Inside the Beltway

Crandall briefs President Obama before his Oval Office meeting with Peruvian president Alan Garcia.

Crandall briefs President Obama before his Oval Office meeting with Peruvian president Alan Garcia.




Associate Professor of Political Science Russell Crandall spent two years in the Pentagon and the White House, working first for the Department of Defense and then as President Barack Obama’s national security aide for the Andes. Now he’s back in the classroom at Davidson, armed with new insights about political science on the front lines. Here, excerpts from a journal he kept inside—and outside—the Beltway.

April 2009, 4th Floor, D Ring, The Pentagon

Teaching and writing have always come naturally to me; it’s what I’d do if I didn’t have a job. But what exactly is policy-making? I’ve just finished my first few days at the Pentagon and my head is spinning. The biggest adjustment is a workday that begins before dawn and ends after dark. I’m also overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of the issues and policies I’m supposed to be following as part of the “Western Hemisphere” portfolio. In addition to the Latin American security policies like Mexico’s drug war or Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency that I’m at least familiar with, there are ones I know very little about that still cooperation with Canada, Arctic policy, and our naval base in Guantanamo Bay. My staff has been patient in getting me up to snuff on all the issues. I wonder if they sense that I feel as lost as I do—the military acronyms, the details. I now understand that getting this job and actually doing it well are entirely different tasks.

May 2009, Charleston, S.C.

I’m in Charleston, of all places, to represent the Department of Defense (DoD) in its biannual defense talks with Canada, known as the Permanent Joint Board of Defense (PJBD). The PJBD was born during World War II and serves as the key forum for the two countries’ military and defense ministries to discuss defense issues. At the opening cocktail reception, the head of the Canadian delegation, a two-star general who recently commanded in Afghanistan, asks me with a thinly disguised grin, “I’ve read your bio…just how old are you?” I’m sure the general is really thinking he’s at the PJBD stuck playing Romper Room with the American wunderkind. Heck, this guy’s got stars on his shoulders and I have patches on my tweed coat!

My staff colleague just told me that the Canadians are wondering if my Latin America background means that I might neglect the Canada relationship. Maybe I should tell them I’d be grateful if I could feel like I was focused on anything right now. Fancy academic concepts (or conceits?) alone can’t get you very far in a massive bureaucracy like DoD’s. Ideas are good only if you can get them implemented, and that takes a seasoned “bureaucratic barracuda” who knows what levers to pull in order to get the job done. I’m anything but a barracuda right now.

July 2009, Tolemaida Military Base, rural Colombia

A Colombian police officer escorts Crandall through a cocaine laboratory used to train counternarcotics forces.

What a thrill to be in Colombia for the first time since starting at DoD! I was last here December on a trip to study the country’s decades-long internal war with a group of Davidson students who had taken my seminar in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. I’m here now for a series of meetings with Colombian defense ministry counterparts, as well as to get an up-close look at our multibillion-dollar security assistance and training efforts in Colombia.

Earlier today I had my first “wow” moment since joining the government. We arrived at the Colombian military’s air base in Bogota, where a U.S. C-12 plane waited to fly us to a base where Colombian soldiers train to become Lanceros (Rangers). While walking across the tarmac to board, I glanced at the American seal with the eagle and “United States of America” written in blue on the side of the plane. This is the first time that it really hit me: what a wonderful privilege to come out of the academy to spend two years conducting foreign policy and serving my country.

I’m struck by something my high school track coach told me before a big race against several competitors who had posted faster times: “If you wind up in front, act like you belong there.” Now maybe it’s my time to act as though I belong.

So far, I’ve learned that a senior-level position normally ensures a certain level of bureaucratic prestige that includes secretaries, personal assistants, or military-provided transport that suggest that you are a “Very Important Government Official.”

Yet these perquisites don’t automatically translate into policy influence, despite what it might look like on the outside.

How will I know whether my contribution will simply be to fly around to exotic locales in a macho form of Beltway policymaker, or if I will be making a real difference?

June 2009, The Mall,Washington, D.C.

I’m enjoying a walk on the Mall with my children, whom I don’t see as much as I’d like or should. I answer my cell phone, expecting a routine question or reminder from a Pentagon colleague, but I’m stunned to hear, “Hey, Russ, there’s been a coup in Honduras. Come in.” Holy cow. We had heard rumblings that there was general discontent toward the president of Honduras, but no one predicted a coup. Our military enjoys excellent relations with its Honduran counterpart, so it was critical that our military commanders send an unequivocal message that the United States strongly opposed the coup. At the same time, for decades our military has enjoyed access to a military base that might be in jeopardy if the Honduran government ever wanted to end the lease.

The solutions to Honduras’s political impasse continue to prove elusive as the summer of 2009 drags on, and I’m wondering why so many pundits and foreign governments assume that we are all-powerful and that the only reason we haven’t rectified the coup is because we don’t want to. If only we were half as good as our worst enemies think we are.

August 2009, Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba

It was an almost four-hour flight from Miami as, unlike commercial flights, U.S. military flights cannot cross Cuba. Thus, we needed to fly around the eastern tip of Cuba before swinging back to land at Guantánamo Bay. Unlike most U.S. officials who make visits related to the detention facility, we’re here to get a sense of the contingency planning for a massive outpouring of U.S.-bound “boat people.” The last mass exodus from a Caribbean country took place in the early 1990s, when tens of thousands of Haitians and Cubans took to the seas and ultimately wound up at the U.S. refugee center in a remote section of the Naval Base. The U.S. military loves to plan for contingencies. In this case, it’s a repeat of the boat-people crisis. I find the details of these massive logistical questions a bit numbing. Part of it is my inability to focus keenly on details and hypotheticals. As a scholar, I’m asking what would lead to the Castro regime’s downfall. Yet my military colleagues are wondering how many days it will take to get up tent cities to house 10,000 Haitian or Cuban refugees.

Before departing Guantánamo Bay, we were provided an hour-long “windshield” tour of the prisoner detention facility. The stunning natural beauty of the prison’s site on the bluffs above uninhabited white sand beaches and Caribbean blue was inescapable—and surreal.

January 2010, The White House

I recently moved over to the National Security Council (NSC), and I love everything about it—the institution of the presidency, working at the White House, staffing the National Security Advisor and President. The Pentagon was exciting, and I miss my wonderful staff and military counterparts, but the frenetic pace and immediacy of the White House are a real rush. Easily the biggest adjustment has been moving from having a staff to being the staff. But it’s actually sort of refreshing to be back to producing the policy paper, as opposed to reviewing work prepared by others. And staffing this president is especially exciting, given his keen intellect and engagement. My briefing papers need to be intellectually logical and compelling, so I’m challenged at a core analytical level that I find exhilarating. There are only five NSC aides for the Western Hemisphere, which is both wonderful and terrifying—we get enormous responsibility and influence, but there is no hiding if we screw up.

Russ Crandall and aide with Vice President Joe Biden

Crandall and another NSC aide confer with Vice President Joe Biden after a meeting on Colombia policy in the White House Situation Room.

March 2010, Valparaiso, Chile

So much of this job is trying to perform effectively while exhausted. I’ve accompanied National Security Advisor General James Jones to Chile to attend the country’s presidential inauguration. We left Andrews on a small military jet yesterday afternoon for a 12-hour nonstop flight to Santiago. We arrived at the hotel at 4:30 a.m., after which I prepared for General Jones’ 7 a.m. meeting with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

The inauguration ceremony in the National Assembly building was crazy. With the massive earthquake that rocked the country just a few weeks earlier, the Chilean government intentionally organized a lower profile ceremony. Yet there were far more dignitaries than really could fit on the floor of the assembly forum. About a half an hour into the ceremony, everything began to shake, and I knew immediately that it was a quake. I assumed it was strong aftershock, but then moments later there was another, more powerful surge. [This turned out to be a separate 7.2-magnitude quake with an epicenter around 100 miles from Valparaiso.] Amidst the screams and nervous laughter, I felt as though the room was going to erupt into chaos and that people were going to be trampled while trying to get outside. There had to have been at least a dozen heads of state in the room. Yet nerves quickly calmed after no additional shocks occurred; the Chileans somehow managed to hastily finish the peaceful transition of power from one president to another, a great achievement in a country that not so long ago suffered under a brutal military dictatorship.

What a day. It seems like we’ve been here forever, but in fact we were in Chile for just 12 hours before returning to Andrews at 4:30 a.m. and then straight to work on Friday morning.

June 2010, Oval Office, The White House

I worked for two weeks on Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s visit to the Oval Office. Long a political and economic basket case, Peru has made some impressive gains in recent years, and it is our policy to reinforce the deepening bilateral relationship. Latin America’s emergence and the need for the United States to adapt to these realities is something I’d like to write about when I’m done with government service. The meeting went well and “POTUS” (President of the United States) was pleased.

A good day. But not all days are so good. I love the job, but I’m constantly frustrated by the insatiable political ambition that characterizes what passes as standard behavior in Washington. In Washington, it often feels as though there are indeed no relationships, only transactions. President Truman’s pithy maxim still holds, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

August 2010, El Chapare,Bolivia

What a treat! My “control officer” at the Embassy in La Paz is Ben Hess, the son of my economics colleague, Peter. Young and idealistic, Ben accompanied me on the white-knuckle takeoff in a creaky old C-130 flown by the Bolivian counter-narcotics from La Paz’s airport, which sits above 14,500 feet. As we were soaring off the snow-capped Andean peaks and dropping down into the jungle, I thought to myself, “Peter’s not going to be too pleased with me if we crash.”

We landed in Bolivia’s sweltering Chapare region, long notorious for its prodigious production of coca, the raw material for cocaine. Felipe Cáceres, the Bolivian government’s “drug czar,” is accompanying us on this visit. I had actually written a feature story on Bolivia’s drug trade that mentioned Cáceres for the American Interest magazine, but I have no idea of whether he ever read the piece. What’s amazing is that Cáceres is a former coca grower who came to power when fellow cocalero Evo Morales was elected in 2005. Now Cáceres has the unenviable task of actually having to crack down on illegal coca production. We are now about to board a Vietnam-era “Huey” helicopter in order to survey nearby “alternative development” projects where former cocaleros are planting licit crops like lemons, hearts of palm, and even organic coffee. When I ask a Bolivian National Police officer how many Hueys they maintain, his reply did not reassure me: “We’ve got eight—I mean, seven—helicopters, as one crashed recently. But don’t worry, it was pilot error.”

Russ Crandall with joint Columbian and American cadets.

Crandall poses for a photograph with Colombian and American cadets conducting joint training exercises.

September 2010, The White House

A few days ago elements within Ecuador’s National Police rose up against the country’s president, Rafael Correa. Correa has labeled the protests a coup attempt, and some voices in the region are alleging that Washington is behind the episode. POTUS would like to call Correa, and I’ve only got about an hour to get this memo ready. Playing on my mind is “Caracas April 2002,” when the White House failed to condemn an illegal putsch against leftist president Hugo Chávez, which set back our standing in the hemisphere considerably. There are also echoes of the Honduras coup in 2009, in that it is so hard to make a snap policy decision when you don’t have a good sense of what is going on.Yet everyone on the outside simply assumes that the U.S. government knows everything.

February 2011, Charlotte, N.C.

I recently left the NSC and am settling back into “civilian” life in North Carolina. Based on my experience after leaving the NSC the first time in 2005, I knew to expect the transition to be a bit difficult. I think it’s the abruptness that is so unsettling. One moment you have a badge that gets you into the Situation Room and allows you access to the most sensitive intelligence. Then you turn in your badge, walk out the perimeter gate, and suddenly you are like every other tourist who examines the White House from afar. It’s the position that is so powerful, not the person who occupies it. It is a constant wonder that our democracy is able to entrust this sort of power and responsibility to its citizens. But it’s over and now time to return to my vocation as a teacher and scholar. I can’t wait to develop relationships with students and share in the pursuit of ideas and truth. I do wonder a bit about returning to the specialization and rigid distinctions between disciplines that characterize so much of the academy these days.

I’m grateful to Davidson for unequivocally supporting my decision to enter government service. If I were to have this Washington experience over again, I’d try to do it faster, harder, and better. But I’m not eager to repeat the financial and familial strain that relocating to Washington brings. I now understand better why so many of the people who accept these political appointments already live in Washington and tend to be of the “Beltway Insider” type. Relative “outsiders”—such as academics—can bring fresh perspectives that challenge conventional orthodoxies. I just wish the transaction costs—the personal and professional sacrifices—of pursuing these jobs were not so high.

Russell Crandall first took public service leave in 2004 to serve as Western Hemisphere aide to President George W. Bush, and again in spring 2009 to serve as Principal Director for the Western Hemisphere at the Department of Defense. He moved to the White House in January 2010 as President Obama’s national security aide for the Andes—Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. An associate professor of political science at Davidson, he has written widely on American foreign policy and Latin America, among other topics.


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