Shadow Government

The perils of staffing and stage-managing

A few months ago, the Obama campaign received some negative press for a poorly attended campaign rally. Instead of the overflow crowds expected, the president spoke to a cavernous hall filled with empty seats. I was reminded of this when I read this post over at the Weekly Standard blog, itself drawing on Politico's ebook on the Obama campaign infighting.

That's a lot of hyperlinking to make one further connection: when I first read the story it reminded me of another disastrous rally at Ohio State, this time in 1998,  in the St. John's basketball arena (the Obama rally was in the Schottenstein Center, the basketball arena that replaced St. John's).

In 1998, the Clinton administration was engaged in an escalating war of words with Saddam Hussein over Iraq's failure to cooperate with international weapons inspectors. The Clinton administration claimed Hussein was hiding his WMD programs from the inspectors. The administration threatened to use military strikes to force compliance (people with shorter memories will think I am describing the Bush era 2002-2003 confrontation with Iraq, but in fact a very similar dynamic had unfolded some five years earlier, which helps explain why Bush got such strong bipartisan support for the 2002 congressional bill authorizing the use of force against Iraq).  Indeed, by December 1998, the Clinton administration did order Operation Desert Fox, the largest set of airstrikes in between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion. In the beginning of 1998, however, the Clinton administration was hoping to avoid those airstrikes by achieving its diplomatic goals through threats and coercive diplomacy.

The Clinton effort at coercive messaging was foundering, however, because the Beltway was consumed with the Lewinsky affair, which broke on Jan. 17, 1998 with the famous Drudge Report story based on leaks from a Newsweek investigation. Within days, the Lewinsky scandal was the only thing people would talk about, which was enormously frustrating for Clinton national security policymakers who argued, with good reason, that there were other pressing issues that deserved national attention -- like Iraq.

So the administration hit upon the bright idea of going out of the Capitol and into the heartland, away from the Lewinsky-obsessed press and to a community presumably more ready to discuss big issues not involving "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."  The administration deployed the top three national security policymakers -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger -- to conduct a conversation on Iraqi WMD programs moderated by CNN host Judy Woodruff.  

However, the OSU-Iraq event was botched, and Clinton insiders told the New York Times it was because perhaps because the A-team for spin did not plan the OSU event, presumably because they were in damage-control mode on Lewinsky. The administration advance people picked a venue far too big (sound familiar?) and then exercised inadequate control over who attended, allowing in members of the Spartacist League, a notorious group of rabble rousers. Rather than getting the civil conversation they expected, the Clinton cabinet officials were soon drowned out by hecklers and protestors. Instead of signaling resolve to Hussein, the event signaled administration chaos. Indeed, the Clinton administration itself seemed to come away from the event shaken and doubting the public's resolve in a confrontation with Iraq. 

Of course, the Obama event was a snafu of a different sort, and, arguably, far less important. But the two events struck similar chords for me, and I thought the echoes worth noting.  

At a minimum, they remind me, as a lowly former staffer, of the way that principals are at risk every time they trust staffers to do something for them. The May 2012 event was not the fault of Obama, nor was the February 1998 event the fault of Albright, Cohen, and Berger. Yet they, and to a certain extent their policies, paid the public price  for what was most likely low-level staffing errors.  Good staffing can make leaders look better than they deserve.  Bad staffing can make them look worse than they deserve.

And perhaps some Democrats are wondering why they have been snake-bit by OSU twice. The next time a staffer has a bright idea of an event to show-case the administration, I am guessing OSU will not get the nod.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The fundamentals of a Romney-Ryan foreign policy

Mitt Romney's choice of Paul Ryan for the VP slot has focused most attention on fiscal issues, in particular entitlement reform, and well it should. This election will be about the bad economy, the urgent need to restore economic growth and job creation, and the coming fiscal nightmare if we don't get our house in order.

But what of foreign policy? Some commenters have addressed it, most of them critics of the GOP ticket who have said that neither Romney nor Ryan has sufficient experience to manage it. They have also insisted that what Romney and Ryan have said recently demonstrates their inadequate understanding of statecraft.

It is no surprise that the ticket's defenders take exception to these criticisms and characterizations. As one of these defenders, my view of their fitness for commander-in-chief and commander-in-chief-in-waiting is based on what I perceive to be their principled views on the role of the United States and their understanding of the realities of the international arena. They are not running for secretary of state or defense or for national security adviser, nor are they trying to win an agency post like arms control czar or head of USAID. They seek the office that sets the tone, lays out the objectives, and staffs the agencies that formulate and implement policy. So what they believe fundamentally about foreign policy is the first thing to address if we wish to understand what kind of foreign policy leaders they would be. We can think about experience separately, understanding that they can't help having no more experience presiding over the most powerful nation-state in the world than have most contenders for the office, including President Obama. As Peter Feaver points out here, let's please not absurdly hold them to a higher standard than candidate Obama was held to four years ago. Once we understand their thinking, we can speculate with some confidence on the types of appointments and policies they will pursue and the objectives they will seek to fulfill. We already know that Governor Romney is a manager and leader of considerable skill; Congressman Ryan has been a chairman of a major committee in the Congress during a crisis when his leadership skills have been tested (and he passed), which is more than the current occupant of the White House could boast in 2008.

I do not claim to have much first-hand knowledge about Romney and Ryan's views, just as I did not about President Obama's views when he was a first-term senator with no experience other than his time in the Senate. I rely primarily on three things to make my assessment of them as I did for Obama: 1) what they have said and done that shows what they believe about the United States' role in the world; 2) what they believe about the world itself; and 3) how they have operated in it, whether in the public or private sector.

Governor Romney's speeches and comments since he has been running for president for several years reveal a leader committed to the notion of American exceptionalism. He asserts regularly that the United States must lead the world if we are to enjoy peace and stability and if freedom and prosperity are to expand. His comments imply that he knows that the world is a dangerous place, and that while pursuing the ideals of cooperation and collective defense is commendable, in many cases only force wielded by a free nation or coalition thereof can secure not only our interests but those embraced by all signatories to the U.N. Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights. We need not wonder what his foreign policy would be generally and so we can therefore extrapolate to the specifics of, say, arms control and the defense of the safety of our citizens and property. His appointments would comprise a coterie of officials who share his views. I imagine some combination of Reaganites and Bushites (both 41 and 43) would be called upon, and there is a lot more agreement among them on these things than disagreement. Plenty of them have the skill to man the posts in service of a President Romney's goals. To put a fine point on it, he has little experience running an energy or a farm policy, but I imagine he has some clear ideas about those things, too, and would set out goals and make appointments to attain them. That would be him exercising leadership, and for all he would draw upon his experience as a governor, a business leader and administrator of one of the world's largest global concerns, the Olympics.

Gov. Romney has also demonstrated some sound instincts. In this respect I'd like to address the recent controversy related to his recent visit to Israel. Gov. Romney said that Israel's strong economic performance relative to its Palestinian neighbors could be traced in part to cultural factors. For this he was called racist and naïve. But this is a perfectly rational comment and it underscores the main theme of my comments here about big ideas and broad principles. Romney did not say Palestinians were inferior biologically and unable to engage in commerce leading to prosperity; nor did he say they did not have ambition or a work ethic. He simply alluded to a fact that should be uncontroversial: the cultural factors animating the citizenry of the State of Israel (both Jew and Arab) are conducive to democracy and economic development. Israel's is a democratic government that protects civil rights and property rights. The same cannot be said about the Palestinian territories under both Hamas and Fatah rule. In each of those cases, whether the Arabs generally have a culture that is conducive to democracy and development -- and I believe they do -- is irrelevant when the culture of the leadership of both public and private sector elites tramples upon it. The fact is that those who have the ability to control society through state power, education, and religion use that power to retard development, enrich themselves through corruption, and do all with impunity. Palestinian Arabs in Israel and the world over practice politics as democrats and prosper; Palestinian Arabs living under the culture that Hamas, Fatah and their parasitical and corrupt clients have fostered do not. How is it racist or naïve to make this case? I think it shows that Romney gets what causes human flourishing; and getting that means he knows not only what he wants to do in terms of domestic policy but also what a fundamental pillar of his foreign policy would be. That is, the United States will be a promoter of individual liberty at home and be its champion everywhere and protector when it is in our interests.

Turning our attention to Congressman Ryan, he's had fewer chances so far to speak at length about foreign policy; his main focus as a member of Congress has been on the fiscal health of the United States. But those who know him argue that he approaches and understands foreign policy much the same way he does fiscal and domestic policy, that is, by means of principles he has imbibed from the American Founders. He starts first with, no surprise, that the United States is an exceptional nation because it is first an idea before it is a place. He has been saying this for several days now since Romney named him and it reflects what he has said as a congressman and it fits with his work at Empower America. He and Romney are perfectly compatible when it comes to what they believe about the United States and what they believe about the international arena. The only question that remains is are they intelligent enough to establish goals based on their principled beliefs and are they smart enough to choose the right people to help them devise and implement policy. I see no reason to believe that they are not, certainly no more reason than was the case with the former junior Senator from Illinois. The difference is the principles and goals, and for that, of course, I'm grateful.

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