Obama’s Foreign Policy Team of 300

The New York Times has an interesting article on Barack Obama’s 300(!) foreign policy advisers.

Examining the ideas of advisers in order to gain insight into the candidates’ true beliefs is a perennial campaign season past-time. Leaving aside that more obvious angle, however, what really struck me about this NYT piece is what it might say about the candidates’ management skills.

I would never argue that core beliefs and ideas aren’t important, but history tells us that, perhaps especially in the realm of foreign policy, the positions of candidates often bear little relation to the policies they adopt once in office, after the full weight of the responsibility to defend the country and its interests around the world settles upon their shoulders. Compare, for example, Gov. Bush’s anti-nation-building rhetoric in the 2000 campaign to his post-Sept. 11, 2001, foreign policy. Or witness the way becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee has already led Obama to become more cautious in his rhetoric on Iraq.

And anyway, presidents’ policies, especially on matters as complicated and multifaceted as foreign policy, where anything approaching expertise on all the relevant issues is impossible, are shaped by their advisers, as well as the relevant agencies of the executive branch that are responsible for such issues. To say that the foreign policy and national security bureaucracy is massive is an understatement — the Defense Department alone has a bigger budget and more employees than the entire governments of most countries, and is a larger organization by far than any company in the world that I am aware of. Add in the State Department, the 13-some-odd agencies of the intelligence community, etc. and you can begin to see how presidential management might be important.

I’m specifically talking about management of the policy-making process rather than administrative management. When it comes to foreign policy, that policy-making process normally centers around the National Security Council, which is supposed to be the body where input and information from all national security agencies and advisers comes together and is coordinated in such as way that a coherent national strategy emerges. As Shawn Brimley noted in a Nov. 2007 piece in WPR, the NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947 “to ensure that a president would benefit from hearing all sides of an issue prior to making the most consequential decisions.”

Bush was supposed to the MBA president, or some such, but if there’s one thing that has become clear in everything that has been written about how his administration handled the decision to go to war in Iraq, and how it managed the first few years of the war, it’s that there was a total failure to properly manage the policy-making process, which was crippled by unrefereed infighting and interagency politics.

Which (finally, you say) brings me to that New York Times article. Here’s the picture it provides of the workings of Obama’s foreign policy operation:

WASHINGTON — Every day around 8 a.m., foreign policy aides at Senator Barack Obama‘s Chicago campaign headquarters send him two e-mails: a briefing on major world developments over the previous 24 hours and a set of questions, accompanied by suggested answers, that the candidate is likely to be asked about international relations during the day.

One recent Q. & A. asked, for example, whether Mr. Obama supported the decision by Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki,to include a timetable for American troop withdrawal in any newsecurity agreements with the United States. The answer, provided to Mr.Obama with bullet points, was yes — or “a genuine opportunity,” as heput it in a speech on Iraq this week.

Behind the e-mail messages is a tight-knit group of aides supported by a huge 300-person foreign policy campaign bureaucracy, organized like a mini State Department, to assist a candidate whose limited national security experience remains a concern to many voters.

“It is unwieldy, no question,” said Denis McDonough, 38, Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy aide, speaking of an infrastructure that has been divided into 20 teams based on regions and issues, and that has recently absorbed, with some tensions, the top foreign policy advisers from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s presidential campaign. “But an administration is unwieldy, too. We also know that it’s messier when you don’t get as much information as you can.”

Here’s what the same article says about McCain’s team:

Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, has a far smaller and looser foreign policy advisory operation, about 75 people in all, and none are organized into teams.

Three hundred people seems excessive. But the sketch of how those advisers work together, if accurate, indicates that there is at least a management structure, some loose process for managing this mini-bureaucracy such that its work is distilled in some orderly fashion into policy positions and talking points for the candidate.

McCain’s foreign policy operation, by contrast, isn’t even organized into teams. I would be interested to find out how accurate these contrasting characterizations of the campaign foreign policy operations are, because it might be one indicator of how a President Obama or President McCain would run the very important and complex process by which national security policy gets made.

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