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Hierarchy and gridlock

By DI / December 6, 1985



ROBERT (Bud) McFarlane leaves the White House post of national security adviser with a successful phase of the Reagan presidency just completed -- the Geneva summit. Mr. McFarlane's deputy, John M. Poindexter, takes over with the next phase -- Summit II -- to be scaled. Both are able, dedicated men. The transition promises continuity at the National Security Council. However, two public policy concerns should be voiced. The first concerns White House organization. There can be a tendency in second terms for hierarchy to set in, for presidents to have direct access to fewer aides, for potentially corrective criticism and debate to be filtered out -- for telling the boss what aides think he wants to hear. We haven't had that many two-term presidents recently. But Franklin Roosevelt's disastrous court-packing plan at the start of his second term, Eisenhower's overrelia nce on staff (particularly Sherman Adams), and Nixon's protective cluster of aides contributed to a hubris in White House decisionmaking that did not serve these Presidents well.

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It is not news to Mr. Reagan or to his chief of staff, Donald Regan, that the McFarlane exit was at least partly attributed to turf disputes. While McFarlane and Poindexter, like Regan, are men with military backgrounds, McFarlane's style was tempered by his family's political past. McFarlane had a sense of the political context, the need for negotiation on Capitol Hill, the usefulness of explaining policy considerations through the press that there is not as yet reason to anticipate from Poindexter.

The second issue is related. An arms control policy for trade-offs between offensive and defensive systems -- that can take advantage of the positive personal relationship begun between Gorbachev and Reagan -- remains undrawn. Is the White House settling into a tightly controlled staff system that prevents an imaginative policy, or its architect, from emerging -- assuring further arms control gridlock?