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F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow
Steven F. Hayward
Peter Rodman, who died last summer at
the too early age of 64, has left us an invaluable study of the
institutional problems of foreign policy in the executive branch. A
protégé of Henry Kissinger, Rodman served in the national security
apparatus for four Republican presidents and, as such, had a wealth of
experience to draw upon in framing lessons for how to make foreign
policy more effectively, and with less counter-productive friction
among the usual factions. But at its heart this book is about more than
foreign policy. In the end, Presidential Command is about the central problem of democratic government today in all fields of policy.
“Political control over the bureaucracy,” Rodman writes in the
opening pages, “may be one of the most significant challenges to modern
democratic government in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Rodman recommends that
This is not mere boilerplate from which to deplore the often
recalcitrant culture of the careerists at the State Department that
frequently undermines presidential policy through highly refined
bureaucratic arts. Rodman returns to this problem throughout the book,
taking note of the frustrations and dilemmas of different attempts to
control the bureaucracy. While Rodman makes a number of specific
recommendations for improving the foreign policy process so as to
increase the president’s effectiveness and the bureaucracy’s
accountability, in the end he is compelled to reaffirm the centrality
of the judgment and engagement of the president himself in making the
“The American system,” Rodman laments, “has not solved the problem
of presidential control over our own bureaucracy.” True, but that’s
because modern theory doesn’t regard it as a problem. The theory of the
permanent government, or the administrative state, traces back to the
Progressive Era and holds that administration can or should be
insulated from politics, and that political questions can be
transformed by degrees into technical questions and better managed by
In the American context, it represents the fulfillment of the axiom
attributed to Saint-Simon that “the government of men is replaced by
the administration of things.”
This dubious idea can be said to work, after a fashion, in domestic
affairs; we are most familiar with it in connection to independent
regulatory agencies and programs. The Office of Management and Budget
can be said to be the domestic policy equivalent of the National
Security Council, giving the president some means of overseeing the
bureaucracy and controlling its decisions.
But the administrative state framework cannot be made to work in
foreign policy for a very simple reason–a reason so simple that it is
often overlooked, sometimes deliberately so. Despite the relative
success in creating international institutions and legal structures
along an administrative model such as the World Trade Organization, at
the end of the day we really can’t get very far away from the Lockean
understanding that nations in their relations to one another are in a
state of nature, which means that essential political questions cannot
be converted into technical questions. Rodman writes in his strong
In the back of our minds, perhaps, there is a technocratic model of
government in which [foreign policy] professionals should be left to go
about their business uncorrupted by politics or even by policy
influence from elected or appointed officials who may have their own
philosophy or objectives in the matter. But in truth, this is the wrong
model. . . . The abolition of politics is a mirage, and a dangerous one.
The background puts into sharp relief Rodman’s survey of the means
by which modern presidents have attempted to control the foreign policy
bureaucracy and manage the conflicts between the competing centers of
power, especially the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA.
Machiavelli reminds us in The Prince that “good counsel, from
wherever it comes, must arise from the prudence of the prince, and not
the prudence of the prince from good counsel.” In this vein, Rodman
casts a cold light on a number of established clichés about foreign
policy conflicts, and generates a number of his own Prince-worthy observations about how it should work.
Every time something goes wrong, the reflex in Washington is to
fault “the process.” To be sure, Rodman agrees that there are often
process flaws, but in most cases what is lacking was not process but
policy judgment. (Examples include Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra
disaster, but also many aspects of President George W. Bush’s
management of the Iraq war.) The quest to forge consensus among
quarrelling factions is a chimera, and will lead to incoherence just as
much as mushy, lowest common denominator difference-splitting.
Conflict and disagreement between bureaus and advisers is to be
welcomed rather than suppressed because it clarifies real choices. The
best national security adviser–Rodman singles out Brent Scowcroft
under Ford and Bush 41 as his beau ideal–is one who pushes
the competing factions to refine their policy views and then presents
the president with genuine alternatives rather than Yes, Minister-style
false or constrained choices. But the president has to embrace managing
and resolving the conflicts of his advisers. Rodman thinks George W.
Bush’s unwillingness to manage conflicts among his team, and reluctance
to impose his will, was the primary cause of his continuing grief over
the Iraq war.
But there remains the problem of how to conquer the subterfuges by
which the permanent government–especially the State Department–tries
to undermine the president’s policy and decisions. One temptation is to
try to centralize policymaking in the White House as much as possible,
practically to the point of cutting out the State Department entirely.
This was Richard Nixon’s strategy, which he sought to extend to
domestic policy as well. Rodman thinks Nixon’s approach was impressive
His White House-centered system produced what was probably the most
centralized, consistent, and strategically coherent policy-making of
any modern presidency–but it came at the price of demoralization and
alienation of the rest of the government. The exclusionary style of his
management is not a model to be emulated.
Several presidents have tried an inverse of Nixon’s strategy,
implicitly downgrading the State Department’s influence by deliberately
appointing weak secretaries of state and thereby hoping to shove
foreign policy onto the back burner. Jimmy Carter was philosophically
confused about foreign policy, and Bill Clinton entered office with a
distaste for the subject and hoped to avoid spending much time on it.
Both were compelled by events to pick up their game. Reagan’s
policymaking process was chaotic and often counterproductive, but his
instincts served him well and he got the right outcome on the Cold War,
while his foreign policy disasters (Lebanon, Iran-Contra) show the need
for intense hands-on management.
“A president who is less a master of foreign policy when coming to
office,” Rodman concludes on the last page, “or who chooses not to
engage systematically, can count on having difficulties. . . . No
structure can substitute for a president’s sustained and credible
Rodman recommends that presidents without foreign policy interest,
or the desire to manage foreign policy actively, would be well advised
to pick a strong and loyal secretary of state–but provided the
secretary resists rather than absorbs the views and inclination of the
Foggy Bottom careerists. Yet even this idea is not foolproof, as the
example of Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, shows.
A popular media theme is that, in picking Hillary Clinton to be his
secretary of state, Barack Obama is emulating Abraham Lincoln’s “team
of rivals” approach, made familiar in the Doris Goodwin soap opera, and
on the surface might seem to be heeding Rodman’s advice to have a
strong (loyal remains to be seen) secretary of state. From her years as
first lady a decade ago, Clinton may recognize the importance of not
succumbing to the blandishments of the State Department–though the
thunderous applause from department employees when she arrived for her
first day gives cause to hesitate about this.
Above all, one may wish that Obama had read Presidential Command rather than Team of Rivals.
If the new president thinks that he has set himself up for a smoother
ride in foreign policy than George W. Bush by selecting a high-profile
national security team that can relieve him to focus more on domestic
affairs, he is in for a disappointment.
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.
Steven F. Hayward reviews Presidential Command: Power, Leadership and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, by Peter W. Rodman.
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