(Inter Press Service)
The meticulous vetting process that potential appointees for senior State Department and other posts must undergo is delaying full staffing of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration—even as it faces ever-more urgent crises both at home and abroad.
Just over six weeks into his presidency, Obama is actually ahead of his two predecessors in getting key posts at the top of the government’s bureaucracies nominated, confirmed by the Senate, and installed in their offices.
But, unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who took over in less stressful moments, Obama entered office with a full-blown economic crisis underway and a foreign policy agenda that includes the deployment of nearly 200,000 U.S. troops in two active wars—not to mention a passel of unresolved crises stretching from Sudan in sub-Saharan Africa to Northeast Asia, where North Korea’s threats to launch new missiles are certain to raise tensions in the world’s most militarized region.
Moreover, in less than a month, Obama, who has been forced to focus his attention almost exclusively on containing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, will travel overseas for a series of critical meetings with other world leaders who will be looking to the new president to set out his policy agenda—and what he will request from them—in as specific terms as possible.
The series includes the Group of 20 (G-20) Summit in London on April 2. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the leaders of key emerging markets—including China, India, and Brazil—hope that the meeting will lay the groundwork for a fundamental reshaping of the global economic order and the institutions that oversee it. The series also includes the April 5 NATO summit in Prague, where Obama will appeal for critical assistance in Afghanistan and face key questions on U.S. missile-defense and NATO expansion; and the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
That much of the staff work for those trips is being prepared by Bush holdovers—who, given the glacial pace at which new appointments are being made, will surely remain in place for a couple of months—will almost certainly undermine the image that the administration wants to project: a dynamic new U.S. leadership team determined to tackle the many crises that Bush left behind and take the country in new policy directions.
"All eyes will, of course, be on Obama and his top officials, so that part won’t be a problem," said one retired senior diplomat. "But when it comes down to the working levels of assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary and even ambassador, foreign officials are going to be seeing the same old faces. And everyone will know that those same old faces lack the political clout and access within the administration that Obama’s own appointees would obviously have."
Analysts have described a vetting process that has become so intrusive that a number of promising candidates who had been approached for senior administration posts have withdrawn their names from consideration.
These include the administration’s initial choices for deputy treasury secretary and for three undersecretary positions, including the undersecretary for international affairs who would normally take the lead in preparing U.S. positions for the G-20 summit.
"Of the four major federal departments—state, justice, defense, and the treasury—the treasury has had the fewest nominees even though it is dealing with probably the most significant problems facing the government," the New York Times noted last week in an article that described the frantic pace Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has had to maintain since his confirmation in late January.
"In the first six weeks since Geithner took over as treasury secretary, he and a skeleton crew of unofficial senior advisors have been racing to make decisions that will shape the future of the banking, insurance, housing, and automobile industries," the newspaper observed, adding that the lack of top subordinates has made it difficult for him to keep up with events, let alone modify policy that would anticipate them.
Ironically, it was Geithner’s embarrassing failure to pay certain taxes—and a somewhat similar, albeit more grievous oversight by Obama’s original choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, former Sen. Tim Daschle—that resulted in the implementation of a vetting process that has run amok, some have described..
If the Treasury Department has been hardest hit, the State Department is not far behind, according to Chris Nelson, whose influential "Nelson Report" is widely read, particularly among Asia and trade specialists here.
"This year, almost NO ONE below the level of Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg has been announced, and increasingly, we are told, putative candidates like Kurt Campbell to replace Chris Hill, as [Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs], are locked into a process estimated to take at least one more, and perhaps two more months even if everything continues to go well," he wrote in his report last week.
Nelson further described the vetting process as "fundamentally out of control in the sense that there is no appreciation of the connection between time, and public policy need." No individuals are being formally nominated for confirmation by the Senate until the vetting process, which includes accounting for as much as 10 years of tax deductions, including such items as taxi receipts, is completed. Even then, some of Obama’s more-controversial picks could face protracted confirmation hearings.
In the meantime, most policy issues are being decided by staff on the White House National Security Council (NSC), headed by retired General James Jones, the body that is charged with coordinating the work of the various cabinet agencies and developing specific policy options to be considered by the cabinet and Obama himself.
But even at the NSC, whose staff is not subject to Senate confirmation, some key posts remain unfilled, such as the director for Latin American affairs, leaving preparation for the Trinidad Summit primarily in the hands of Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, a Bush holdover who is also a career foreign-service officer.
Special envoys, such as the three chosen by Obama last month to cover U.S. policy on Arab-Israeli peace talks, Iran and the Gulf, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, are also filling the breach, as they, like NSC staff, do not require Senate confirmation. But they are only now pulling together their own staffs and trying to fix their own lines of authority both within the State Department and to the White House. A special envoy for Sudan, where a major humanitarian crisis now looms following President Omar al-Bashir’s expulsion of aid groups from Darfur, is expected to be named in the coming week or so.
But while both the NSC and the special envoys can set policy, it remains up to the much bigger national-security bureaucracies—the State Department, Treasury, and Pentagon—to see that those policies are actually implemented on a day-to-day basis, both in Washington and on the ground. Barring a sudden relaxation of the vetting requirements, both the country and the world may have to wait at least until May or June before Obama’s picks for those key posts are actually in place.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to PRA’s Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.
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