Where the Buck Stops

John R. Bolton reviews Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, by Peter W. Rodman.

Senior Fellow John R. Bolton
Senior Fellow
John R. Bolton

Successfully exercising presidential power in national-security affairs is a political and constitutional imperative for American survival. Weak, corrupt, and incompetent Congresses can come and go--and often do--without fatally damaging us, but even one failed presidency, let alone a string of them, can cause enormous harm, as just four years of Jimmy Carter proved.

Thus, the subject of Presidential Command, Peter Rodman's last book, published posthumously, is especially timely as we await Barack Obama's inauguration. Rodman surveys the modern presidencies from Nixon to Bush 43, examining the factors that make for success in foreign-policy decision-making, but not rearguing the substantive merits of particular decisions. In academic hands, this could be the driest of exercises, encumbered with incomprehensible charts, graphs, and statistics, but Rodman's experience in five of the presidencies he discusses, and his lucid style, keep the focus on reality and the narrative lively. Presidential Command is Peter's last gift to the country he loved and served so well.

His central insight, which emerges in the well-wrought case studies and anecdotes that make up the bulk of this achingly brief text, is that the president himself makes all the difference. First articulated by Alexander Hamilton--in the Federalist Papers--as "energy in the Executive," the insight bears endless repeating, since we seem so determined to forget it. Powerful and headstrong cabinet secretaries (or weak-willed ones, for that matter), the permanent departmental bureaucracies, the National Security Council and its staff, inter-agency decision-making mechanisms and conflicts, and leaks to the press and Congress all play on the foreign-policy stage, to be sure. But in the end, presidential success or failure rests with "the guy who got elected," as Secretary of State James A. Baker III liked to call Bush 41.

Struggle over control of national security has pitted not just the White House against the bureaucracy, but also the president against Congress.

Rightly stressing that it is the president who holds both constitutional and democratic legitimacy, Rodman emphasizes that "political control over the bureaucracy may be one of the most significant challenges in modern democratic government in the 20th and 21st centuries." In contemporary Washington, to listen to much of the media and many in Congress, you would think it was the other way around, with the bureaucracies (and their Capitol Hill allies) properly controlling "the guy who got elected" and his advisers.

The State Department's unresponsiveness to presidential command emerges again and again in Rodman's telling, not to mention the savaging of presidents by various dissident bureaucracies that aren't getting their way. It was McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security adviser, not Jim Baker as I long thought, who first said "the secretary should always be the president's agent in dealing with the bureaucracy, not the other way around." Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. went farther, opining that "the first lesson was never to rely on the experts." Kennedy himself called the State Department a "bowl of jelly."

Even before that, Harry Truman wrote: "The civil servant, the general or admiral, the foreign service officer has no authority to make policy. They act only as servants of the government, and therefore they must remain in line with the government policy that is established by those who have been chosen by the people to set that policy." One wonders how long it will be before some secretary of state has those words carved on the walls of the Harry S Truman Building, the State Department's home in Washington. (It should also be carved in the CIA's marble entrance hall in Langley, Va.)

Presidents striving to ensure control over decision-making have tried a variety of techniques, sometimes using the NSC as an instrument of presidential command (Nixon), sometimes sending a strong secretary of state to tame the bureaucracy (Eisenhower/Dulles, Bush 41/Baker). Those who failed to realize that there was even an issue, such as Carter and, to some extent, Clinton and Bush 43, paid the price when difficult international issues threatened to overwhelm them.

Rodman's studiously evenhanded and balanced style makes his zingers even more telling when they explode on the page, and he is especially acute assessing Republican administrations in which he served. For example, he describes Steve Hadley, Condi Rice's deputy national security adviser, and still her deputy even when he assumed her title in Bush 43's second term, as the administration's "iconic figure," and "the pursuer of bureaucratic consensus." Obviously, Hadley did so at Bush's and Rice's direction, which makes all the more devastating Rodman's conclusion that "as Ronald Reagan discovered, the pursuit of bureaucratic compromise can be a fool's errand."

Yes, indeed. Of course, a president's not knowing all the options open to him has its costs as well, as in Bush 43's second term, when Rice's voice utterly dominated in the president's ear. Rodman recounts that Eisenhower liked to hear the key issues argued out in front of him among his advisers--which risks bruised egos for the vanquished advocates, but gives the president a way of knowing the key views before making his decisions. Nixon demonstrated that he had learned well as vice president: "I refuse to be confronted with a bureaucratic consensus that leaves me no options but acceptance or rejection, and that gives me no way of knowing what alternatives exist."

Struggle over control of national security has pitted not just the White House against the bureaucracy, but also the president against Congress. Nowhere has the latter struggle been more profound and more visible than over the intelligence community (IC). Rodman recounts the terrible weakening of presidential authority during the 1970s, through CIA director William Colby's surrender to House and Senate investigating committees, over the repeated objections of the Ford White House. Colby later wrote that "I did not share the view that intelligence was solely a function of the Executive Branch," which Rodman correctly labels "an extraordinary statement." And Rodman is equally on target when he concludes that "Colby was simply more afraid of the wrath of Congress than of the wrath of the president."

In Congress and far too widely in the IC, that attitude has persisted and even grown. Former director Robert Gates wrote that the CIA had moved to a position "roughly equidistant between the Congress and the President." Strikingly, Gates then casually observed that "most of CIA's senior professional career officers would accept this reality and do their best to serve two masters, however awkward." One wonders whom Gates thinks he is now serving as secretary of defense--a question Obama might also want to ask. (Rodman says Gates inserted the word "involuntarily" in a printed version of the speech making the "equidistant" point. "Involuntarily" does not, however, appear in Gates's 1996 book, From the Shadows, quoted above.)

Asserting that the CIA is somehow not responsible and answerable exclusively to the president is as ridiculous as Jimmy Carter's idea of making the Department of Justice an independent agency, with the attorney general's term different from the president's. It is no wonder that Ford's former chief of staff, Dick Cheney, has been so concerned with re-establishing the president's constitutional authority, since he saw firsthand how those prerogatives were undermined. Unfortunately, presidential control over the IC has actually deteriorated further under Bush 43, despite--or in part because of--reorganization to create the new Director of National Intelligence position. Today, many in the IC believe it should be--and is--a kind of think tank, opining at will on topics of interest to itself, with the support of its congressional allies; and they are ever at the ready to object to the notion that the IC resides in the executive branch. As with Nixon's opening to China, perhaps it will take the Obama presidency to bring the IC back into its proper orbit.

Peter Rodman and I were friends for many years, served in the last several Republican administrations, and talked about this book as he was writing it. So he would not be surprised to see me take issue with him on one point--I am sure he would be disappointed if I didn't!--a point perhaps more a matter of characterization than of substance. In addition to constitutional and democratic legitimacy, Rodman posits "procedural legitimacy," which he defines as bureaucratic acceptance of decisions contrary to the bureaucracy's advice. Rodman correctly characterizes presidential concern for this problem as an element of "prudence," or later as "regularity," terms that strike closer to the truth than "legitimacy." That the bureaucracy has the power--through leaks, disloyalty, and obstructionism--to battle with presidents even after decisions are made is unarguable, as the Nixon and Bush 43 administrations demonstrate, each in its own way. But such power--as real as anything in Foggy Bottom and other bureaucratic lairs--should certainly not be confused with "legitimacy." As Rodman's narrative proves repeatedly, the president and his political team really need prudence and bureaucratic skill--not concessions that bureaucratic subversion has some sort of "legitimacy."

Ultimately, the real test is whether the president knows his own mind and acts consistently in policy formulation and implementation. Rodman is right on target when he says that "no structure or policy-making procedure" can make up for a president who does not "engage personally, consistently, and forcefully." His dissection of the Carter presidency demonstrates this point evocatively, concluding that Carter exacerbated his own schizophrenic views of the world by his personnel choices. Rodman also shows how Bush 43 and Reagan faced the problems of divided government, with open warfare between cabinet secretaries and their subordinates dominating much of both presidencies. Both presented "the paradox of a leader capable of great decisiveness but who set up and tolerated a system that impeded his exercise of it." When Reagan and Bush 43 did engage--most recently when Bush 43 obtained the Iraq "surge policy" by persistently cajoling the Defense Department to accept and then actually recommend it--they were far more successful. Reagan's laid-back management style led Lou Cannon to observe (in a remark also applicable to Bush 43) that "he was better suited to leading the nation than commanding its government." In all presidencies, Rodman concludes correctly, "splitting the difference between conflicting strategies can only produce incoherence."

In fact, it is the Bush 41 administration that stands out not only for the clearest presidential leadership, but for the most effective national-security team. Certainly the contrast in effective presidential command between Bush 41 and Bush 43 could not be clearer, although there is little doubt that much of Bush 41's success rests on the foundations constructed, however messily, during the Reagan years. Bush 41 also compared favorably with the informality of the Clinton years, which led to incoherence and failure in any number of areas for the president who came to office believing firmly that "it's the economy, stupid."

Foreigners, of course, also keep a close watch on presidential command, although their views necessarily emerge through the prisms of their interests. While the incoming Obama team seems to crave the approval of foreign governments, it should be attentive to at least a little history. French president Jacques Chirac could lament in the mid-1990s that Clinton's indecision over Bosnia meant that "the position of leader of the free world is vacant." That was a complaint we did not hear from Chirac during the Bush 43 administration. For now, we can only wonder what the foreigners will be saying about Obama's presidential command, or lack thereof. As Americans, we can at least read Peter Rodman's outstanding book, and judge accordingly.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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