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WEISBRODE: Obama’s palace politics and its limits

Who exactly is in charge in the White House?

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 21, 2010

The recent replacements of President Obama's White House chief of staff and national security adviser have given rise to the usual speculation about who calls the shots in the inner circle. This happens with predictable frequency in American public life and nearly everywhere else. Palace politics have been around for as long as there have been palaces.

But there is more to the mystery of policymaking, especially in foreign policy, than flow charts at the highest levels. Long ago, the political scientist Graham Allison wrote that the essence of decision is bureaucracy. Where you sit is where you stand. But the essence of policy is entrepreneurship. Where you sit is what you sell.

This means that personality, networks, connections and alliances (both inside and outside government), opportunity, chance, creativity and determination are all as significant in charting a course for policy as official assignments and job descriptions. Entrepreneurship can take many forms; recruiting like-minded allies and pushing pet projects (or resisting them, as the case may be) are among the most common.

This is true at all levels of government, not just at the very top. For all that the gatekeepers matter - and by most accounts, Mr. Obama has chosen two formidable ones - neither they nor the president have the first or the last word on policy. There always will be somebody, somewhere, pushing a different envelope.

The bigger the envelope, the more the president and his advisers must react to it. Organization only goes so far. Events and axioms carry much weight.

Two well-known examples are Harry Truman's decision to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan and Lyndon B. Johnson's decision to augment the American intervention in Vietnam. At both times, much was made of the advice the president got and where he got it. Nobody today can doubt that that mattered.

But in retrospect, it is very difficult to make a plausible case for a different course of action from the ones taken knowing what we now know about the full set of pressures on the president in each instance. This does not mean that the presidents had no alternatives or were boxed in by circumstances. It just means that those circumstances played a greater role in their decisions than any particular configuration of their inner circle. Decisions did not happen in a vacuum.

Today's axioms - notably, that American power must be used or lost; that politics do not stop at the water's edge; that globalization features winners and losers; and that hostile non-state actors cannot be contained, deterred or defeated in predictable ways - will continue to drive U.S. foreign policy. Policy entrepreneurs will recognize and exploit them.

The president and his advisers will find it tough to resist doing the same.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute.

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