Task forces give students a chance at real-world policymaking
By Eric Quiñones
Princeton NJ -- Before showing the next slide in her PowerPoint presentation, Rebecca Katz warned anyone with a weak stomach to turn away.
Several students gasped as the image of a child afflicted with smallpox appeared on the screen. Katz, a doctoral candidate in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, swiftly clicked onto the next slide, resuming her discussion of the devastating history of chemical and biological weapons.
"That was a great overview," Harold Feiveson, senior research policy analyst in the Wilson School, told the students as Katz packed away her laptop. "[It was] a little sobering, but very illuminating."
All Wilson School students are required to participate in policy task forces in each semester of their junior year. Hallmarks of the school's curriculum, the junior task forces challenge students to write individual papers on public policy issues ranging in scope from municipal to global, then pool their ideas in a group policy statement. Each task force's findings are presented to individuals, government agencies or other organizations that influence real-life policy issues.
This semester, Feiveson -- co-director of the Wilson School's Program on Science and Global Security -- led a group in examining how the United States should react to the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons by other nations. For research, the students could start simply by watching television and witnessing the historic international showdown over Iraq's weapons program.
Glued to TV during spring break
As Katz, who served as a graduate consultant for the task force, delivered her presentation to the group in late February, the United States was imploring the U.N. Security Council to declare that Saddam Hussein had missed his last chance to disarm. By early April, after the students finished their individual papers and began collaborating on their final policy, U.S.-led forces were moving into Baghdad, about to topple Hussein's regime.
"This was the only paper I've ever written in which the vast majority of material I've used wasn't from books," said Siddartha Gupta, who became the task force's expert on Iraq and weapons inspections.
Gupta relied on the Internet, newspapers, research articles from public policy think tanks and, of course, the 24-hour TV coverage to keep abreast of his rapidly evolving research topic. He spent three days during spring break in mid-March "glued to my TV" watching the United States launch its invasion of Iraq.
Each student in the task force had to monitor the Bush administration's actions closely. Two students, Jane Kim and Christina Shim, wrote their individual papers on North Korea, another area of escalating tension. Others focused either on specific countries -- Iran, India, Pakistan, Israel and Russia -- or on more general questions of how to prevent or counter weapons proliferation and strengthen international treaties.
"Every week we would meet and discuss our topics, and there would always be something new to report, especially in Iraq and North Korea," said senior Clark Webb, who served as group commissioner, working alongside Feiveson to help guide the juniors as they assembled the policy.
"There's a fine line between waiting until the last minute to do your entire paper because you feel like everything's changing daily and having a cut-off date," Webb said. "While they did have the foundations of their papers set in February, March and April, the juniors were willing to add new parts and revise them based on what was happening around the world."
In his research on Iraq, Gupta focused on whether past U.N. inspections had been effective in impeding the buildup of Hussein's arsenal. "I had to write my paper in a way that it would still be applicable whether or not we went to war," he said. "My conclusion was that, even if inspections had not been effective, it was a bad idea to go to war by ourselves. Without U.N. backing, the long-term implications on our nonproliferation efforts would be extremely negative. Because other nations saw us going into Iraq, they might feel the only way to defend themselves is with weapons of mass destruction."
As a whole, the task force analyzed the Bush administration's December 2002 policy paper on combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The students criticized the administration for failing to discuss how to strengthen multilateral weapons treaties, and for outlining a strategy of countering weapons of mass destruction that may conflict with existing treaties.
Their final policy proposed amendments to existing international agreements, "including procedures by which economic sanctions and ultimately military force can be employed to give teeth to treaties." Addressing the justification of U.S. military action against Hussein's regime -- one of the most hotly debated topics in their negotiating sessions -- the group policy echoed Gupta's conclusion that invading Iraq without international consensus set a dangerous precedent.
Its recommendations on individual countries included a push for the United States to engage in negotiations to freeze or dismantle North Korea's nuclear program by promising a non-aggression pact. The short-term dangers of a continued nuclear buildup ultimately overrode some students' concerns about appearing to reward North Korea for threatening actions.
In the midst of the final task force negotiations in April, the United States held a preliminary round of talks with North Korea.
"The exciting thing for me personally was that the path the situation began moving toward was reflected in my policy recommendations," said Kim, one of the group's two North Korea experts. "A nuclear North Korea is much too dangerous to just ignore; working toward the ultimate dismantlement of their program needs to be a priority."
Information and bravado collide
While Feiveson's group covered the topic that dominated headlines around the world, other Wilson School task forces this spring focused on equally complex, evolving issues, such as: filling gaps in Medicare coverage; balancing liberty and national security; China's entry into the World Trade Organization; reforming urban schools; and protecting cultural property during war. The school offers about 10 task forces each term.
In any task force, the process of weaving multiple research papers into one coherent policy is daunting. The debating, persuading and compromising required to develop a strong final policy are invaluable experiences, Mike McCurry, former press secretary for President Clinton and a member of the Wilson School class of 1976, said in an interview.
In fall 1974, Feiveson led a task force that simulated arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to an agreement on weapons reductions and limitations. Feiveson broke the task force into two groups. McCurry led the Soviet delegation.
"I have to say I think our Soviet team out-negotiated the Americans," recalled McCurry, who spent 25 years in politics and now runs Grassroots Enterprise, a technology and public affairs consulting company with offices in San Francisco and Washington.
"The outcome looks a little quaint now, given the remarkable changes our world has seen since the Cold War," he said. "But the important thing is that we learned some valuable lessons about policymaking and process, about power and leverage in negotiations, and about the way that arguments, information and bravado collide in foreign policymaking. Those lessons stuck with me every day I worked at the State Department and the White House."
For the Wilson School faculty, organizing a task force topic may mean tackling broad issues that allow students to ponder the fate of the world, or zeroing in on more specialized or localized subjects on which they might make an immediate impact.
Last spring, Wilson School lecturer Jean Grossman led a task force that studied opportunities for developing after-school programs in Philadelphia, a major initiative undertaken by Mayor John Street.
Grossman's task force studied the strengths of various after-school programs and identified areas of Philadelphia with the highest child poverty rates. The group then determined the best locations and regulations for such programs and presented its findings to a nonprofit organization that was recommending policies to Street. A number of the task force's recommendations were incorporated into the city's plan.
"I knew this was the perfect place to intervene, because they were just about to make the decision," Grossman said. "The trick in doing that is knowing your connections and who's making a decision, and how it's going to fit into the timeline of the semester."
Both sides of the debate
From the beginning, Feiveson felt it was unlikely that his task force would have much impact on the White House's foreign policy thinking. "I'm not sure there will be a congenial client in the administration right now," he said in February while trying to determine where the students would present their work.
Still, Feiveson arranged for the students to meet a broad range of Washington players, who eventually served as the audience for their findings. In mid-March, the group visited representatives from the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as think tanks and lobbying groups such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for International Policy, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and the Arms Control Association. In addition, Robert Einhorn, assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation under President Clinton, was a guest lecturer.
"I try to involve people who have really strong opinions, clashing opinions, so the students get a sense of the debate," Feiveson said. "Here at Princeton you can get kind of a homogenized view. But I think it's good for students to be exposed to people who will say, 'Yes, go to war in Iraq' and others who say, 'No, you can contain weapons of mass destruction.'"
Despite the politically charged backdrop, Feiveson noted that this semester's task force struggled with fewer disagreements than other groups that he has led during his 30 years of teaching in the Wilson School. Two years ago, for example, students in his task force on missile defense were sharply divided on whether to preserve the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, from which the Bush administration withdrew last June.
"How to deal with weapons of mass destruction is a huge issue," said Kim, one of the current juniors. "I was surprised at how well we were able to cooperate and form a consensus."