Sunday, March 06, 2011

Why U.S. Policy is So Bad: An Analysis of the Current Policymaking Process

Barry Rubin

The Obama administration has an internal split. On one hand are the people with relatively more experience and a more realistic view of the situation. This would include Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. This is certainly true for the uniformed military. If one reads their remarks carefully one often sees deviations from the White House line. They tend to see Iran as more of a threat and favor(ed) alignmens with existing Arab regimes while being more skeptical of change and of Islamist groups.

They seem to have been opposed to openly and quickly throwing Mubarak's regime--not just Mubarak himself--under the bus. That approach is contrary to many decades of U.S. practice. As a student of the history of the U.S. foreign making process (my book, Secrets of State covers that from1789 to 1980) I'd say we now face a unique situation. The president doesn't fully trust Clinton (a former political rival who'd like to be president and who strongly criticized him in the past) and Gates (a holdover from the Bush Administration). Lacking any experience in foreign policy,

One often sees in Clinton's statements some different viewpoint immediately followed by lavish praise for Obama.

Nevertheless, Obama does not respect the State or Defense departments, their experience, or certain traditional principles of international affairs.

To put it less politely, he has no idea what he's doing.

The alternative camp is focused on the NSC, not so much the current advisor but some of the more junior and White House staff who have strong ideological views and little experience. Susanna Power is a good example with strong, even wacky, views. A prominent figure here is John Brennan, the president's advisor on terrorism and apparently also on Islamism. Brennan has long been an active advocate of the "win over the moderate Islamists idea. He has been outspoken regarding Hizballah and has apparently said in private he'd like to do the same with Hamas but knows that the pro-Israel forces in Congress and elsewhere make that impossible. The former national security advisor, Jones, also had this perspective.

For some reason, the CIA, Brennan's former agency, seems to be a key factor in pushing this view. Note that national intelligence chief Clapper's briefings obviously sugar-coatedthe nature of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Dennis Ross, whose name is often mentioned by outsiders, seems to have no influence at all.

A central issue in the American policymaking process is always who in an administration has the greatest influence on the president. Usually it is either the secretary of state or the national security advisor. At present, though, the secretary of state has little influence while the national security advisor is very weak. That means the president, with his personal relatively junior White House advisors are making it up as they go along.

Professor Barry Rubin, Director, Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center
The Rubin Report blog
Editor, Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal
Editor Turkish Studies,

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