Smooth Presidential Transition Is Crucial To Early Foreign Policy and National Security Success

FOR RELEASE

Monday
September 8, 2008

The foreign policy success of incoming presidents, particularly in the early years of a presidency, is largely determined by how well the new administration learns from the successes and failures of the outgoing president, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The report by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, examines how American policy toward post-conflict reconstruction has been made and implemented, and the effect that the process of developing these policies has had on the outcomes.

The study reviews the post-WWII occupations of Germany and Japan, the post-Cold War missions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and concludes with the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A key finding is that emptying and re-filling thousands of high- and medium-level national security and foreign policy positions in the federal government ensures a low level of experience in the opening years of a presidency, while a heavy reliance on patronage effectively insulates political leaders at the top from professional advice at the bottom.

The result is a break in continuity between presidential administrations, a barrier between key leaders and professional advisors, and diminished competence in the civil service sector, according to the study.

“The costs and risks associated with American presidential transitions are magnified by the role political patronage plays in staffing the national security establishment,” said James Dobbins, director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and the study’s lead author.

“America’s reliance upon the spoils system to fill key policy positions every four or eight years is unmatched in the Western world,” he said. The result is a high degree of inexperience in the opening years of many presidencies, particularly when the opposition party comes to power.

This reliance on patronage to fill key staff positions effectively insulates political leaders at the top from professional advice from the bottom, imposing several layers of ideological buffer between the two. It also promotes barriers to continuity of successful policies from one administration to the next.

The report, “After the War: Nation-Building from FDR to George W. Bush,” details how U.S. efforts to rebuild post-war regions since the end of World War II have not started smoothly. The American occupation of Germany began on the basis of a harshly punitive strategy and was faltering badly by 1948, when the Marshall Plan was introduced.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration’s efforts started poorly in Somalia, and its intervention in Haiti achieved nothing of enduring value. However, the Clinton administration showed significantly better crisis management and post-conflict reconstruction skills in Bosnia and Kosovo.

That experience was not applied by the current Bush administration, which allowed large-scale insurgencies to develop in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only over the past year has violence subsided in Iraq, and a much higher priority given to Afghanistan.

The study details how presidential style strongly influences the post-war outcomes.

George W. Bush practiced a top down, inspirational mode of leadership that did not invite dissent or welcome extensive debate. Instead, Bush preferred to maximize control, minimize leaks, and maintain message discipline at the expense of the “give and take” among his key advisers that might have yielded more informed choices and considered decisions, according to the report.

However, Dobbins said President Bush ran a much more inclusive process in the deliberations leading to his January 2007 announcement of the “surge,” and his administration’s execution of the subsequent effort also has shown marked improvement.

The authors propose a number of recommendations that would reduce the harmful discontinuities associated with the transition process, including a requirement that some proportion of sub-cabinet and White House staff positions in the national security arena be reserved for career officials.

“Nothing is more important, however, than having a president who recognizes from the outset the importance of structured debate and disciplined dissent to wise decision making, and is prepared to subject his own choices to this process,” Dobbins said.

After the War: Nation-Building from FDR to George W. Bush,” is available at www.rand.org. It is the fourth in a series of case studies examining the United States, United Nations and European-led nation-building operations since World War II.

The report was prepared by the International Security and Defense Policy Center, which is a part of the RAND National Security Research Division. Other authors include Michele Poole, Austin Long and Benjamin Runkle.

Support for the study was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

About the RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.