Presidential Transitions and Foreign Policy

Toni Johnson, Staff Writer
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 12:00 PM


President-elect Barack Obama faces one of the most difficult foreign policy landscapes of any modern incoming administration. The forty-fourth president will have to deal with a global financial crisis, two wars, nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, and the ongoing threat of terrorism. This places extra urgency on the need for an effective, well-coordinated transition period, during which the team of the president-elect must shift focus--and personnel--from a campaign footing to an emphasis on choosing priorities and implementing policies. Past experience shows a mixed record of success in this crucial period. This year's transition began months before Election Day, when President Bush directed aides to coordinate national security and other transition issues with the two parties' presumptive nominees, Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). In the run-up to Inauguration Day on January 20, the president-elect announces top cabinet posts for foreign policy, national security, and the economy, and assembles a White House team to coordinate the cabinet's efforts. Experts say putting together a foreign policy team whose members work well together is as important as selecting for experience and talent.

Making the Transition

The eleven-week period between Election Day and inauguration day is a time of major turnover in the executive branch, involving not only a new president and department heads but thousands of political appointees who staff federal agencies. It is also a time for incoming presidents to identify priority issues to translate into policy. Some experts recommend choosing a small, manageable number of such issues for starters. "It is essential to prioritize your long-term goals and then have a pocketful of doable actions ready for quick victories," writes Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess.

The incoming team also uses this period to set up a decision-making process, which varies depending on the management style of the new executive. Kurt M. Campbell, CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a policy institute focused on national security issues, and James B. Steinberg, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, writing in the Washington Quarterly, lay out three decision-making models (PDF) that have been used in the past: cabinet-centric (used by Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald W. Reagan), National Security Council-centric (used by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter), and president-centric (used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt). Campbell and Steinberg say the decision-making process has become more complex given the addition of post-9/11 entities such as the Homeland Security Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Center.

Federal government departments have already begun the process of preparing for the transition (PDF), including ensuring career officials can take the reins until new appointments are finalized. An April 2008 Congressional Research Service report had recommended such a process, finding that risks in the first post-9/11 transition (PDF) could be minimized with proactive executive branch and congressional action. In particular, the report recommended swift action on approval of appointments and security clearances. In October 2008, President Bush announced a transition working group that would begin briefing and educating the major candidates ahead of the election, including national intelligence briefings. Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and executive director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney transition, said the candidates have received "more help from the outgoing administration than any prior administration" (GovExec). The U.S. military is focusing on preparing for any crisis requiring military force and advising the incoming administration on likely new directions in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials told the Washington Post.

Previous transitions involving a change in political party have been marred by accusations of lack of cooperation. Incoming officials may also be dismissive of what they are being told because of party prejudices and assumptions they can do better. For instance, CFR Senior Fellow James M. Goldgeier, a former National Security Council staff member in the Clinton administration, says that the Bush administration may not have taken the Clinton administration's briefings on terrorism seriously enough. Goldgeier and coauthor Derek H. Chollet, in their new book America Between the Wars, write that as it took office, the Bush team "remained focused on familiar national security problems such as those caused by menacing nation-states" and not non-state actors like al-Qaeda. The Bush White House has rejected accusations that it downplayed terrorist threats before the attacks of September 11, 2001. The 9/11 Commission report gives a exhaustive breakdown of how the Bush transition team engaged on foreign policy issues, particularly terrorism.

The person leading the transition is often not a member of the campaign, which can sometimes create tensions since the transition process begins before the campaign ends. The transition leader helps make final personnel decisions and lay out policy priorities. Some experts say campaign policy teams can feel sidelined by priorities introduced in the transition process. This was the case between Carter's transition director, Jack Watson (who later became head of intergovernmental affairs), and his campaign director Hamilton Jordan, who later become Carter's White House chief of staff. In a paper, Glenn P. Hastedt and Anthony Eksterowicz, political science professors at James Madison University, say the importance of early planning (PDF) came into conflict with the need to win a campaign.

Transition Perils

The need to craft a foreign policy team whose members work well together is especially important. Experts say few modern presidents have entered office with extensive foreign policy experience. The notable exceptions are George H.W. Bush, a former ambassador to the United Nations and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and Eisenhower, who led U.S. forces in Europe during World War II and headed the U.S. occupation of Germany after the war. Both were considered by experts to have had fairly successful transitions. On the other hand, a plan set in motion in the later days of the seasoned Eisenhower administration and accepted by the incoming administration of President John F. Kennedy turned into a foreign policy blunder for the new president. Dean Rusk, secretary of state for the Kennedy administration, says poor teamwork also played a role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle (PDF), a failed attempt to invade Cuba by exiles backed by the CIA. Rusk notes that some of the reasons for "that serious mistake" included the fact that many in Kennedy's team were strangers to each other as well as to the president, and thus had the tendency to keep to their duties rather than communicate with each other.

Some experts say that few new presidents, whether governors or members of Congress, come into office understanding the presidential decision-making process. During his transition period, Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, failed to reach out to congressional Democrats who held a majority in both houses. John P. Burke, a professor specializing in American politics at the University of Vermont, argues this hampered Carter's presidency. Hastedt and Eksterowicz write that when Carter went to follow through on an early priority, the Panama Canal Treaty, he was "not prepared to engage Congress in a treaty ratification battle." While Carter prevailed in getting the treaty eventually ratifed, Hastedt and Eksterowicz say the effort has been described as "badly handled." Though the next U.S. president will come straight from Congress, Burke says he will need to forge a different relationship with his former colleagues.

Debate exists about the necessity for and length of reviews of previous administration policies started during the transition. A report by the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group that provides information on transitions, says new presidents should be "wary of plans that have been developed by executive agencies during the previous administration and are placed before them, in the early weeks and months, urging quick action" (PDF). Examples of this danger include: the Truman administration's plans to oust the prime minster of Iran, which Eisenhower later supported, leading to installation of the Shah; and the Bay of Pigs, a plan originally proposed late in Eisenhower's presidency by the CIA that was then taken up by the Kennedy administration and played a role in a near nuclear standoff with Russia.

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