The White House does monopolize one policy arena. Is that a good thing?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

President Obama smiles after delivering opening remarks to African leaders at the start of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. It’s good to be the foreign policy king — or is it? (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report in Newsweek about the negotiations between Senate Democrats and the executive branch over declassifying a report on the CIA torture report.  This part jumped out at me:

Steven Aftergood, the director of the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said it was unusual for the White House to be as involved in the declassification process as it now finds itself. “In almost every other case the originating agency or agencies that have equities in the information are the ones to declassify it,” he said….

In recent days, the White House has taken a new and more hands-on approach to dealing with the declassification dispute between the committee and the CIA. That’s a change from the White House’s role in the process since April, when the White House gave only broad outlines for the redaction process and let the ODNI lead the interagency process that did the first round of actual redactions.

Now if you read the whole thing, you’ll see that there are some valid reasons for White House involvement.  But this reveals a trend that I’ve highlighted before, one that started before the Obama administration but has accelerated under this president:  the consolidation of foreign policy authority inside the White House.

Consider, for example, this Defense One story by Gayle Tzemach Lemmo:  

Some who served in the Obama administration… say that the White House’s process is slowing internal U.S. deliberations on international affairs issues. And that that in turn slows the timing of public announcements and policy implementation. Former administration officials say that Obama’s White House has taken charge of aspects of foreign policy-making that in other Administrations would have been left to the State Department. Questions that in the past may have been heard, shaped and largely decided at Foggy Bottom now get their final hearing – usually several hearings – at the White House.

On whether or not to cut off aid to Egypt, for example, one former official says, detailed discussions went on “for months” as the White House sought to find the right balance between looking tough on an anti-democratic leadership and not entirely abandoning a longtime ally critical to the region.

In his memoir former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen” since the Nixon White House.

It’s not just the national security dimension of foreign affairs, however — it’s also foreign economic policy, as this CSIS report on economic statecraft by Robert Pollard and Gregory Nicks highlights:

The [National Security Council] is charged with coordinating the interagency process but is insufficiently staffed to fully resolve such bureaucratic rivalries or to execute key policy initiatives on its own. Over a period of many years, and across successive administrations, the NSC has concentrated an increasing amount of decisionmaking power into its own hands, rather than delegating authority to responsible line agencies. More recently, NSC personnel have become increasingly operational in foreign and economic affairs, displacing agency personnel that have traditionally led the U.S. government’s international engagement.

Top-level coordination, of course, is both necessary and desirable. In practice, however, the NSC often takes on more than it can handle; ignores the input of line agencies with relevant expertise; and frequently end-runs U.S. missions abroad, communicating directly with counterparts in foreign capitals, often without informing others—even the ambassador, who serves as the president’s representative in the host country. Among other consequences, these practices undermine and negate the significant resources and talent that Washington has invested in its overseas missions. In effect, the value of the American embassy brand is squandered.

The NSC’s failure to delegate can also undermine effective policy.

A common lament of both the Obama administration and its defenders has been that Congress needs to cooperate to get anything done in the U.S. government.  And on a lot of policy dimensions, that is true.  When it comes to foreign affairs, however, the executive branch has significantly more autonomy — and this president is taking advantage of that autonomy to centralize decision-making authority within the Executive Office of the President.

In foreign policy, is it good to be the king?  To be fair, the grousing in these stories from foreign policy principals and mid-career bureaucrats might be garden-variety CYA politics.  And it’s not like, say, the State Department has covered itself in glory with recent initiatives.  But I’ve written before that the foreign policy process matters significantly, and while it’s good for the White House to be interested in foreign policy, this does seem like an over-concentration of authority.  And given the caliber of recent White House foreign policy initiatives, I’ll admit to some uneasiness with this trend.

Of course, the irony in all of this is that the president has increased his influence in the one policy arena where he’s really afraid of overreaching.  And, as I noted before, “the optical bias in politics always favors action over inaction.”  So the White House has seized greater control in the one arena of policy where the G-rated version of its motto is “Let’s not do too much” — and he’s going to take a political hit for it.  So I’m unconvinced that this is good policy or good politics.

Developing…

Show Comments
Most Read
Next Story
Adelle Waldman · August 7, 2014