WASHINGTON — Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, described her job the other day as translating the president's instincts into policy. She added that he influences her as much as she influences him.
Times change. The National Security Council did not even exist until 1947. It was created by the National Security Act along with the Central Intelligence Agency and the office of the Secretary of Defense. The members of the council are named in the law. They are the president, the vice president, the secretary of State, and the secretary of Defense. In the beginning, there was not even a national security adviser. In 1949, the council got an executive secretary who morphed over the years into the president's adviser for national security affairs with a substantial staff.
The role of the adviser has continued to expand, especially with the coming of Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon and of Zbigniew Brzezinski under Jimmy Carter. Nixon had a profound distrust of the State Department and wanted Mr. Kissinger to run foreign policy from the White House without regard to the department. Mr. Carter simply picked a secretary of State (Cyrus Vance) and a national security adviser who had differing views of the cold war.
Given this history, Ms. Rice's description of her job is not a large enhancement, much less a power grab. As in previous cases, the relationship between the president and his national security adviser is a reflection of how a particular president - any president - likes to make up his mind and reach a decision.
Still, it is worth asking what has happened to the role of the vice president and the secretaries of State and Defense. It is odd that a president would need somebody to interpret his own instincts. Most presidents begin with fairly well- defined views of the US role in the world. One can usually judge a president's approach to policymaking by what he has said about it in the past. George W. Bush said remarkably little on this subject before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
It did not take him long to produce a novel, imaginative, and frightening framework for protecting the US in an insecure world. Banished were the institutions so carefully constructed during the cold war, the United Nations, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They still existed, but they lacked the importance that their founders gave them. Multilateralism was out; unilateralism was in.
Gone was the doctrine of "no first use" of nuclear weapons; instead Mr. Bush endorsed preemptive war. If he thought this would scare people, both in the US and abroad, he was right; but it was an instinct that should have been reexamined before it was translated into policy. It gives deeper meaning to Rice's statement that the president influences her as much as she influences him. At the least, preemptive war should have been the subject of a great deal more debate than it got in Congress or from the public.
The president, Rice, and the Pentagon brain trust would have done well to recall the Cuban missile crisis. Never has the world come so close to nuclear war. It was avoided only because President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, overriding some of their advisers, drew back at the last minute and settled the matter amicably. They managed this by each withdrawing weapons that the other thought threatened him - Kennedy from Turkey, Khrushchev from Cuba.
So, allowing for the fact that each president is going to make foreign policy in the way that suits him best, what should be the broad parameters of the relationship between the president and the national security adviser? Instead of the adviser translating presidential instincts into policy, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the adviser's job were defined as assessing how the bureaucracy is implementing the policy previously made.
It is worth emphasizing that policy changes of the magnitude of those adopted by the Bush administration should be the subject of thorough debate in Congress and in the public. Presidents generally resist this process; but if the policies involved are sound, the president can only benefit by public discussion, which will lead to public understanding, which will lead to public support.
If the policies are not sound, this process is likely to lead to public opposition which will make the policies unsustainable. This process is not foolproof; the modest theory of the Constitution is that it is less likely to lead to error.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.