Presidents and the National Security Council
from Campaign 2008

Presidents and the National Security Council

President-elect Barack Obama assembles his national security team at a time when responsibility for foreign policymaking has shifted increasingly to the White House, says Carnegie Endowment scholar David Rothkopf.

November 12, 2008 8:59 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

David Rothkopf, author of a history of the U.S. National Security Council, says the way such teams function depends on the engagement of the president as well as a degree of personal chemistry. He says in recent years there has been a transfer of some foreign policymaking power from the secretary of state to the White House, although there has been a return to a more traditional approach in President George W. Bush’s second term.  In the world of the 24-hour news cycle, he says, the White House "wants to be involved in things that may have political resonance and it’s impossible to farm things out very easily." Presidents have had varying levels of engagement with the national security process, Rothkopf says, but remain crucial in shaping it. "The president is the person who determines who his principal national security or foreign policy adviser or advisers are going to be, and the president is the one who gives them power."

As a historian on the evolution of the National Security Council (NSC), what kind of organization works the best as President-elect Barack Obama sets up his own national security team?

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The strength of the structure of the national security apparatus of the United States adapts to the president. Barack Obama is, it appears, intelligent, engaged, and eager to immerse himself in the issues. He is unlikely to embrace a path followed, for example, by President Ronald Reagan, who sought to keep the apparatus at arm’s length and to leave it to his deputies. There are many choices the president faces in establishing a national security structure, more today than there were in the past. So, for example, the NSC was established in 1947 by the Truman administration; the Clinton administration established a National Economic Council [NEC] which ran alongside, often overlapping it. The Bush administration established a Homeland Security Council, which ran alongside  and also often overlapped. It’s unclear what the role of a Homeland Security Council may be in the new administration or if it will remain, and there has now been some talk of establishing an Energy Security Council because it’s such a central issue, although it, too, will almost certainly overlap with the work of the NSC and the NEC.

Does the NEC really function these days?

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The NEC played a much more diminished role in the Bush administration than it did in the Clinton administration. It already had played less of a  role in the second term of the Clinton administration.  Because Robert Rubin went from the NEC to becoming secretary of the treasury he moved the center of gravity with him. That said, it’s hard to imagine that an Obama administration is not going to have an NEC that plays a central role. It is entering office in the middle of a U.S. and global recession, one of fairly historic proportions. Economic issues are going to be central, and he needs a mechanism to deal with them. It’s also very clear that in the world we live in today, a host of our most useful diplomatic tools are economic. We talk a lot about "soft power," and one of the useful roles the NEC plays is in managing some of the soft power mechanisms that are important to the agenda of the NSC. But to get back to your core point, structural decisions are going to be important fairly early on and within those structural decisions there are subdecisions.

The George W. Bush administration created a structure for the NSC where we went from essentially one principal deputy national security adviser to four or five deputy national security advisers. One of the reasons that this was done is that the real policy work of the government these days gets done at the deputy level. Another reason it emerged that way is that gradually over the course of the past several decades, more and more responsibility for foreign policymaking has shifted to the White House. I don’t think that’s a reversible trend, despite statements that may be made by an incoming secretary of state. The reasons for it are manifold, but the most important is that we live in a world in which there’s a 24-hour news cycle. Everything becomes political. The White House is the political center of the administration and therefore wants to be involved in things that may have political resonance and it’s impossible to farm things out very easily.

So is the NSC adviser in a way more important these days than the secretary of state?

It depends on the relationship with the president. You know, the president can determine this. Clearly in the first George W. Bush administration the most important foreign policy actor was neither the NSC adviser [Condoleezza Rice] nor the secretary of state [Colin Powell]; it was Vice President Dick Cheney. The president is the person who determines who his principal national security or foreign policy adviser or advisers are going to be, and the president is the one who gives them power. In fact, there is a market in power that’s established in the White House, with the president determining what it is, who has it, who can trade it. It ebbs and flows because people make mistakes, people prove themselves, the issues people are associated with rise and fall, and as a result the power can shift. And certainly in the first term of the Bush administration, after 9/11, the vice president assumed a role that no vice president in history has.

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He built a national security team that was bigger than President John F. Kennedy’s NSC staff, and the vice president and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who had a close relationship from the past, became the center of gravity. Certainly the president allowed that to happen. The national security adviser gradually retreated to a role of staffing the president rather than driving this process. There was some distrust of the political independence of the secretary of state and the result was to make Rumsfeld the center of gravity. In the second term, with Rumsfeld’s departure and the problems associated with some of the policies espoused by Cheney and the neocons [neoconservatives], there was a shift back to a more traditional balance where the new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the new secretary of defense, Robert  Gates, became more interested in diplomacy; they restored international relationships, worked well with one another, and essentially tried to undo some of the damage that was done during the first four years.

The new national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, had been Rice’s deputy. He’s kind of an inside guy who was perfectly willing to defer to her. He had been doing it for four years. So he played the guy in the gray suit standing next to the president, which is an important role and a historic role that has been played by some past national security advisers. When Henry Kissinger came in [as President Richard Nixon’s NSC adviser in 1969] and when Zbigniew Brzezinski came in [as President Jimmy Carter’s advisor in 1977], they were able in the very early days of the transition to establish committee structures and committees that they as national security advisers would chair that essentially blocked the  influence of the secretary of state or enhanced their own influence. And so a lot can be done in the transition.

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And this is because both President Nixon and President Carter liked that.

Exactly. Nixon didn’t feel comfortable dealing with other people. He became comfortable with Kissinger as a kind of an interlocutor. The other thing that needs to be said about Nixon is he knew what he wanted in foreign policy, and he, like other presidents who successfully managed the national security process, was very clear to Kissinger: "Here’s what I want, here’s the direction we need to go, here’s how I want your NSC staff to work." One president who was also very successful at this was George H.W. Bush, who had a longtime relationship with Brent Scowcroft [his NSC adviser, who also had served in that role at the end of President Gerald Ford’s administration] and with [Secretary of State] James Baker. Baker and Scowcroft knew each other; they laid out the ground rules for their relative roles very early on, and Bush made what I think was the smart decision of saying, "Look, I want you guys at the NSC to give me choices. I don’t want you to give me recommendations; I also don’t want false choices." They were supported by the NSC deputy, Robert Gates. Gates told me that he had the ability, if he was in a meeting, and they needed a decision  from the president, to walk down the hall, into the Oval Office, ask Bush for an answer, and walk back. So they had a very good collegial relationship. The best working NSCs had very strong interpersonal relationships; that was the glue that held them together.

Do you think the George H. W. Bush NSC model was the best?

There were strengths that could be found in a number of them. The model that we sort of use is the George H.W. Bush one in part because Scowcroft was the first guy to do the job twice, and so he had some experience, partially because he was actively involved in the Tower Commission [that investigated the Iran-Contra affair] that responded to the complete meltdown during the Reagan administration. There was a consensus of how to approach things and the degree to which the consensus was manifest was that when Anthony Lake came in as national security adviser in the Clinton administration he maintained the same structure; and Condoleezza Rice maintained it.

In the first George W. Bush administration, do you think if the NSC advisor was someone other than Condoleezza Rice, the Iraq war might have been handled differently?

You would have had to have someone else other than Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfel, because it was the cocktail of personalities that really turned out to be poisonous from the perspective of policymaking, because those who were more traditional, pragmatic, nonideological advocates for policy were ignored. There is a temptation to say, well, Cheney is Darth Vader, let’s blame it on him, or Rumsfeld is the master manipulator, let’s blame it on him. This was a choice made by George W. Bush; he deferred to these guys. He let Rumsfeld ignore the NSC process and do a lot of his work through the back door.  He let Jerry Bremer [the first civilian head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq] go off to Iraq and not do things he had agreed to in meetings with the State Department hours before. That’s part of the equation you choose. The Clinton administration began with an undisciplined process, and the early signals we get from the Obama team are quite encouraging in this regard. They say Rahm Emanuel is a tough guy; they ran a disciplined campaign and they’ve now put a very discipline-oriented guy in charge of the White House, and you need that. You need that when there’s a million balls in the air, and you want to have a leakproof process so that people can actually speak their minds.



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