Report card on the NSC

SIX months ago President Reagan accepted the recommendations of the Tower Commission on foreign-policy making and the functioning of the National Security Council and its staff. He named Frank Carlucci III as national-security adviser and Howard Baker Jr. as chief of staff. How effective has policymaking been since? While recognizing the wide variations among presidents in their use of the NSC and its staff, the commission stressed that the system is well suited for certain functions indispensable to sound policy decisions. It can ensure that important issues are considered by the NSC principals (the president and vice-president, secretaries of state and defense, the director of central intelligence, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); that they have full information and analysis, including the expertise of career officials; that alternatives are debated; that decisions are defined, recorded, and followed up.

The national-security adviser should manage the process to ensure thorough preparation and consideration. While the commission viewed him as also a policy adviser, it cautioned against abuse of his position or becoming too committed to a specific course, or acting as a policy spokesman or operator. (In my view, making him an adviser is a mistake; it is bound to impair his essential role as an impartial but demanding manager of the system.)

In recent months, the main issues have involved the Persian Gulf, Central America and the contras, and arms control. How well have they been dealt with?

The decision to escort Kuwaiti ships was not well handled. Starting from the recognized United States interest in the Gulf, the decision was taken before there was a thorough analysis of the objectives, the means required, or the implications. The sloppy preparation for the decision was manifest in the confusion in seeking to carry it out.

The Reagan policy for Central America continues to suffer from ambiguity or duplicity. The most recent example is his peace initiative for Central America, developed with House Speaker Jim Wright (and overtaken by the plan endorsed by the five local states). Is there genuine support for a compromise that would leave the Sandinistas in power, if they grant greater pluralism and civil liberty? Or is this merely a makeway to bolster support for contra aid after September? Doubtless the ideologues want to make it a ploy and ensure its failure, while some pragmatists, assessing dimly the prospects for contra success or future support, apparently favor a real effort for a negotiated solution. But credibility is undercut by the conflicting voices and the failure of the President to decide clearly where he actually stands.

On arms control the latest move is the reported switch by the administration toward much less intensive verification for an intermediate-range nuclear arms agreement. Earlier, it had insisted on very sweeping rights to inspect all sorts of facilities on demand, and, to a surprising degree, the Soviets seemed inclined to accede. But of course these rights would be reciprocal. Now, US intelligence agencies and allies are having second thoughts about such intrusive inspections, and are backtracking substantially. Cynics may conclude that the original US proposals were made in the expectation of Soviet rejection. In any case, the reversal impairs credibility.

The results of the reforms thus far leave much to be desired. How much of the problem owes to a lack of thorough analysis and foresight, and how much of that is the fault of the national-security adviser?

Managing the policy process effectively is a challenging full-time task. To perform it properly the adviser must have the strong backing of the president to require the major departments and agencies to contribute to full and objective analysis of the issues, alternative courses, and their prospects and risks. Taking policy positions will make the task much harder.

Yet Mr. Carlucci appears to be going well beyond that. Contrary to the recommendations of the Tower Commission, he is actively engaging in the conduct of policy - as in his trip to Europe to line up allies on the Gulf, and as policy defender and advocate on the TV and in the press, and in dealing with foreign representatives. Inevitably that creates tension and friction with the secretary of state. But beyond issues of turf, such activities divert him from his indispensable job of managing the policy process and jeopardize his ability to perform it effectively.

The Tower Commission stressed the ultimate responsibility of the President for the effectiveness of the NSC process in making foreign policy. No president could be more dependent on having this job done well than Mr. Reagan. Only he can correct a serious distortion of the system. He would be well advised to concern himself with the problem.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for over 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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