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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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 but counterproductive:

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 engagement."

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, F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of the forthcoming The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989 (CrownForum).