Monday, May 07, 2007

Administration departures continue, with no czar in sight

Back in April, the White House announced it was looking for a war czar -- someone to coordinate the government's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The main goal was to find someone to replace deputy national security adviser Meghan O'Sullivan, who was stepping down.

They still haven't found anyone. And meanwhile the exodus of national security officials is increasing.

The most recent departure? Another deputy national security adviser, J.D. Crouch. He joins O'Sullivan and the administration's top policy people for Russia and Asia, among 20 top officials who have left in recent months.

Things like this are signs of an administration in neutral. However capable their replacements -- and highly capable people rarely sign on to join an administration in its last two years -- it's going to be hard to put any kind of energy or creativity into foreign policy. Beyond the normal "get up to speed" delays, other countries increasingly have an incentive to simply do nothing, and instead hope that Bush's successor will be more amenable to their specific concerns.

For all those reasons, it's normal for a president's foreign policy influence to decline near the end of his term -- and for ambitious people to start looking for new work as a result. But it's unusual for the process to start happening this soon.

Turnover is normal as an administration nears its end, but "this is a high number," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on government.

"You would expect to see vacancies arise as things wind down, but it's about six months early for this kind of a mass exodus," he said.

All of which is one more reason Bush remains invested in Iraq: It's one of the few places in foreign policy where he still exerts sizable influence. Pulling out would leave him pretty much done as far as large-bore foreign policy initiatives, without the time, popularity or political capital to launch anything new. Iraq is more than a mission for him: It's a way to remain relevant.

The cost, of course, is measured in forgone opportunities, blood and Republican 2008 hopes.

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