Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Czar Peter (Principle)

I've been looking over Barack Obama's foreign policy advisers lately, to get an idea of who will be running the [redacted] [the foreign affairs department of the largest employer in the washington, DC area] in the next administration if he wins the election. Foreign Policy in Focus had this run-down of the likely suspects:

Senator Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers, who on average tend to be younger than those of the former first lady, include mainstream strategic analysts who have worked with previous Democratic administrations, such as former national security advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Anthony Lake, former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice, and former navy secretary Richard Danzig. They have also included some of the more enlightened and creative members of the Democratic Party establishment, such as Joseph Cirincione and Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, and former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke.

That last name alarms me. Richard Clarke was a professional bureaucrat from 1973 to 2003, and he was without peer as a self-promoter and empire-builder [I'm not counting J. Edgar Hoover, since Hoover was sui generis]. Clarke held all sorts of important-sounding jobs in the last stage of his career, during which he evidently convinced many big Washington players that he was actually in charge of some national function or other related to counterterorrism, even though he was really just a staff weenie with no line responsibility for anything at all. As White House 'Counterterrorism Czar,' Clarke could probably have ordered an intern to make a Starbucks run, but that would have been about the limit of his authority.

Clarke's career is a perfect illustration of the Peter Principle. He was a bright functionary who worked his way up the hierarchical food chain until he was over-promoted into a job he couldn't perform, and then, having reached his level of incompetence, there he stayed.

Those staff functions he should have performed - like threat analysis, policy coordination, or budget prioritizing - he did poorly or not at all. He had so little substance to show, yet was so full of himself, when he briefed Congressman Shays's subcommittee after 9/11 that Shays unloaded on him in a series of scathing letters to Clarke himself, to the 911 Commission, and to Condoleezza Rice urging her not to retain Clarke for a senior position in the Bush Administration. After his run-in with Shays, Clarke was lucky to have Rice throw him a bone in the form of the Cyberterrorism Czar job. [What an irony it is that the press calls these powerless bureaucrats 'Czars.' A more descriptive term would be 'Alpha Wonk.']

In the event Obama is elected, I hope he'll accept some adult supervision from the old foreign policy hands, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, and leave Czar Peter the Powerless in his well-deserved exile.

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