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October 03, 2008

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Zathras

We should ask ourselves what getting a story "some attention" means in the current environment in Washington.

To most people, it means making some aspect of a story an issue in the fall campaign. That plainly is not in the cards for this one. The American system, though, is set up to enable at least two other possibilities: that the administration taking office in 2009 will change current policy, and that current policy will be subjected to scrutiny from Congress (which can, if it chooses, inhibit or even block a policy it disapproves from being implemented).

I'm not the first person to note that the second possibility is more theoretical than practical in Washington today. Congress as an institution does not decide to act on policy issues as specific as this one; what it has more commonly done in the past is respond to specific Congressmen and Senators holding key positions on the relevant authorizing and appropriations committees and having strong views about the subject in question. As power in Congress has been concentrated increasingly in the leadership of the majority party and in the two appropriations committees, this check on executive discretion has atrophied -- a condition accelerated by the now-continual attention most Congressmen and Senators feel they must spend on the permanent campaign, in which public diplomacy does not figure at all.

That leaves a policy change by a new administration sometime next year. It is certainly possible, but who will make it happen? What will be the extent and duration of the policy change? How will the considerable inertia built up within the Defense Department and the military leadership in Iraq behind this idea of strategic communication be overcome? And when, given the many more urgent questions that will press on a new administration with regard to Iraq and foreign affairs more generally this January, could any policy change in this area be expected to be decided upon, and be implemented? -- this is actually two questions, which may have very different answers.

I know this is getting a little far "in the weeds" for regular readers of this site, and I apologize for that. People unfamiliar with how the American system of government and American electoral politics interact may not appreciate how the end of any administration -- especially one that has been in office for eight years -- is bound to bring about questions not only about what should be done, but also about how to do what should be done. The decay of Congressional oversight, and the omnipresence of campaign politics in Washington for much longer periods of time than used to be the case, makes some of these questions at once more urgent and more difficult to answer.

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