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.

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).

Next Page