Bureaucracy Bites Back: Obama’s Iran Narrative

When news broke that the United States government transferred 400 million dollars to the Iranian government last January, around the same time that multiple U.S. prisoners held in Iran were released, Republicans tripped over themselves to lay the blame for the perceived deception and simpering behavior squarely at the feet of two individuals: President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Despite face-planting spectacularly on some of the facts, the rush to personify the issue as one of individual failure is readily understandable in the context of a rancorous presidential campaign, especially given Clinton’s status as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, © 2009

Image courtesy of Pete Souza, © 2009

As the story was gamely batted around in the following weeks, the inadequacy of these criticisms became clear. Ultimately, the size and scope of the U.S. government means that any single individual—up to and including the president—is limited in what she or he can do. The success or failure of any policy item, particularly one as delicately complex as the multi-strand negotiations with Iran, thus depends more on effective delegation than it does individual diktat.

If Obama and Clinton deserve opprobrium for the execution of this aspect of U.S. policy towards Iran—and indeed the majority of these deals occurred after the latter’s tenure as secretary of state—it is likely only for the lesser sin of inefficient management rather than the gross charges of derelict leadership. “Ransom-gate” and similar snafus shouldn’t be remembered because they illustrate executive incompetence, but because they reveal the friction—and resulting policy shortfalls—caused by the functional interests of various government departments and agencies in a competitive bureaucratic structure.

Leaks from the Department of Justice (DOJ) over their opposition to the payments illustrate this phenomenon well. While President Obama was right to push back against the partisan-fueled notion that the payments constituted a ransom, and Secretary of State John Kerry may very well be right that the negotiations over the $400 million sum were never linked to the signed nuclear deal or the release of hostages, these pronouncements clearly did not sit well with the DOJ. The frustration is understandable given that the DOJ has historically borne a large share of the criticism regarding the U.S. government’s zero-tolerance policy towards ransom payments. The Obama administration’s apparent willingness to court controversy by sending the payment in close proximity to the prisoner release therefore predictably raised some hackles.

That the Department of State (DOS), a tacit bureaucratic rival, would garner acclaim for resolving both issues, also likely bred further ill-will among DOJ officials. Per reporting from the Wall Street Journal, the Department of State led negotiations over both the prisoner swap and, separately, the payout. As primary negotiator, DOS had clear motivation to get the deals done, stemming from the burnished reputations that individual negotiators would receive, and amplified by a deep-seated proclivity for compromise embedded in the department. Similarly, the White House, flush with the success of the Iranian nuclear deal, clearly desired to keep the good news flowing during any executive review period. Possessing their own cultural idiosyncrasies, and as equal losers in the bureaucratic competition for renown, it is almost certain that other agencies and departments such as the FBI and CIA had similar misgivings to the DOJ, but for reasons of personal or bureaucratic discretion, decided not to air them publicly.

Perhaps even more troubling than this toxic mixture of personal interests and bureaucratic jockeying is the lack of public criticism surrounding it. Tagging bureaucracy for policy failures doesn’t make for punchy headlines or garner applause on the campaign trail, meaning that politicians, pundits, and journalists eagerly ignore complexity in favor of simplicity, and engage in politically convenient attacks that inevitably ignore the true root cause of government dysfunction.

Failures of the interagency process, rather than being criticized as such, are instead recast in partisan terms and leveraged in the hope of electoral gains. Ordinary Americans, in turn, are so used to politicians taking credit for policy successes that it seems self-evident that the same politicians would bear the brunt of the blame for policy failures. Still, given the abysmal recent track record of U.S. politicians—particularly in the realm of foreign policy with failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Iraq (again), and Syria—it is clear that the individuals in charge are not the only problem. If bad policy-making was predominantly the result of bad politicians, then it should be easy to “throw the bums out” and make better policy. Rather than simply accepting the spoon-fed, politically charged narratives offered by elites to explain away failure, it is therefore incumbent upon the public to demand more of their elected officials, and that they embark on reflective rather than reflexive responses to failure when it does occur.

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