Paul Pillar

The Incumbency Effect

Missing from most of the commentary and analysis on what the Obama administration is doing right or doing wrong regarding political unrest in Arab states and especially Egypt is a full appreciation of what is entailed in actually making and executing policy and not just commenting on it. The foreign relations of the United States are filled with day-to-day requirements, complications, and constraints that may seem mundane, are under the radar of public discourse, and are not the stuff of grand strategy but that nonetheless greatly constrain what the administration of the day can do. In the present situation many of those requirements, complications, and constraints involve the ins and outs of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. The commentary doesn't capture them because of much of the commentary is tendentious and more interested in scoring points, because even unbiased commentary deals mostly in generalizations and the major directions of policy rather than the details of foreign relationships, and because many of those ins and outs of foreign relations do not become public knowledge. The constraints and complications are sort of like the physicists' concept of dark matter, which has a lot to do with how the universe works even though we don't see it.

Every administration, burdened with the task of governing and of keeping the ship of state running as it navigates foreign waters, faces a multitude of such constraints and complications. Every administration sooner or later finds itself defending things that have to be done even though they are no more in line with the policymakers' principles and platform than with the views of the administration's political opponents. Daily necessity has a way of shoving aside principles and platforms.

With regard to democracy in the Middle East, the George W. Bush administration faced such daily necessities just as the Obama administration is facing them. The Bush administration's inconsistent application of the “freedom agenda” was due in part to its indefensible idea that if a democratic process doesn't yield an outcome we like we should negate the process and oppose the outcome. But it also was due to the same sorts of details about the relationship with a country like Egypt that the Obama administration is wrestling with now.

The tyranny of the details of implementation comes up again and again, on a wide variety of issues. Take, as another example the Obama administration has wrestled with, the status of the detention facility at Guantanamo. President Obama said he would close it within a year. He has not closed it—on the face of it, a broken promise. But anyone inclined to criticize him for that should offer a solution to the problem that has prevented the closing: what to do about those among the prisoners who still appear to pose a threat to public safety. The problem is really a collection of many individual problems, each one defined by the circumstances of a single detainee. A general answer or piece of advice is not gong to solve the problem.

The burden of incumbency leads to several patterns that incumbents tend to exhibit, or exhibit more than do their opponents:

  • They bring less change and new initiative to policy than their own statements would lead one to believe. The tyranny of details causes a sort of regression toward the mean in which there is less difference between successive administrations than campaign rhetoric would suggest.
  • As they implement policy, incumbents are vulnerable to charges that they are not living up to their own principles and platforms. 
  • Incumbents appear less consistent than their critics, because in implementing their policies they are continually having to adjust and react to changing situations and new problems.


We on the outside who criticize and offer policy prescriptions need to remember how much difference there is between what we do and what those who have to formulate and execute real policy are doing. That doesn't mean refraining from the criticism. But it may mean cutting policymakers a bit of slack and also taking another look at our prescriptions to see what problems they may have missed.