Meet Jordan Tama

Jordan Tama is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, and the author of recently published Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises. He recently answered a few questions for WashingtonExec about his work, past, and the intersection of academia and policy.

WashingtonExec: Can you talk a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up, what did you study in school, and how did you ultimately come to be researching commissions?
Jordan Tama:
I grew up in Brooklyn, NY (and still have a lot of Brooklyn pride), then went to small Williams College in rural Massachusetts, where I majored in history and became very interested in politics and international affairs. I moved to Washington, DC after college and ended up working for three years as a speechwriter for former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton.

My interest in blue-ribbon commissions originated from my work for Congressman Hamilton. He has served on many boards and commissions and was Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission. The extraordinary amount of public interest in the 9/11 Commission made me wonder: Do commissions have any impact on government policy making, or are they just devices for elected officials to deflect political pressure? I found that very few scholars had examined the role of commissions, and decided to study this for my Ph.D. dissertation when I went to graduate school. I later turned this dissertation into my new book, Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises.

WashingtonExec: What have you learned about the effectiveness of commissions so far? Where do you see it fitting in, niche-wise, into what the government does regularly?

Jordan Tama: The conventional wisdom about commissions is that their reports just gather dust on bookshelves and do not lead to reform. I found that this conventional wisdom is wrong. Quite a few commissions have actually had a large impact on policy. Just in the area of national security policy alone, which is the focus of my book, commissions have catalyzed the enactment of the most important intelligence reform legislation of the past six decades, spurred the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and provided the blueprint for Barack Obama’s plan for ending the Iraq war.

The impact of commissions stems from their powerful political credibility. Commissions are typically comprised of a mix of well-respected Republicans and Democrats. When such a prestigious and politically diverse group reaches consensus on policy recommendations, it can send a powerful political signal that those recommendations are good ideas that should be broadly supported. Commissions can thereby forge bipartisan consensus on important issues and help overcome the extreme partisanship and polarization that characterizes our politics today. Commissions are particularly useful during times of crisis, such as in the wake of a disaster. In these moments, policy makers usually face pressure to make changes, but may not know what changes to make or may not be able to reach agreement on them. In this environment, commissions can play a valuable role in making proposals that frame the policy debate and facilitate the reaching of consensus.

WashingtonExec: What are your thoughts on academia’s role in influencing government policy? Can you talk about some times you’ve seen research by you or your peers influencing what’s said and done in governmentt?

Jordan Tama: I think it’s important for scholars to conduct research that can generate policy-relevant insights. Unfortunately there’s a significant divide between a lot of academic research and the policy world, but there are also many scholars who conduct research with practical implications. I think my research on commissions falls into this category because it generated findings about the circumstances in which commissions can be influential and about how to operate a commission to maximize its chances of having an impact. For instance, I found that commissions are more influential when they issue a unanimous report and promote their recommendations intensively.

One of the best examples of academic research that has had a real impact on government is the finding by political scientists that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with each other. This important finding has influenced senior U.S. policymakers who have pushed for assertive U.S. efforts to promote democracy overseas.

I am fortunate to be teaching at a school—American University’s School of International Service—that places a lot of value on the conduct of policy-relevant research and encourages participation by our faculty in the policy world.

WashingtonExec: How would you compare what you’ve seen so far under Barack Obama’s administration with your past study on president-congress relations?

Jordan Tama: So far President Obama’s relationship with Congress in foreign policy has largely followed the pattern of presidential-congressional relations over the past several decades: When it comes to use of force decisions, Obama has been in the driver’s seat, but Congress has had a significant impact on other areas of foreign policy. As a U.S. Senator, Obama once said that the president did not have the authority to deploy the military without congressional authorization, unless it was in self-defense. Yet, interestingly, as president, he has deployed the military to intervene in Libya, even though Congress has not authorized the mission. This reversal shows how much one’s perspective on the rightful role of Congress changes when one is in the White House rather than on Capitol Hill!

Congress has had a big impact in other areas, though—for instance, in designing a major aid package for Pakistan, forcing Obama to abandon its plan to transfer some Guantánamo detainees to U.S. soil, preventing Obama from moving forward with major climate change legislation, resisting some of Obama’s proposed defense cuts, and insisting on substantial cuts to U.S. foreign aid programs. Much of this is in keeping with Congress’ past behavior: Congress tends to have a greater impact on foreign aid and defense spending than on use of force decisions.

WashingtonExec: Any guiding principles for your work or career?

Jordan Tama: Tough one! I’ve never formulated such principles explicitly, but I’ve always sought to do work that I’m genuinely interested in and passionate about. That’s how I chose to focus on international relations, and I’m very fortunate to have a job that I love: studying and teaching U.S. foreign policy.

I’ve also always wanted to have an impact on the policy world. I try to do that by conducting policy-relevant research, by conveying my findings to policy makers, and by working in the policy world when possible. I recently received a fellowship from the American Political Science Association to work in a congressional office during the coming year, and I’m excited about this opportunity to participate directly in policy making.


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