The task before William Clark

As national security advisor, Judge William Clark faces the daunting challenge of assisting Mr. Reagan to achieve coherence and direction for his foreign policy.

The past year has shown the gravity of the problem. The best that can be said is that Mr. Reagan discovered that simplistic campaign formulas seldom fit the complexities of the real world, and moved toward more pragmatic responses to events.

But the result is a far cry from an adequate policy. Too often the process of adjusting has been slow and erratic, suggesting weakness or yielding to pressure , as in the decisions on arming Taiwan or on arms control. More seriously the policy itself has been muddled or confused in many areas. Repeatedly Secretaries Haig and Weinberger and others have seemed to be working at cross-purposes, and the President does not always appear fully informed about the issues. The truth is that sharp conflicts persist within the administration on the basic approaches to most of the major issues. It does not yet have a guiding strategy on how to deal with the Soviets; on relations with the allies; on the Middle East and handling Begin and Israel; and on the sort of military capability required for deterrence and defense.

Mr. Reagan cannot have the coherent policy essential for dealing with allies or adversaries until he makes the critical choices about the strategy to be followed in these areas: what does the US want to achieve, by what means, and with what priorities? (In the Middle East, for example, does he intend to press forcefully for a Palestinian solution or to acquiesce -- with toothless protests -- in Israeli absorption of the West Bank and Gaza?) Without a strategy, his specific decisions will continue to be erratic, as when Carter vacillated between the advice of Brzezinski and Vance regarding the Soviet Union.

The primary task of Judge Clark should be to seek to rectify this situation. To do so he will need (1) to convince the President of the need to devote the requisite time and energy to making wise choices of strategy, and (2) to ensure that the Cabinet officers and their agencies provide him with the analyses and advice for informed decisions.

Judge Clark's standing with the President should qualify him to do both aspects effectively. It does not mean emulating Kissinger or Brzezinski. His model should be the very different role of the national security assistant under Eisenhower and Kennedy. The assistant was responsible for making the policy process work to integrate political, military, economic and other elements into sound decisions. The President expected him to ensure that various agencies produced solid analyses of the issues and of the alternatives for dealing with them. As the manager of the process, the assistant had the full backing of the President and direct access to him to require the Cabinet officers and their agencies to cooperate in the process. But he did not compete as advisers on the policy decisions.

While it might well be better if Judge Clark were more experienced in foreign affairs, he can do the job if he has the ability to see that issues are thoroughly analyzed and fully presented by those who are. He can do that with the help of a small staff, whose function should be to probe and question the positions of the departments and agencies rather than to usurp their policy role.

In seeking to improve the process Judge Clark might find it useful to examine the NSC system under Eisenhower. There the NSC assistant chaired an NSC Planning Board, composed of assistant secretaries from relevant agencies, which was responsible for preparing draft policy papers on major issues for consideration by the NSC and the President, drawing on the full resources of their respective agencies. The national security assistant made sure that the papers adequately analyzed the issue and competing recommendations about handling it, and arranged for a CIA intelligence estimate in parallel with the policy paper.

Second, these papers were circulated to the NSC members in time for them to be briefed by experts within their agencies before the NSC meeting. Finally, the President presided at all NSC meetings and heard the debate on the issue among the members before making his decision.

This process had several benefits: (1) The staff work of the Planning Board assured a joint probing of the problems and alternatives. (2) The experts in the various agencies had a full chance to submit their data and views as an input to the decision. (3) The President not only had the papers but also heard the issue discussed by all those with diverging views. In short it provided an effective mechanism for assisting the President to make the critical choices which determined the coherence and consistent direction of policy.

These would seem to me the criteria for assessing whatever procedures Judge Clark may devise.

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