Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Difficult Transitions

Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power

Kurt M. Campbell
James B. Steinberg
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 204
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Difficult Transitions
    Book Description:

    New presidents have no honeymoon when it comes to foreign policy. Less than three months into his presidency, for example, John F. Kennedy authorized the disastrous effort to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. More recently, George W. Bush had been in office for less than eight months when he was faced with the attacks of September 11. How should an incoming president prepare for the foreign policy challenges that lie immediately ahead? That's the question Kurt Campbell and James Steinberg tackle in this compelling book. Drawing on their decades of government service -in the corridors of Capitol Hill, the intimate confines of the White House, the State Department, and the bare-knuckles Pentagon bureaucracy -Campbell and Steinberg identify the major foreign policy pitfalls that face a new presidential administration. They explain clearly and concisely what it takes to get foreign policy right from the start. The authors set the scene with a historical overview of presidential transitions and foreign policy including case studies of such prominent episodes as the "Black Hawk Down" tragedy in Somalia that shook the Clinton administration in its first year and the Bush administration's handling of the collision between a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet in the spring of 2001. They pinpoint the leading causes of foreign policy fiascos, including the tendency to write off the policies of the outgoing administration and the failure to appreciate the differences between campaign promises and policy realities. Most important, they provide a road map to help the new administration steer clear of the land mines ahead. America's next president will confront critical foreign policy decisions from day one. Difficult Transitions provides essential guidance for getting those choices right.

    eISBN: 978-0-8157-0182-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE TRANSITION MEMO: Hope, Hubris, Headaches, and Cardboard Boxes
    (pp. vii-xvi)
  4. 1 DIFFICULT TRANSITIONS: Presidential Transitions and Foreign Policy Perils
    (pp. 1-7)

    Perhaps the most harrowing—yet simultaneously hopeful—feature of the American system of government is the transfer of power from one president to the next, a period stretching from the quadrennial national election through the inaugural and into the first months of governance. For Washington insiders, this time is known simply as “the transition,” and it is one of the most studied yet least fully understood aspects of our democracy.

    On a formal level, the transition has been a part of our national experience since the election of George Washington, yet the reality has changed dramatically over the past two...

  5. 2 FIRSTHAND PRACTITIONER ACCOUNTS: Present at the Transition
    (pp. 8-22)

    There is no better way to begin a study of the opportunities and risks surrounding presidential transitions than to listen to the participants themselves—the presidents and their advisers who experienced firsthand the exhilaration and the dread that come with a change of power. Their thoughtful reflections illustrate one of the most important paradoxes of presidential transitions: on the one hand, it is a well-established, regularly repeated, and largely unchanging ritual; and at the same time, each new team has the sense that, whatever happened in the past, “this transition will be different.”

    Looking back through American history, while most...

  6. 3 TRANSITIONS TODAY: Enduring Challenges and Accelerating Risks
    (pp. 23-40)

    From the early cold war–era, when new presidents and their advisers worried about being “tested” by their Soviet counterparts, to more recent concerns about whether a new national security team fully grasps the contemporary complexities of homeland security, presidential transitions have been a perilous time for new presidents and their administrations, as well as for the nation they were chosen to lead. The specific problems unique to transitions are especially acute in the international realm. As John F. Kennedy said, “Domestic policy can only defeat us. Foreign policy can kill us.”¹

    Many of the dangers of transition are inherent...

    (pp. 41-61)

    Of all the problems that have plagued the early months of new presidencies, perhaps none are more persistent or potentially more dangerous than those that arise from commitments made or implied during the presidential campaign. From Eisenhower’s campaign pledge to roll back Soviet gains in Eastern Europe through Clinton’s promise to lift the ban on gays in the military and George W. Bush’s denunciation of nation building, campaign rhetoric regularly comes back to complicate the lives of new administrations. Often the consequence of ill-considered promises is limited mainly to political embarrassment and loss of domestic political capital for a new...

    (pp. 62-86)

    In modern times, the preparatory period between the election and the inauguration has been dominated by three main challenges:people,process, andpolicy. During this time, the new president must begin choosing key personnel to staff the Cabinet agencies and the White House, decide how to organize the basic decisionmaking machinery of government, and choose which policies to pursue during the first months in office and how to prioritize them. Each of these challenges is formidable, and each has contributed to the difficulties that new presidents have encountered in their early days in office. This chapter examines how administrations from...

    (pp. 87-102)

    The importance of selecting an effective team is closely connected to the second key challenge of the transition period, organizing the decisionmaking and policy implementation processes for national security issues. The central role played by a well-crafted structure has been evident since the early days of the cold war, when the National Security Act of 1947 was adopted to provide a mechanism—the National Security Council—for coordinating the newly launched elements of the national security establishment (the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Intelligence Agency), which joined the State Department as its main pillars....

    (pp. 103-128)

    As if the challenges of choosing people and process were not enough for the crucial ten-to-eleven-week interim, the newly elected president must also make key decisions about the policy agenda for the new administration. There is considerable pressure to act quickly while the incoming president enjoys the tailwind of an electoral mandate.

    When the afterglow of the inaugural balls fades in the dawn of the first day in office, the real test of an effective transition begins. There is no more perilous time for a new administration than the much ballyhooed “first one hundred days.” Many of the legendary clichés...

  11. 8 TWENTY RECOMMENDATIONS: Getting Off to a Successful Start and Avoiding Transition Traps and Trip-ups
    (pp. 129-143)

    The history of presidential transitions is a highly cautionary tale replete with dangers and missteps that have bedeviled not just the novice, but even the wisest and most experienced of practitioners. Yet it is important to recall that transitions are also times of opportunity. The lessons of the past are reason for caution and prudence, but not paralysis. Indeed, by carefully avoiding some of the common mistakes of past transitions, a new president will be even better positioned to achieve the enormous hopes and grand designs that motivated the decision to run for the highest office in the first place....

  12. 9 TRANSITION VERITIES: The 2008-09 Presidential Transition
    (pp. 144-150)

    In late 2000, on one of the last of his dozens of trips to the island of Okinawa as a Department of Defense representative in negotiations over the future contours of the American military presence there, Kurt Campbell realized that he just was not going to get it done. There were too many moving parts and complicated pieces to actually reach an agreement that could be successfully implemented between the United States and Japan. Although the two countries were the closest of allies, the negotiations over bases and over the legal and financial underpinnings of U.S. forward presence at times...

    (pp. 151-168)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 169-190)
    (pp. 191-196)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 197-204)