On Incentives and Results, Or “I Was Wrong”


“Obama Calls for Thaw in U.S. Relations With Cuba.” That’s a headline I would have expected in July 2007, or October 2005. Hell, it wouldn’t even be news in 2003. But coming from a US president? A “thaw” with Cuba being proposed by a US president? This is really happening, I guess.

You know, I came out hard against Obama’s national security team when it was announced. I’ve had beef with Hillary for a while, and Gates had his baggage, but fundamentally I thought that slightly bolder, more controversial people (say, Brzezinski and Danzig respectively) had earned them by sticking their necks out, and that rejecting that was a betrayal. And to a certain extent I still believe that. It would have increased incentives for risk-taking among the wonk class if Zbig and Danzig were picked, and that would be a good thing.

But damned if keeping Bush’s SecDef didn’t end the F-22. And damned if picking the most right-leaning on foreign policy of your primary opponents as SecState doesn’t result in the beginning of the end of the Cuban embargo. While I have no doubt that a Secretary Danzig would want to cut idiotic programs like the Raptor, I’m not sure he’d have the standing to do it that Gates has. And while I’m sure Zbig wants to normalize relations with Cuba, he’d almost certainly be too radioactive a figure to lead the charge. It’s moments like these when I wish we had a non-clichéd expression to replace “Nixon in China”, because as overdone as that comparison is, the same mechanism seems to be at work here, and paying off splendidly.

So I was wrong. Whatever havoc their appointments wreaked on the future Brookings fellows’ willingness to take political risks, they have given cover for the most substantive progressive foreign policy achievements since the end of the Cold War. That’s a pretty easy tradeoff to accept.

1 thought on “On Incentives and Results, Or “I Was Wrong”

  1. Maybe there is something to this Team of Rivals thing that people weren’t really considering. I mean here, a lot of what people were saying when Obama was picking his cabinet was that the nominations indicated where Obama wanted to shift on the political spectrum but perhaps the actual strategy was to choose secretaries who would be both obedient and provide cover for Obama’s liberal agenda. Just a thought.

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