policy and defense, such appointees from outside the executive branch often have more experience in academia, law firms or in business than on the front lines of world affairs. (The same method is applied to staffing at other departments, like Commerce and HUD — except bad ideas at Commerce or Labor are unlikely to cause international catastrophe.)

This freewheeling approach imposes inexperience, compels urgency, courts risk and foments illusions of being able to manage the ethnic, ideological and political concerns of other nations.

“I didn’t think it would be this tough,” Rice concluded on Iraq, echoing Bundy who came to admit of Vietnam that “this damn war is much tougher” than he had anticipated. The system — in which Rice and Bundy, among so many others, have flourished — creates all the wrong incentives when devising foreign policy even as it raises the risk of being gamed by rivals overseas. Of course, not all appointees have such flaws, just like not all career officials have real foresight. But it’s difficult to see why the outcomes of jousting with China, waging proxy war against Russia and courting a showdown with Iran would be any better than the results of past turmoil.

Furthermore, the problem with the system of political patronage goes deep: The influence of cabinet members and nearly all ambassadors can be secondary to that of their subordinates who structure and execute decisions day-to-day at State, the Pentagon and on the NSC staff. Unlike in any other serious country, these hands-on operating roles of government are all open to political patronage, including key positions affecting war and peace: undersecretary of defense for policy, counselor at the State Department, assistant secretary of defense for international security, ones at State for political-military affairs. Also in the mix are assistant and deputy assistant secretaries in both departments for all regions of the globe. Various office directors and senior staff add their weight.

Some slots require Senate confirmation; most not. Appointees from outside federal departments and agencies may be fewer in one administration, more so in another. But the result is always a kaleidoscope of new arrivals and random talents. Meanwhile, embers are drifting down on powder kegs.

The Rise of Foreign Policy Amateurism

America wasn’t always so reckless in the world. It took Kennedy’s thousand days in office to make incaution systemic.

Certainly, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations had made plenty of mistakes before him, and Korea — with its disastrous counter-invasion to “liberate” the North — had already been the first of what by today adds up to four failed wars in a row. (1991’s one-hundred-hour Gulf War was a high-tech, tactical win over a ruinously self-exposed army of conscripts.) But under JFK’s presidency, insobriety reached a new level. Suddenly, assassination and nuclear brinkmanship were tools of policy while the number of strategic missiles and bombers on alert doubled. And he boasted of increasing special forces in Vietnam by 600 percent.

Why the sudden shift? During the Kennedy presidency, every form of U.S. military power was multiplied. Appointee positions expanded geometrically, and vigorous men of all backgrounds quickly filled them. Professors, previously for the most part advisers to the departments dealing with national defense, suddenly became line practitioners. Kennedy moved his national security adviser — Bundy, who appointed people of his own — into the West Wing and promised a “long twilight struggle year in and year out” against ruthless, godless tyranny. The youthful and energetic men who came to power in January 1961 saw few limits and acted accordingly.

Later administrations kept the illusions of what U.S. political-military clout could accomplish, along with the habit of deploying professors and think tankers in hands-on roles, with no better results. To be sure, great accomplishments have surrounded the many self-deceptions. America defeated the Soviet empire, created sound alliances and had a short, focused, effective intervention in Kosovo, as in Kuwait. Yet the record as a whole is chilling: not just the failed wars but all the befriending of murderous sheiks and shahs, an illusory détente in the 1970s that buttressed Soviet Russia, to be followed in the 80s by upholding Saddam Hussein, later capped by nation-building in places where nations barely existed. And worst of all, the country keeps repeating its follies on a colossal scale.

Today, the Office of Presidential Personnel fills about 635 jobs at State and Defense, and several hundred more at Homeland Security and elsewhere that address foreign policy. At the NSC, which has a staff over 300, roughly 20 percent of the most senior people are appointed, the rest being detailed from the military and a range of government agencies.

Stephen Hadley, who succeeded Rice in 2005 as national security adviser, defended this approach after a lecture I gave in Washington, in 2019, on foreign policy shortfalls. Much is due to the executive branch structure’s depending on one figure being in charge. Accordingly, a president most effectively exercises power by personalizing the instruments of state right down to the level of daily implementation — especially in foreign affairs where, constitutionally, the president has vast latitude.

Basically, in this view, spirited, clever and well-schooled individuals then get pulled into the system. They are people like current national security adviser Jake Sullivan, a lawyer who had entered government in 2009, becoming Vice President Joe Biden’s chief national security aide; he then spent four years teaching and policy consulting during the Trump years, until Biden became president. Or like Rice, who in 2001 returned to Washington for a second stint in government — having spent two years at the NSC during the George H. W. Bush presidency — after a decade at Stanford. And people like Bundy too, who was new to public life when coming to Washington at the start of the Kennedy administration, after a dozen years teaching at Harvard.

Hadley also rose in this system where “outsiders” turn into “insiders” with each election cycle. A Republican, he had worked as an analyst at the NSC from 1974-1977, then practiced law in Washington until, in 1989, he served as a Pentagon assistant secretary for three and a half years under the first President Bush. Another long stint of lawyering followed until the second President Bush appointed him deputy NSC adviser in 2001. Hadley proved instrumental to making the case for invading Iraq in 2003, and, so qualified, he succeeded Rice.

These representative careers are emulated by other men and women with establishment credentials, stellar political networks and ambitions to enter America’s civilian national security cohort, or to attain foreign policy roles in general. They arrive from law firms, universities, think tanks, congressional offices, business and journalism, and they include former career professionals who’ve left government, then to return with political backing. In all, the actual number of years they serve in the executive branch is low compared to Foreign Service officers and civil servants who’ve risen in the merit-based ranks.

Before her star turn in Congress, Liz Cheney personified the existing foreign policy approach in which the job description needn’t include experience. She graduated from law school in 1996 and, being politically connected, got appointed in 2002 as a deputy assistant secretary of State. Her remit was the Near East, and, knowing zero about the region, she landed in the middle of calamity.

It’s a unique approach. In Europe, Japan, Brazil, Russia and China, ministries are filled instead by permanent, though frequently rotating, career officials. Career diplomats and foreign policy professionals hold important roles sometimes effectively up to cabinet level.

Ideally, the Washington way assures a valuable tension between an administration’s more original, politically-savvy appointees — alert to the short term — and an ongoing, knowledgeable, inherited staff attuned to longer challenges. However, what ends up happening in practice is that the country’s civil service and Foreign Service are diminished: Political appointees from outside the federal departments, relatively untried on the frontlines, tend to hold the decisive, career-enhancing roles like deputy assistant secretary and above. Chances of serious misjudgment increase.

Part of the tragedy is that most anyone whose life included years of mediating between warlords in N’Djamena, or equally dismal tasks during decades of actual responsibility, could have told professors Rice or Bundy that war was going to be “tough,” and could have said so before the thousands of body bags started arriving home.

That sort of gritty, practical, career-long experience exemplifies the Foreign Service, among other parts of the federal merit-based hierarchy. It fosters an expertise that’s hard to acquire elsewhere, even if a lawyer or professor or think tank researcher has more than one or two forays into government.

The Price of Inexperience

Questions of relevant, practical experience among many political appointees is one of several problems with the patronage system.

During 2001, for example, the Bush administration’s new undersecretary of defense for policy — a huge job that involved managing the Defense department’s international relations — arrived from a six-man law firm. In his memoirs written after he left for a think tank in 2005, this recent enthusiast for invading Iraq and thereby transforming the Middle East derided the country’s diplomats for their inclination to “fret about the risk” of war.

Forty years earlier, it was Bundy — with no more useful experience than this undersecretary — who mocked the professionals at State for lacking “energy” when harsh decisions of escalation and regime change had to be made on Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, in the run-ups to both Iraq and Vietnam, it tended to be those experienced, long-serving professionals — men and women required to know something of history, foreign cultures and languages — who doubted that America could recast entire cultures overnight.

A second limitation arises from the relatively short stints in government among these appointees. Institutional memory becomes spotty as they come and go. Those confirmed by the Senate stay in office for an average of 17 months. Below them, others may serve slightly longer, before returning to private life. It’s a form of unplanned obsolescence.

One Washington lawyer, who had been appointed a deputy assistant secretary at State during Bill Clinton’s presidency, before returning to practice in 2000, genially admitted he was years behind the cable traffic when President Barack Obama designated him Special Envoy for Libya.

A system which depends heavily on short-term officeholders imposes a sense of urgency on itself. And urgency is dangerous when, say, negotiating arms accords — or deciding just how to evacuate Kabul or Saigon. Appointees — often focused, clever and determined people — are able push their priorities through bureaucracies that are less certain or obsessed. These officials may be comparative amateurs. Yet they must act right now before competing urgencies are tabled, or their administration is swept from office.

A third limitation of many appointees — shared by cabinet members — is the recurring belief that America can pretty much shape entire geostrategic environments, like the one around Beijing.

All that’s needed to succeed are enough resources and zeal, combined with the quintessential American science of management. Surely “every problem can be solved,” believed Robert McNamara, the Ford Motor Company president who served as secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, from 1961-1967. The problem wasn’t just McNamara’s conceit: He staffed the Pentagon with what the press called “whiz kids” from Harvard, Stanford, RAND who shared his conviction. Desperate to thwart the devouring incubus of China, the country then applied these certitudes to Vietnam.

Today, after a debacle with many similarities, retired General David Petraeus — always politically attuned, and sounding like a just-appointed assistant secretary — writes of what should have been done to “manage” Afghanistan on a “sustained, generational” scale. Words like that say a lot, and they parrot a half-century of high civilian officials. This isn’t merely shorthand for a robust foreign policy. It’s a small step to assuming that Asia or the Middle East can be smoothly administered, or fine-tuned, if the right tools are applied.

Here too a difference has long existed with professional diplomats who are skilled in non-coercive persuasion. Seldom are Foreign Service Officers, who are frequently marginalized anyway from the big decisions, to be found among the “global architects” of whom novelist John le Carré writes. Those are officials at the top who are busily crafting “a secret tuck here, and a secret pull there… and a destabilized economy or two” to save democracy everywhere.

The Danger of “Emergency Men”

Worst of all, the appointee system is a gateway to power for a certain type of political figure. These are people whom the opportunities offered by the modern state tempt into an eternal trifling with danger and extremity. And it’s to the excitements of war and peace that they are drawn. Nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt called them “emergency men,” and the genre has abounded in Washington.

During the discussion with Hadley, he asked me what I meant by “fine-tuning.” A successor of his, John Bolton, who served 18 months under President Donald Trump, offers an example. Bolton is a true amateur, and fits Burckhardt’s description. He’s spent only 14 divvied up years of a nearly five-decade career working on these matters in government. Law firms, politicking, early domestic duties at the Justice Department and think tanks consumed his time. (Nor do TV interviews and op-eds issued from research centers compare to owning a problem while in office, however briefly.) Yet he tells of staging coups during stints of public service — pointless acts if even true, really, because there’s little chance that Washington will be able to control what comes next, whether Saigon in 1963 or Cairo in 2013, or who-knows-what tomorrow.

To boast in 2022 of staging coups recalls another national security adviser who described himself in 1972 as “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into town.” Each man was daydreaming of uncanny abilities.

Henry Kissinger held that slot at the time. President Richard Nixon, who knew much about foreign affairs, observed that Kissinger was one of those people who foment crises “to earn attention for themselves,” adding that the Harvard professor — in his first government job — would have set one off over someplace like Ecuador had Vietnam not been in play. Many crises did erupt, and worse: bungling in Cambodia and in Pakistan that abetted genocide, and so too in East Timor which he believed to be Muslim, not Catholic, and “in the middle of Indonesia,” plus bolstering a disastrous right-wing coup in Chile, just to begin. Meanwhile, Kissinger imitated Kennedy’s own NSC adviser, McGeorge Bundy. “The defect of the State Department is low energy,” he advised Nixon.

As would Kissinger, Bundy embodied emergency: Any resolute action had to be superior to restraint. An early hawk on Vietnam, he saw bloodshed during his first visit to Asia in 1965. The U.S. commander in Vietnam recalled Bundy developing a “field marshal psychosis,” and America then intervened big.

Political appointees aren’t the only ones to blame. Generals, legislators, carefully sieved Foreign Service Officers and their counterparts in the civil service, as well as at CIA, can push foolish notions too. (CIA has few appointees, and its problems instead occur from a decades-long hermetic insularity.) It’s the brass, after all, which keeps assuring politicians that the silver bullets of airpower will deliver a decisive edge: drones in the Middle East, helicopters in Vietnam and B-29s in North Korea. Yet these aren’t the men and women who are driving decisions day-to-day.

For the moment, the Biden administration appears to be deftly countering Russia’s war on Ukraine: tightly choreographing allies, not empowering cowboys, and by all accounts regarding career professionals as essential to handling a complex response. Helpfully, the National Security Strategy document released earlier this month emphasizes international economic policy and the strengthening of America at home.

But there’s a thin line between hopes of “shaping” the world and trying to exert open, direct control over what other countries might or might not do. Watch old habits unfurl as dangers mount, whether from Russia, Iran or from China, forever “on the march.”

The language of public debate is getting loud, and it’s unoriginal. “Vacuums of power,” “emboldened opponents,” “Munich!,” of course, and “a test of US resolve,” as well as “shaping” this or that vast entity. Excitable professors join Blinken’s new Foreign Affairs Policy Board who write, actually in italics, of ruthlessly blocking an opponent’s way forward and explicitly urge a new Cold War. Meanwhile, civilian control of the military, which depends on a keen sense of what can and cannot be accomplished by force, hasn’t improved in any way at all.

Victory has been called the ability to face greater problems without fear. The steadiness which makes that possible can be seen in the case-hardened, enduring qualities that the U.S. Navy brings to refueling its ships in a storm: “Not easy, just routine.” These are strengths of focus, of deadly seriousness about the country’s needs, and of seasoned professionals who work with few illusions. In contrast, to keep indulging White House patronage is like playing dice at the heights of foreign policy making.

At best, the political appointee-to-career personnel ratios might change, though in fact little will be done to improve the staffing problem. Foreign and defense policy has become a trellis on which the well-connected grow careers, and too many influential figures profit from revolving doors, as do the companies where they cash in. Yet knowing of these failings might induce a healthy skepticism toward what journalists label the “national security establishment,” and also toward our country’s commitment, as stated in the latest national strategy document, to “defend democracy around the world.”

Ultimately, America’s peculiar approach to selecting talent undercuts the ability to handle strategy, let alone grand strategy, which entails unifying long-term ends with the most broad-based means. For a lifetime, with the fewest of exceptions, what passes for considered policy has instead been a twisting sequence of ad hoc decisions, hammered out under the stresses of domestic politics. How could results be otherwise?

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