With the announcement of President-elect Barack Obama's key national security appointees, a debate raged in Washington: Are personnel policy? Or will Obama have the bureaucratic savvy and strength of will to ensure that his appointees execute his vision? But there's another way to look at the situation: Process is policy.
Bureaucratic process can be the difference between a successful administration and a failed presidency, especially in the foreign policy arena, where authority to make decisions could plausibly sit in several different offices. Too many turf battles could result in situations in which the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing. The men and women selected by Obama to head key foreign policy and security offices -- General Jim Jones for national security adviser, Governor Janet Napolitano for secretary of homeland security, Robert Gates for a second term as secretary of defense, Senator Hillary Clinton for secretary of state, Eric Holder for attorney general, and Dr. Susan Rice for ambassador to the United Nations -- are all strong personalities, but it is the ins and outs of their relationships with each other that will determine the new administration's foreign policy.
Luckily, there exists something of a primer for this challenge, a forthcoming book by Ivo Daalder and I.M. Destler called In the Shadow of the Oval Office. The book is a series of case studies of the role of national security advisers since the position’s inception with McGeorge Bundy under President John F. Kennedy. Daalder, a former National Security Council staffer, is a member of Obama's transition team, and his book offers a how-to guide for organizing the upper levels of the national security bureaucracy, as well as some insight into how the new administration's senior players will work together. Above all, the book teaches two lessons: the importance of a talented national security advisor and the need for strong presidential guidance during policy debates.
What kind of national security advisor does Obama want? Former Clinton national security staffer James Steinberg, also working on the transition and rumored to be slated for the position of deputy secretary of state, told Daalder and Destler that the relationship between National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker during George H.W. Bush's administration is the ideal. The two authors select him as the "best" of the 14 people who have held the post, which will come as no surprise to those who are eagerly watching the alliance between Scowcroft’s realism and the liberal internationalists of the Democratic establishment. The two writers identified Scowcroft's "winning formula": "gain the confidence of colleagues, run a transparent and collegial process, and secure power through proximity to the president." The lesson Scowcroft's term teaches, they say, is that a national security advisor "can gain and exercise power and influence without having to deprive other players of theirs."
This formula sheds light on why the Obama team has tapped Jones. The national security adviser coordinates all the major agencies interested in foreign policy and must walk the fine line between producing coherent policy and allowing free and open debate among principals. Jones' reputation as something of an organization man and a methodical, deliberate administrator seem suited to the job. Given the stature of the other appointees, it's no small task for the former Marine.
There are no indications that this administration's national security adviser will implement policy, as Henry Kissinger did, rather than simply coordinate. The somewhat taciturn Jones may be challenged by the need for the modern national security advisor to communicate the president's policies to the media; though most agree that the NSA should work behind the scenes, there is no way to avoid spending some time on the public stage. One larger worry that arises from the book is the nature of the relationship between the president-elect and his NSA. Daalder and Destler identify trust -- both between NSA and president, and among the various principals -- as vital, but Jones and Obama have not worked together in the past. That gap will have to be bridged quickly, given the breadth of the new government's tasks.
The second overarching message of the book is that the president must take an active role in captaining the foreign policy process. Early in his first term, Bill Clinton spent his time focused solely on domestic issues. This led to unresolved conflicts in his national security cabinet and a sense of aimlessness. Given contemporary concerns, it's a temptation that Obama will have to work hard to resist, but also one that he recognizes, noting at Monday's press conference, "I'm going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House. ... But understand I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made."
For Obama, this has meant offering explicit or implicit mandates to his cabinet members, many of which, by necessity, include fixing the mistakes of the recent administration. For Gates, the task is obvious: oversee withdrawal from Iraq. Napolitano will be an administrator, charged with smoothing out the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Homeland Security Department. Holder's main national security portfolio will be reasserting the constitution and walking back the excesses of the Bush administration on torture and civil liberties, while solving the delicate legal conundrums surrounding the closing of Guantanamo. Rice, whose position as U.N. ambassador will be returned to cabinet rank after losing it in the Bush administration, will need to mend frayed international relations and also be the chief progressive voice in the new administration, with some explicitly suggesting her role may be to check Clinton's hawkish tendencies. The new secretary of state will have a finger in all of these pots, though her own policy agenda remains ambiguous.