Alexander Wooley is a Canadian working in international development, based in Virginia, and author of the upcoming Discontented Drones.
When I was nearing the end of graduate school and searching for a job in Washington, a friend who'd just joined a prominent foreign-policy think tank toured me around. At some point I mentioned that the senior staff seemed to stride about with a high sense of purpose and self-worth.
"Everyone here is biding their time, waiting to get back in government," he corrected me, looking over a shoulder. "They're frustrated. Impotent."
I've thought of this often this summer in D.C., as I hear those on the outside rail against U.S. President Donald Trump's lack of policy advisers, of any kind of strategy. They rub their hands with each foreign-policy gaffe – as if the past several presidents, with their phalanxes of experts, had spotless performance records on the global stage.
The complaints at Washington watering holes are the same you'd hear on The Bachelorette after-show. There's a palpable feeling of being rejected, scorned. This should have been the turn of select Republicans to rush in, and Democrats to sit on the sidelines. Instead, this administration has said it doesn't want anyone. No one gets a rose. Or very few. Experts warming up in the bullpen – at think-tanks, boutique consultancies, academia – have been told to stand down. Inside government, some key bureaucrats are fleeing, others held in perpetual acting positions. I was struck on a recent visit to the State Department's headquarters at Foggy Bottom how quiet the building seemed. The swamp hasn't been drained, but it is dammed.
An entire professional class has been rejected. It's like being, say, a coal miner, and suddenly you're pink-slipped. But it's even worse: Coal miners are out of work because what they produce is not wanted. It's not personal. But if the Trump administration doesn't want a grand strategy, or a North Korea briefing, or even a Myanmar policy, then it's a signal that not only is expert opinion not wanted, neither are the knowledge, experience and education that go into generating those opinions.
But unlike coal miners, experts have access to the mainstream media. And they've been venting, although the counter-arguments to date have been less than persuasive. An underlying thread seems to be that it matters less what the strategy – Afghanistan, North Korea, the Islamic State – says, than that there be a strategy in the first place. Experts require grist in order to sift, respond, critique, assess. Instead Mr. Trump supplies less information than a Bill Belichick presser two days before an NFL playoff game.
Jilted experts make tired analogies to airline pilots or neurosurgeons – "Would you board a plane without a trained pilot?" Except that policy wonks do not deal in sure things. You will find as many experts who favour a two-state solution as those who vow the opposite will work. By contrast, airline pilots are not split down the middle on whether flaps are useful in flying a plane or not.
In many cases, it is hard to separate whether the airing of grievances is motivated from an honourable sense of national security or national interests endangered, or because one feels personally spurned, cast off, in favour of Sebastian Gorka.
The administration's disregard for experts represents careers interrupted to the latter group – for four, perhaps eight years. Out of government, experts write reports, policy briefs, commentary. They swing for the fences, hoping each article entitled "A solar panel strategy for Yemen" will be George Kennan's "Long Telegram" sent from Moscow in 1946, a clash of civilizations, an end of history. But these are not career-making, evergreen reports; instead they are night-blooming cereus, Selenicereus grandiflorus, a flower that blooms one night only, in the barren desert.
The outsiders want above all else to influence policy. But in the end they're spectators, more so than ever with this particular President. They're simulating policy, while Mr. Trump gathers around him people who apparently know and have published far less. It's like playing the video game Madden NFL at an expert level while some chump off the street has been tapped to be the actual offensive co-ordinator for the real New England Patriots.
Those who crave "normality" recall the days when those outside government were awaiting their chance to get in. Options now are limited. Cuts to foreign aid and the U.S. overseas presence mean you likely don't have a fallback option of escaping to Antananarivo for a few years. So you linger at lunch a bit longer than you used to, confirming with colleagues that it's really, really bad. You see your list of influential contacts dwindling; draft angry op-eds you will not send because ultimately you're aware they come off as self-serving. Plus you don't want to burn bridges if an impeachment is just around the corner.
You can always wait for the dammed swamp to be breached.
Or, apparently, there are programs that re-train coal miners to be wind farm technicians.