VIEW: Getting elected is not governing —Harlan Ullman - Thursday, October 28, 2010

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Barack Obama’s White House is a current manifestation of the triumph of electioneering over governing. Foreign policy is a sad example. The replacement of National Security Advisor General Jim Jones three weeks ago underscored the problem of making governing the highest priority

The American public is rightly outraged with and deeply cynical about Washington and its failure to govern. The dire economic conditions that seem immune to solution are painful and depressing with unemployment running above 9.5 percent for the past 15 months. While combat operations may have ended in Iraq, their government is fragile at best and still forming. Afghanistan has become Obama’s war and is far from over.

But the overriding reason for public discontent is not well understood even though it is hidden in plain sight. Politics in the US are no longer about providing good governance. Over the past decades, politics have deteriorated into a process of continuous campaigning in which the objective is to win election and re-election, not to govern and along the way to discredit and malign the opposition to the greatest extent possible.

The intense and mean-spirited partisanship in both Houses of Congress has become septic. In this environment, both parties have become dominated by extremes of left and right. Centrist and moderate are now politically pejorative terms. The rapid ascent of the Tea Party, to anyone of sense seems straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter’s tea party will move the Republicans further to the right, possibly forcing the Democrats to become even more ideologically driven leftwards.

The long-term consequence has so much intermingled campaigning and governance that the latter has been overwhelmed and is missing in action. Being skilled in campaigning and electioneering does not automatically or usually carry over to governing. Indeed, the short-term, slogan-driven tactics of winning elections are often in irreconcilable conflict with governing.

Even more damaging, aides and advisors for the campaigning and winning election sides of politics are routinely brought aboard for governing. Often no matter how successful these people are in winning the election, many are under- or plainly unqualified for governing. And this poisonous combination allows and encourages campaign slogans and intuitive assertions useful in winning election to be translated into policy irrespective of the quality of those presumptions.

Barack Obama’s White House is a current manifestation of the triumph of electioneering over governing. Foreign policy is a sad example. The replacement of National Security Advisor General Jim Jones three weeks ago underscored the problem of making governing the highest priority.

Jones arrived with impeccable credentials. A former commandant of the Marine Corps with extensive experience in combat, military operations and the workings of Congress where he was a Pentagon liaison officer along with then Captain John McCain, Jones headed NATO’s military command in Europe. One of his responsibilities was overseeing NATO’s military operations in Afghanistan. Ironically, he was initially asked by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to take over Central Command after NATO until Bob Woodward’s previous book came out quoting Jones as telling General Pete Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not to be a “parrot sitting on the secretary’s shoulder”. The offer of CENTCOM (US Central Command) was withdrawn. Jones was burned again as the White House — read president — was infuriated by statements attributed to the general in Woodward’s latest book Obama’s Wars.

What happened? As is well known, Obama brought to the White House much of his old campaign team that got him elected. Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod as senior advisors have been closest to the president on virtually all issues. And others very close to the president such as Mark Lippert were given senior positions on the National Security Council staff — it took Jones considerable time to remove Lippert because the president regarded him as a younger brother. This youth and inexperience in foreign policy made this group known as the ‘kids’. And kids they were.

Worse, campaign promises to end the war in Iraq, emphasise Afghanistan and close Guantanamo became policy. There was no analysis or assessment of the consequences of each. The candidate made them ex cathedra and the administration implemented his pledges.

Jones had sounder views based on experience in Afghanistan, war and in NATO. However, he and the president never connected as prior successful national security advisors such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft did with their presidents. As a result, governance was left to veterans of the campaign who were novices in that regard.

Obama’s foreign policy is in tatters. As Jones wrote in early 2008 attracting Obama’s attention, “Make no mistake: NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” Iraq is unsettled, the Middle East peace process is stalemated, Iran is still pursuing a nuclear programme and the one real accomplishment — the new START nuclear arms treaty with Russia — has not been approved by the Senate yet.

The conclusion is self-evident. Success in campaigning is not synonymous with the ability to govern. But will we ever realise that and act accordingly?

The writer is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council

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