The Magazine

Who's in Charge

For that man in the White House, it's a two-front war.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Presidential Command

Power, Leadership and the Making of Foreign Policy
from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush

by Peter W. Rodman

Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95

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."

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 system work.

"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 specialized expertise.

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 conclusion:

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.