Gideon Rachman

May 28, 2009 2:14pm

Visit the vast bureaucracies of the Pentagon or the State Department
and "under-staffed" is not the first word that springs to mind. But -
in fact - as the Obama administration grapples with the world, it is
short of key people in vital areas.

Take North Korea: the US's special envoy for North Korea is Stephen
Bosworth, but he is only a part-timer. He divides his time between
the State Department and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
in Boston, where he is the dean. The lead State Department official
should be Kurt Campbell, Obama's nominee for Assistant Secretary
of State for Asia - but almost six months into the administration,
he has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

The whole confirmation business in unbelievably laborious and
time-consuming. When Obama visited Nato in April, neither his Nato
ambassador - Ivo Daalder - nor his Assistant Secretary for Europe,
Phil Gordon, had been confirmed so neither was able to travel with him.

Gordon's six-month odyssey began last December when he was nominated
and ended a few days ago, when he was finally confirmed by the
Senate. His colleague Daniel Benjamin, who will be the State
Department's counter-terrorism chief, has also only just been

The problem seems to be a mixture of crazed form-filling and domestic

politics. If you want to get security clearance for a top job at
the State Department, you have to list every foreign trip you have
taken for the last decade and every person you met on that trip. I am
astonished that anybody can meet a requirement like that - I couldn't
tell you who I met last month. (You also have to list every investment
you have, including pension funds, in case you use your position to
trigger small wars that will benefit your investment portfolio.)

Then, if you are a former academic, you are likely to have left
a paper trail that could enrage domestic lobbies. Daalder had
written controversial things about turning Nato into a global
organisation. Benjamin had written a book on terrorism (a good idea
for a man taking his job, one might have thought). Gordon's nomination
was held up for months because Armenian-American lobby groups were
unhappy with his writings on the Armenian genocide and managed to
mobilise some Senatorial opposition.

Gradually, all these appointments are slotting into place - so you
might think that Team Obama was finally ready to engage with the
world. But that could be over-optimistic. All these new appointees
will take a couple of months to settle in - and they also have to
appoint their own teams.