Long Transitions and Lots of Appointees

The Buzz

Tevi Troy has a very good, very long piece about presidential transitions in the current issue of National Affairs. He recounts his experience as the director of domestic policy for the “Romney Readiness Project,” which, beginning in July 2012, was “assigned to help Mitt Romney prepare for the early personnel and policy decisions he would face if he won in November.” The piece is valuable because this project was the first of its type to be funded by the federal government, born out of a 2010 law that “provides government support . . . to help presidential challengers begin transition efforts upon receiving their parties' nominations.”

Troy argues convincingly that starting to prepare early for a transition does not represent hubris—rather, it is essential given the size and complexity of modern government. He contends that the $8.9 million spent by the Romney transition project was a worthwhile investment even though the candidate lost. The argument is straightforward: if there’s a significant chance that a challenger might win the election, and the responsibilities of the president are as immense as they are, a modest investment to make sure his team is as prepared as it can be is prudent.

One issue that Troy discusses in detail is the challenge of staffing a new administration. Noting that the presidential confirmation process has become “lengthy, burdensome and overly partisan,” the transition team “wanted to have short lists ready so that the president-elect could choose candidates for the most important positions almost immediately after the election.” This required that each of the team’s three major subgroups—for economics, domestic policy and national security—“provide approximately 400 names that could potentially take top-level positions at the eight or so agencies under its purview.”

Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to new, incoming administrations. Recently, Foreign Policy has reported on the larger-than-normal number of senior positions that are either vacant or staffed by acting personnel at both the State Department and the Pentagon as President Obama begins his second term.

At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner observes that while congressional obstruction is a factor in this, the administration also bears responsibility for not putting names forward in a number of cases. Joyner’s proposed remedy is a sound one, although it is probably a political nonstarter given how much any White House will naturally want to maximize its control over personnel:

This is another data point in support of a position I’ve held for some time: there are far, far too many appointed positions in our government. Yes, the president ought to be able to put his stamp on policy, and bringing in outsiders of his selection at the top leadership levels helps facilitate that. It makes sense to have appointed cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, and even undersecretaries. But do we really need to appoint assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries? Why not fill those from the ranks of the professionals of the Senior Executive Service?

TopicsBureaucracyThe PresidencyPolitics

The Iraqi Civil War, Round Two

Paul Pillar

The most prominent civil wars in recent years have not started with a clear, firing-on-Fort-Sumter beginning. Instead they have been slid into as protests grow, confrontations between the regime and an opposition become more physical, and the government's use of lethal force is increasingly matched by oppositionists firing back. This was the pattern in the civil war in Iraq unleashed by the U.S. invasion and later in Libya and Syria.

Now the same process may be occurring again in Iraq. A spurt of lethal violence this week between the Shia-dominated regime and a Sunni resistance has featured such war-like encounters as helicopter-borne government troops firing on a Shia village. This is another stage in an escalating confrontation between the opposing sectarian forces in Iraq. Again, there is no one point in the escalation at which anyone can declare that a civil war has now begun. But that does not mean one is not beginning.

Any new civil war in Iraq at this time would not really be altogether new but instead a resumption of the unresolved conflict that earlier reached a peak about six years ago. Resumption would be a reminder both of the overall results of the U.S. invasion and of the later surge of U.S. troops. We have known all along that the surge never led to the political reconciliation within Iraq that it was supposed to facilitate. Now we can say also that whatever improvement in security it fostered was temporary.

There are still two grounds for optimism that Iraq will not fall over the brink into a round of fighting anything like the earlier round. One is that unlike during Iraq's earlier political history that the U.S. invasion and subsequent fighting disrupted, and also unlike present-day Syria, the majority religious sect in the country is also the dominant sect in the regime. This is not a situation of a subjugated majority trying to get its day of dominance. A minority that sees itself as repressed can still cause quite a ruckus, but maybe there is less potential for full-blown civil war than when there is a clear disjunction between demographic patterns and patterns of political power.

The other possible reason for optimism concerns the extensive ethnic and sectarian cleansing that occurred in the earlier round of fighting. With the confessional communities now being more thoroughly sorted out and separated than before, there is less of the street-by-street hostile interface that feeds civil war at the retail level.

Even if Iraq does not go over the brink, its teetering on the brink needs to be included in any comprehensive balance sheet on the Iraq War. Rather like the heavy cost of caring for wounded American veterans, the sectarian violence and instability in Iraq is an open-ended cost that keeps adding up as the years go by.

The purpose of noting this should not be just to refight old policy wars over the Iraq War. It should be to try to learn a lesson applicable to other situations. Syria is the most obvious relevant current situation, but there are sure to be others in the future. The basic lesson, briefly stated, is that where there is strong communal antagonism but a weak political culture for managing such antagonism, even a big effort by outsiders is unlikely to have a lasting beneficial effect on political stability.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyDemocracyPost-Conflict RegionsIraqSyria

Jennifer Rubin and the Axis of Evil

The Buzz

With the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum set to open tomorrow, many journos this week are examining the life and legacy of the 43rd president. While some remain sour on his presidency, the latter Bush's approval rating has in fact gained 14 points since his final poll in office, bringing him to a lukewarm 47 percent. Jennifer Rubin's column yesterday "Bush is Back" seems to feel this is a landslide victory in the eyes of history. Her main points:

1) "Unlike Obama’s tenure, [under Bush] there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11."

Not true, but even if it were, why does Bush get a pass for the largest terror attack in American history? While you can read a list of several such attacks after 9/11 here, as a native Washingtonian the DC sniper attacks are a particularly prominent memory. In October 2002, my high school went into "lock down" after reports that men in a white box truck were shooting people at random in the vicinity. That spree, which Lee Boyd Malvo later testified was motivated by "jihad," killed ten and wounded three. Obama rightly gets heat for Boston and Benghazi later in the piece, but Rubin's logic is warped.

2) "It turned out that the triumvirate of Iraq-Iran-North Korea really was the Axis of Evil."

According to whom? This so-called Axis of Evil is one person's perception of the world rather than a fact (unlike, say, whether or not a country is stockpiling WMDs) and can't be proved or disproved as an objective truth. I have no doubt that Obama himself is another point on Rubin's personal Axis of Evil, but she neglects to reiterate that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction as Bush purported. In addition, what kind of diplomacy does labeling certain countries as inherently "evil" beget? While North Korea is truly out there, perpetuation of this language has served only to further complicate our relationships with Iraq and Iran at a time when more careful diplomacy is necessary.

3) He presided over "7 1/2 years of job growth and prosperity" and "can be credited with helping to calm the markets and stabilize financial institutions."

Bush's policies continue to constitute the largest portion of the current public debt, and it's anticipated that the effects of this will be felt long after Obama has left office. Rubin conveniently seems to forget the 2008 global financial crisis, which brought the market to its knees and pushed unemployment through the roof.

4) "Even [Bush's] dreaded enhanced interrogation. . .contributed to our locating and assassinating Osama bin Laden."

Stanley McChrystal himself said that enhanced interrogation did not work and concluded that "sitting down and just talking with people" proved far more effective. As far as Bin Laden goes, a 6,000 page Senate Intelligence Committee report found that torture did not produce any valuable intel that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Rubin's review of the Bush 43 legacy glosses over 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, staggering debt and large intelligence gathering failures preceding the Iraq War. Perhaps it's unsurprising then that she's able to come to such a sunny conclusion. While the Bush library may present an opportunity for the president to refresh his image, he's going to need far more help than Jennifer Rubin can provide to come out on top.

TopicsThe PresidencyTerrorism RegionsUnited States

From Boston to Jerusalem

The Buzz

Sigal Samuel of The Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog asks, “Should Americans Identify With Israel After Boston?” She notes that both Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his close aides, Ron Dermer, have expressed optimism about the impact of the Boston bombings on U.S.-Israeli relations. Both suggested that Americans would feel a sense of shared struggle with Israelis on terror. Samuel notes that this “turns on a hidden assumption: . . . that we’ll all agree to more or less equate the sort of terrorism inflicted on Boston with the sort of terrorism inflicted on Israel.” However, she charges, the two are actually quite different:

Palestinian terrorism—as condemnable as it certainly is—exists within the context of Israeli occupation; living under Israeli control, lacking many basic rights, the Palestinians are clearly in need of a political solution. The same cannot be said of the Tsarnaevs, who lived in America and enjoyed the same rights enjoyed by every immigrant to the U.S. Exactly what political solution does an immigrant already granted full U.S. citizenship require? The answer’s not at all clear.

Samuel is right that it’s not clear what, precisely, the Tsarnaevs were aiming for. But we can make some educated guesses. NBC News reports that under interrogation, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told investigators that he and his brother learned how to make the bombs from Inspire, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s periodic digest of jihadi thought, terror methods and bad poetry. He also told them that he and his brother “were motivated by religious fervor.” Accounts of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s transformation suggest he was sympathetic to the hardline Salafi-Wahhabi currents that have grown like a malignancy in the Muslim world in recent decades. Among other telltales, he had favorited a YouTube video of a Salafi cleric, he had a disdain for celebrating holidays (even Islamic ones) and he publicly accused an imam of unbelief.

And Salafi-jihadi thought absolutely aims for a political solution. That solution—the dominion of its peculiar strand of Islamic thought over all Muslim society, and the removal of all other influences from the Muslim world—just happens to be far less comfortable than political solutions to the Palestine problem.

Yet at bottom many Palestinian terror groups have equally untenable goals. Rejectionist Palestinian groups do not aim for a two-state solution, and have acted repeatedly to undermine it. Even Hamas, which has negotiated (indirectly) with Israel and entered an apparent truce after the last war, has only flirted with the idea.

And that’s what Israel and the United States have in common: they have enemies with which there can be no honorable peace. There always will be Palestinian rejectionists, because even under the most favorable two-state resolution, Palestine will still be a terrible place to live. And there always will be extremists willing to engage in violence as long as America is a major influence in the Middle East (likely for at least the next few decades) and as long as the Islamic world’s intense internal struggle over modernity persists (likely for at least the next few centuries).

Moreover, many of these incorrigible enemies have had deeper connections. Palestinian terror was once funded by America’s geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union; nowadays some of it is funded by America’s (lesser) geopolitical rival, Iran. Hezbollah killed lots of Israelis and lots of Americans in Lebanon’s civil war. Many of the jihadists that attack the United States would include U.S. relations with Israel among their motivations. The connections are rarely strong enough that Jerusalem and Washington face an identical foe—Hezbollah, nowadays, is more concerned with Israel, while Al Qaeda and its hangers-on are more concerned with America. The PLO evacuated Beirut with American guarantees—and an Israeli sniper’s crosshairs on Yasser Arafat’s head. But the connections have long been deep enough to merit substantive coordination.

This all doesn’t mean that the United States should automatically back Israel—which, Samuel notes, seems to be the goal of those who draw parallels between attacks on Boston and attacks on Israel. But the experience of terror is a common thread that should not be dismissed.

TopicsTerrorism RegionsIsrael

Ten Years Later, Still Bush's Poodle

The Buzz

The Washington Post has made clear that a decade after the invasion of Iraq, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is still George Bush’s poodle.

Blair said Bush continues to believe that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power and added: “When you see what is happening in Syria today, the sense of that argument is evident. . . . What it does is just make clear that these decisions are very difficult. If you intervene, it can be very tough. If you don’t intervene, it can also be very tough.”

The hole in this argument is wide enough for a lorry. It is “very tough” in Syria because the country is in the midst of a civil war. Iraq was not fighting a civil war in 2003; Bush and Blair justified intervention by claiming that the country was developing weapons of mass destruction. And, of course, the purported evidence of Iraq’s WMD depended all-too-heavily on reports from Iraqi exiles eager to bring down Saddam Hussein however they could—especially if it could be done at someone else’s expense.

Why is Blair still Bush’s poodle after all these years? He has little choice but to defend the former president in defending his own legacy. In for a penny, in for a pound.

TopicsHistory RegionsIraq