How foreign policy is made


Policy details emerge from policy themes. The George W. Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” did not emerge from and was in fact resisted by the bureaucracy, notes Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. It was up to loyalists in his administration to push it, year after year and day after day: in speeches, in instructions to ambassadors, in meetings, in cables and emails. But that happens only when the president demands it, shows where he wants to go and requires that the whole government follow, he writes for The Washington Post:

One time in mid-2003, as I was exiting the White House Situation Room — a day after President George W. Bush had delivered a major speech on foreign policy — I remarked to a career guy at the State Department that we needed more discussion on some issues but that, at least on those the president had covered, we now knew what the policy would be. I distinctly remember his answer, which was that the speech did not matter.

“Policy is made by the interagency process, not some speech!” he said.

My colleague was wrong: Presidents can and certainly should make policy, but they will get their way only if they lead and fight.

The federal bureaucracy is vast, especially when it comes to national security policy, which includes — as a start — nearly 34,000 State Department employees, more than 2 million people at the Defense Department and perhaps 20,000 more at the CIA, adds Abrams, who served as an assistant secretary of state and a deputy national security adviser in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, respectively:

So how is policy made? Is it through the so-called interagency process — meaning the endless meetings, memos, arguments and agreements by which the many agencies and departments make decisions? In truth, if the president is ignorant, uncommitted or simply relies on assistants and the bureaucracy, his or her administration will get a hodgepodge of policy — a pudding with no theme.


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