The outside appointee

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The outside appointee

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Victor Cha

In the United States, there is something called the revolving door. This term refers to the practice of bringing individuals into the government as policy makers from the outside of regular bureaucratic channels for one or two years. These men and women are often tapped to work as assistant secretaries at the State Department or at the Defense Department. Each White House brings in several members to the National Security Council who are academic experts in particular areas or who work in areas the administration deems important. For the administration that I served in, this revolving door brought in stellar personnel like Condoleezza Rice from Stanford University, who served as the national security adviser and secretary of state, and Robert Zoellick as the deputy secretary of state.

At the NSC, Asia specialists like my colleague Michael Green and Torkel Patterson were brought into the White House, as well as terrorism specialists like Juan Zarate (now at CSIS) and intelligence specialists like Casimir Yost (now at Georgetown). Similarly, the Obama administration brought in specialists like Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University Stephen Bosworth, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Derek Mitchell from CSIS, and NSC Asia adviser Jeffrey Bader from the Brookings Institution.

The revolving door is generally useful for policy making. Experts with substantial knowledge and personal networks can bring fresh ideas or new perspectives to old, enduring problems. Professional line officers and government officials are, of course, extremely important. They provide institutional knowledge and continuity on any given policy. Once a policy direction is set, these professionals know how to implement the policies in the vast U.S. government organization.

But outside experts are less weighed down by bureaucratic biases. They know they are serving for a limited period of time and plan to go back to their previous lives in universities, think tanks or the private sector. This allows them to show a degree of independence of thought that can help invigorate the policy-making process.

The revolving door is a unique American phenomenon. The country that probably comes closest to it is the Republic of Korea. Past foreign ministers such as Han Sung-joo or Yoon Young-kwan were plucked from their professorial perches at Korea University and Seoul National University (respectively) to serve the country with great success. Sometimes, consul general positions such as in Los Angeles or Honolulu are given to political appointees.

The revolving door usually receives attention not when the appointments are good but when the appointed individuals perform poorly or appear unqualified. One place in government where one sees many outside appointments are in U.S. ambassadorial posts. About one-third of these posts are reserved by the White House for men and women who aren’t professional diplomats. In most cases, these people are chosen for their personal connections to the president and their campaign fund-raising.

The embassies are usually plum posts: London, Paris, Tokyo and Canberra are among the more coveted spots. You don’t see many political appointees scrambling for posts in sub-Saharan Africa, which end up going to career diplomats. While this causes some consternation among State Department officials, it is usually not the sort of issue that grabs headlines because the appointees are all competent individuals who, once they learn the ropes, do stellar jobs. So the former business partner of President George W. Bush, Tom Schieffer, served admirably in both Canberra and Tokyo as ambassador. Caroline Kennedy is doing a fantastic job as Obama’s newest ambassador in Tokyo, and Russia specialist Mike McFaul from Stanford has performed very well in Moscow.

Occasionally, however, there are difficult cases. The Obama White House’s nominee for ambassador to Norway, for example, is a hotel chain owner who raised more than $1 million for the president’s last campaign. But in Senate confirmation hearings, this individual was so unprepared that it was embarrassing. The individual admitted he had never been to Norway, and in answering questions from prominent Senators like John McCain, he demonstrated little knowledge of the country beyond the fact that it was a democracy that had trade relations with the United States.

In fact, he mistakenly described as a fringe group one of the country’s leading political parties and thought that Norway had a president. (It is a monarchy). While such ignorance might be excusable for the average American, that is not the case for an ambassadorial nominee. McCain, who was disgusted at the obvious political nature of the appointment, finished his questioning by sarcastically praising the highly qualified nature nominee.

Just as some of these appointments can prove embarrassing for the Obama administration, the Park government has faced its own difficulties with top-level appointments. While the revolving door is in general a positive attribute of both American and Korean systems, true care must be taken in selecting individuals that deserve political rewards, but who must also be highly qualified and prepared to assume the duties of the office.

*The author is a professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

By Victor Cha


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