Still a role for the National Security Council
In President Reagan's White House the assistant for national security affairs has moved from the spacious, elegant West Wing corner office once occupied by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski to low-ceiling accommodations in the basement. The symbolism should not be lost. President Reagan prefers his national security assistant, Richard V. Allen, to be subordinate to the secretary of state in both style and substance. Allen reports to the President through counselor Edwin Meese. In recent meetings with a foreign visitor in the Cabinet room, Allen sat four places removed from the President Kissinger and Brzezinski used to sit next to him.
Despite the downgrading, the role of the assistant to the president for national security affairs and that of his staff remain integral to the President's decisionmaking in foreign policy. Crisis management, coordination of international economic policy, and intelligence oversight all rely heavily on a central White House clearing agency to synthesize and energize issues for the President.
In its efforts to control the role of the national security assistant and his staff the Reagan administration should be careful not to confuse personalities of the past with the ever-present needs of the presidency. Parceling out the responsibilities of the National Security Council (NSC) or curtailing its role could hamper the reach of the President who, if he follows the pattern of all his predecessors since 1940, will be spending at least two-thirds of his time on foreign policy matters.
It would be a mistake to confuse the NSC under President Carter's style of leadership with the functional role it should play. Jimmy Carter was strong in setting forth his goals, but rarely was he able to carry them out. When he came to the tough choices he too often backed away or failed to discipline, or fire, those who were openly disloyal.
The NSC under Carter was in competition with the State Department because the President permitted such rivalry and at times encouraged it by sending Brzezinski forth as the administration's spokesman. when Carter was dissatisfied with his secretary of state, he turned to his NSC assistant, who was willing and able to fill a void. On other occasions he would split the differences between the secretary of state and the national security adviser, a cop-out that eroded confidence.
The president must command and make the ultimate choices. They must be communicated through a loyal staff who see in the president consistency and courage.
If there is a press leak about arms aid to Morocco or Saudi Arabia in an attempt to preempt policy, the president should not grumble to his press secretary or security adviser about leaks. Instead of instituting a self-defeating crackdown that limits access to classified materials, he should explain his goals and fight politically for his programs. Leaks are rarely so large that they cannot be ignored and overwhelmed by decisive presidential action.
Under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, the National Security Council was responsible for the formulation of foreign policy choices for presidential decision. Kissinger under Nixon, Brent Scowcroft under Ford, and Brzezinski under Carter commanded an interagency review process that produced issues and strategy papers. The president's decisions were based on the options posed in these studies.
Under President Reagan the process has been changed so that the State Department would set up and chair the interagency groups to coordinate foreign policy and national security issues. The senior interdepartmental group headed up by Deputy Secretary of State William Clark will strive to reconcile differences between the departments and the NSC.
Control of the policymaking process --calling meetings and assigning papers -- is power. With the State Department in charge the coordinating job is removed from the White House and the function of presidential decisionmaking is diluted. A strong president wants that process in his White House. While the president may delegate bureaucratic control to his departments, in the final analysis he must make the decisions and adjudicate between his Cabinet members.
One issue that bedeviled the Carter administration is the transfer of advanced technology to the Soviet Union. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this was expanded to include the embargo of agricultural commodities to the Soviet Union. Despite a campaign promise to lift the embargo , it remains in place.
In many ways Reagan faces the same dilemma as Carter. Each of the departments --Agriculture, Defense, Commerce, and State --In theory, the NSC should serve as the president's objective arbiter in helping him resolve these differences because its only constituency is the president. Even if the secretary of state is the president's self-styled "vicar" for foreign policy, the final authority stems from the White House.
If Americans are taken hostage it is the president as commander in chief who must make the ultimate decisions. To get the fullest picture he needs the NSC to bring him choices from the broadest range of alternatives. If this charge is abused the NSC adviser and his staff can usurp the powers of Cabinet officials. Instead of facilitating decisions they can send false signals and overload the bureaucracy with conflicting imperatives that lead to bitter personality clashes.
At its best the NSC structure can serve the president to act swiftly and skillfully. It can organize the executive agencies and departments to respond and carry out a policy. It is the power of the president as commander in chief that determines the role of the NSC.
The role of the National Security Council should be defined by the president with the understanding that in times of crisis he will need at his command not only loyal department and agency heads but a White House cadre that can function under excrutiating pressures to forge his will.
The agrument that the National Security Council has become too big and too independent a power base emerges only from presidential indecision, as in Jimmy Carter's case, or when a president is weakened by political wounds, as was the case with Richard Nixon during Watergate.
There is a role for the NSC and it is up to the president to define that role. In its various permutations we have often sought to blame the failures of the president on the national security assistant and his staff. But the real lesson is that no matter where the national security advisor sits, it is the president who decides. Blaming the NSC or the State Department for a policy failure is acknowledging that the president ha s failed as commander in chief.