Commentary Magazine

In the Shadow of the Oval Office by Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler

Policy vs. Proces
In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers
and the Presidents They Served—From JFK to George W. Bush
by Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler
Simon & Schuster. 372 pp. $27.00

Barack Obama’s eyebrow-raising selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, coupled with the appointment of the low-profile General James L. Jones as his national-security adviser, set the stage for one of Washington’s favorite quadrennial parlor games: guessing which adviser will ultimately have the President’s ear. Indeed, the relationship between the two power centers has been a steady and irresistible topic of palace gossip in the capital. With few exceptions, the rivalry between them has been rife with intrigue, backstabbing, strategic leaking, and bureaucratic runarounds, forcing successive administrations to struggle with the issue of how national-security policy is developed—and who is responsible for developing it.

Such questions are central to Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and I.M. Destler, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. Their new book is the first formal study of a topic that is itself relatively modern. All told, there have been only fourteen people to occupy the office of national-security adviser, starting with McGeorge Bundy under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Yet some of these figures—Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski—have been among the best known and most consequential in American public life.

The power of the post derives from some of the institutional advantages a national-security adviser enjoys over a Secretary of State. In a town where proximity is influence, the adviser sits just around the corner from the Oval Office. More important, the adviser does not require Senate confirmation, rarely testifies before congressional panels, and in general has limited contact with the press—at least on the record. Another advantage is that, unlike the Secretary of State, the national-security adviser oversees a hand-picked staff of a few dozen area experts rather than a vast bureaucracy of political appointees and career foreign-service officers amassed at Foggy Bottom.



But what, exactly, does a national-security adviser do? As Daalder and Destler show, the job description has evolved along with the expanding definition of American national security itself. Once, the adviser’s task was limited to consuming and processing information sent through the Pentagon or the State Department; today he or she must semi-independently deal with homeland security, immigration, drug-control policy, and, of course, global terrorism.

Style and approach have likewise varied according to personality. Bundy, plucked from the Harvard campus, saw his role as one of educating the President by kicking around policy ideas in the Oval Office. Kissinger placed himself in direct and sometimes secret negotiations with the Chinese and the North Vietnamese. Anthony Lake never forced the indecisive Bill Clinton to reach a decision. Condoleezza Rice became George W. Bush’s confidante and best friend.

In most cases, though, the role of information manager has remained constant, and so has the closely related task of representing the views of various factions within an administration. Such juggling rarely runs smoothly. Kissinger was always at odds with Secretary of State William Rogers, cutting him out of the information loop at every opportunity; by Nixon’s second term, Kissinger claimed both jobs for himself. Brzezinski appeared to have a completely different view of the Soviet threat from that of either his dovish boss, Jimmy Carter, or Secretary of State Cyrus Vance—an awkward circumstance that did not, however, deter Brzezinski from airing his views to whichever reporters would listen.

For his part, Ronald Reagan had five different national-security advisers, ranging from the bureaucratically weak Richard Allen to the secretive John Poindexter, the latter of whom authorized the Iran-contra deal without ever bothering to inform the President. Meanwhile, for most of the five, the major task was to keep within bounds the profound policy differences between Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who could not agree between them on the use of force or even the threat of its use. Neither of them, moreover, had any intention of reporting to an adviser occupying a corner office in the West Wing. “Forgive my annoyance,” Shultz (who had served in previous administrations) said to the incoming national-security adviser Frank Carlucci, “but I did not return to government to become an executive secretary.”

Daalder and Destler relate all this history in a highly readable fashion. Alas, however, there is little new or insightful here. While they draw on a tiny number of direct interviews with former national-security advisers, most of these are several years old, the product, perhaps, of earlier research. Instead, much of the narrative is taken directly from the well-thumbed memoirs of Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Richard Clarke. Still more unfortunately, Daalder and Destler’s favorite source appears to be the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, whose gossipy books on national-security decision-making rely on selective interviewing and unattributed quotations. In one chapter, they cite Woodward more than twenty times.

As for their point of view, Daalder and Destler offer what might best be described as the “staff” perspective on the post of national-security adviser. They give high praise to those occupants who have encouraged a team approach, sought consensus, listened to underlings, let ideas “bubble up,” and promoted openness among the national-security team. Advisers who have been most “effective”—a word they use with irritating frequency—are those insuring a role for everyone who has a stake in any given issue.



It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the authors rank those less solicitous of their colleagues’ opinions (Kissinger, Brzezinski) lower than those who have tried to act as honest brokers (Bundy, Scowcroft, Sandy Berger in Clinton’s second term). Singled out for special honor is Scowcroft, credited by Daalder and Destler with having created the model of an “efficient” national-security process. This is of special interest now that, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report, Barack Obama has fashioned his own approach to national security on the model formulated by Scowcroft in the 90’s.

But the lionization of Scowcroft as an ideal honest broker raises a larger question. Did he, in the end, promote the best ideas for America’s short- and long-term security? While Scowcroft’s mastery of process was no doubt helpful in orchestrating the first Bush administration’s swift and successful operation to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1990, on other issues the record was far more mixed.

Like others in the first Bush administration, Scowcroft believed it was in the best interests of the United States to leave Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad, where he continued to sponsor terrorism, plan Iraq’s rearmament, and divert hundreds of millions of dollars from UN accounts. Scowcroft was also slow to recognize the importance of Boris Yeltsin, insisting that Washington remain unflinchingly loyal to Mikhail Gorbachev even after it became clear he no longer spoke for the people he claimed to represent. Some responsibility should also be ascribed to Scowcroft for shamefully allowing the Bush administration to sit on the sidelines while Slobodan Milosevic led a murderous rampage through the former Yugoslavia.

These decisions, in which Scow-croft had a guiding hand, were matters of judgment and are still worthy of debate. But to the authors of In the Shadow of the Oval Office it is a seemingly infallible rule that good process is more important than sound instincts and wise decisions. Ironically enough, this is a thesis that, over and over again, their book inadvertently disproves.

Scowcroft is but one example. For their part, Reagan’s national-security advisers appear to have been responsible for any number of missteps and bewildering zig-zags—yet, despite a less than pristinely functioning process, the administration deserves credit for ushering in the collapse of the Soviet empire, the most significant national-security achievement since World War II. Conversely, Carter’s most important—perhaps only—foreign-policy success came at Camp David, where he presided over a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt; but as Daalder and Destler themselves remind us, the Camp David accords were made possible only by deliberately leaving Brzezinski out of the process and allowing little interagency consultation. They fail to note the even more significant fact that both Israel and Egypt came to Camp David determined to make a deal.

The inability to distinguish between failures of process and failures of policy is apparent as well in Daalder and Destler’s treatment of the second Bush administration. They excoriate Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for allegedly running roughshod over process, refusing to return phone calls from Condoleezza Rice, and ignoring “a thick study on ‘The Future of Iraq’ that the State Department had prepared.” While the full story of the management of the Iraq war has yet to be told, surely Rumsfeld’s greater error lay in not recognizing the need for a surge of troops—an idea that emerged not from a thick report or a smoother national-security process but from the persuasiveness of General David Petraeus in Iraq.



The real lesson of In the Shadow of the Oval Office is thus not the one the authors want to press upon us. Process or no process, the relationship between a President and his top advisers is necessarily idiosyncratic. Kennedy liked to stage brain-storming sessions. Clinton preferred to have his advisers bring him a forged consensus. Reagan was inattentive to details but clear about the larger purposes of American foreign policy. George H.W. Bush surrounded himself with advisers who, like him, had worked in Washington for decades. Barack Obama has appointed a national-security adviser he barely knows and a Secretary of State he barely likes. To each his own.

This book would have us believe that a solid formula exists for achieving effective policy—one that can be easily replicated by future presidential advisers. Most readers will draw a different conclusion: efficient process is no substitute for the right mix of coherent views, confident leadership, fortuitous timing, and luck.

About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.

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