2. Paper Prepared by L.E. Lynn, Jr.1
WHAT SHOULD BE THE FUTURE OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SYSTEM AND STAFF?
Background: The Issue
The President is expected to exercise leadership in the formulation and execution of foreign policy and in the maintenance of national security. This leadership role is not only intellectually demanding, it places heavy demands on the President’s executive abilities. Directing and coordinating the large number of agencies and interests who must be involved if the national interest is to be served is, to put it simply, hard to do.
Since the beginning of World War II, America’s leaders have recognized the problems faced by the President in overseeing and coordinating the development and execution of foreign and national security policy. To facilitate purposeful Presidential leadership, Congress created the National Security Council in 1947.2 Comprising the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, the NSC’s role is to advise the President with respect to the various factors bearing on the maintenance of national security. The statute establishing the NSC also authorized the position of executive director of the NSC and a staff to be located in the Executive Office of the President.
Successive Presidents have used meetings of the National Security Council to dramatize their concern with and involvement in major foreign policy issues and crises. Their uses of the NSC and its staff for the day-to-day management and coordination of foreign and national security policy have differed sharply, however. Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson relied on trusted advisors and largely ad hoc processes to lead and direct national security policy. President Eisenhower, on the other hand, relied on a process organized around the NSC staff, relying on it to define issues and alternatives and to [Page 4] give him the basis for articulating basic policy. So did Nixon, but with the important difference that he greatly expanded the role, size, and activities of the NSC staff. Under Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security advisor, this expanded NSC system became the visible and controversial means whereby Nixon controlled foreign and national security policy from the center. The publicity given to Kissinger’s NSC system and the controversies associated with it make the issue of what Carter will do with it—more generally, how Carter will oversee foreign affairs—compelling.
But the issue is important for another reason. It is widely recognized that foreign and national security policy have shifted dramatically in content and emphasis in the last 20 years. Military considerations no longer predominate. The Departments of State and Defense are not the agencies of primary or sole importance for the bulk of the issues that come before the President; they regularly cut across departmental lines. Issues are more complex, policy goals more difficult to devise, execution is more difficult. Thus, more than ever, policy-making is dominated by centripetal forces; decision-making tends to gravitate toward the President. Can the NSC system or adaptations of it be sufficient for effective Presidential leadership in these changed and more demanding circumstances? Will some combination of the methods used by Truman, Kennedy and Johnson work? Or are new organizational arrangements and instruments of Presidential control and perhaps new authorizing legislation needed?
Recent experience suggests that the processes whereby the President oversees foreign affairs must be adapted to his leadership and executive style. Kennedy could not have endured cumbersome bureaucratic processes; he was comfortable with ambiguity, complexity and conflict. Eisenhower could not have managed conflict-ridden informal debates; he needed orderly and disciplined staff support, well digested and brief decision papers. The essential aspects of Carter’s style must be uppermost in the minds of those designing the foreign policy management processes for his Presidency.
Because of the number, complexity and vital importance of the issues which he will face, however, even an active, self-confident, bright and energetic President will be well-advised to submit to some bureaucratic discipline and to create some type of systematic staff support in the Executive Office. Issues that are ignored or mishandled through oversight, inadvertence or poorly organized staff support can have costly, explosive, or dire consequences.
With this as background, at least five archetypical alternatives should be considered by Carter in choosing an approach to foreign [Page 5] policy management and coordination. I term them the “Strong President”; the “Strong Secretary”; the “Strong NSC”; the “Executive Cabinet”;3 and the “Executive President”.
“Strong President”. The President personally assumes the preeminent role in organizing and directing foreign policy development and execution. Through regular personal contact with key advisors—principal cabinet and subcabinet officials, the national security advisor and his top people, key legislators—he stays abreast of issues and developments, directs the creation of or abolishes task forces and committees, calls for staff papers, discusses alternatives, challenges proposals, and communicates decisions. Not bound by procedure or formality, the President tailors the staff support system to his needs; he changes it as his needs change. The NSC meets when he feels it is to his advantage; he adds to the list of attendees as he sees fit. His White House staff/NSC staff advisors monitor, remind, record, follow-up, suggest, inform, and advise to his order, but they do not assume major executive responsibilities on the President’s behalf.
The potential advantages are those flowing from sustained substantive contact between an active, well-informed and energetic President with his principal subordinates. Styles mesh, a sense of teamwork develops, communications are clear and direct, and personal accountability is established, all to the benefit of the President’s ability to lead. Procedural formalities and rigidities are minimized. Rather than inexorable staff growth in the White House, bureaucratic and executive strength tends to develop within the agencies and departments.
The disadvantages can be glaring if the right combination of competence and styles cannot be obtained among the President and his advisors. The President’s personality may become too dominant, and he may not hear or learn what he should from eager-to-please subordinates. If a particular advisor turns out to be weak or lacking in certain skills, the President may find it difficult to work around him or her. When the key people become preoccupied with a crisis, other issues may fall through the cracks or significant developments may be overlooked because there is no bureaucratic backup; no one else has the power to do anything. This arrangement is also expensive in terms of the President’s time.
“Strong Secretary”. The President sets up his Secretary of State or Defense as “first among equals” (Acheson and McNamara and perhaps Kissinger currently are examples) to help him carry out executive func[Page 6]tions; formulating issues, directing staff work, identifying disagreements, bringing matters up for decision, and even deciding (“I had better clear this with the President”). The White House staff advisory capacity is similar to that in the “Strong President” model, with an added emphasis on monitoring the relationship between the President and the strong secretary.
The advantages are, first, that the President is less exposed than in the previous model to costly bureaucratic and political conflict; he can use his secretary as a lightning rod. Less of the President’s time is consumed in routine management. Executive strength with Presidential perspective is developed in a major cabinet agency.
There are notable disadvantages as well. Any particular secretary inherently lacks clout in other cabinet agencies, especially where there are strong policy disagreements. Thus there would be continuous bureaucratic conflict, with probable political costs, and the President would continually be called upon to back his strong secretary. Especially now, when so many different agencies are involved in so many issues, a strong secretary model may not be feasible. Also, cabinet officers inevitably have divided loyalties. In relying on one over others where all have a stake, the President risks getting biased or distorted perspectives.
“Strong NSC”. In place of personal executive leadership by the President, Nixon and Kissinger developed and actively relied on a rather elaborate NSC system. Under such a system, formal procedures are established whereby the President, or his National Security Advisor acting for him, could direct that special studies on key issues be conducted and systematically reviewed and then make, record, and disseminate the resulting policy and program decisions. To handle on-going White House responsibilities—crisis management, preparations for SALT, defense budget review—standing inter-agency committees or panels at the Undersecretary level are created, supported by interagency working groups, all chaired by the National Security Advisor or his staff. Occasionally, special temporary task forces are created for high priority assignments.
The advantages of this system depend in significant part on Presidential style. It is especially suited to a President who dislikes an extensive personal role in leading and coordinating his bureaucracy, who likes to read about, but not confront, issues and disagreements and then decide alone or “in private.” But the system has important advantages apart from this consideration. A highly competent National Security Advisor supported by a strong and well-informed staff and backed by the President can greatly extend the President’s grasp on his administration’s foreign and national security activities. Responsible to no particular bureaucracy, peculiarly dedicated to the Presidential [Page 7] perspective, a strong NSC staff can bring about more thorough and objective staff work on specific issues, promote greater consistency and coherence in dealing with the substance of policies, and undertake active monitoring of execution. Especially on issues for which responsibility is widely dispersed in the bureaucracy, the NSC staff can involve the executive effort devoted to pulling disparate elements together.
The disadvantages are several. The bureaucratic and procedural barriers between the President and his principal advisors can create considerable irritation and hostility toward the system, thereby undermining its effectiveness. The President may fail to gain the “touch and feel” of issues and of the people who are affected by them and who must execute his decisions. The demands on the agencies may become excessive, and the sense of accountability to the President among them may atrophy. If the National Security Advisor has executive weaknesses or blind spots, their adverse consequences can be greatly magnified because the system is so dependent on him. Strong and capable executives may be reluctant to take Cabinet and Sub-Cabinet posts in a system where they are so clearly subordinate in policy matters.
“Executive Cabinet”. Allison and Szanton have proposed the abolition of the NSC and that “an executive committee of the cabinet become the chief forum for high-level review and decision” on all cross-cutting issues. ExCab would be supplemented by subcommittees and ad hoc task forces. It would be supported by a sizeable permanent staff responsible to the relevant White House staff jointly. The latter staff would be small, and no substantive advisor would have a role in managing the flow of advice from other sources. The individual responsible for making this set-up work effectively would be “the President himself.”
As far as advantages are concerned, Allison and Szanton note that “for the first time, the President would possess a substantive staff oriented toward a control task previously performed only in his own mind or not at all: assessing trade-offs among domestic, foreign, economic (and political) considerations, and integrating policy across those boundaries.” Also, “it would widen the circle of advisors the President normally consults before making major decisions.” The simultaneous attempts to abolish the NSC and create ExCab would signal clearly that the President reorganized the cross-cutting nature of foreign policy/security issues and that reliance on State/Defense/Treasury was no longer appropriate.
Principal disadvantages are as follows. The ExCab system would be both complicated and cumbersome. Further, the lines of authority are fuzzy: collegial bodies supervising or overseeing collegial bodies. Though the President is personally to superintend the ExCab system, the President’s staff is to be accorded a relatively weak relationship to [Page 8] it. Thus, rather than facilitating purposeful and vigorous Presidential leadership over policy formulation and execution, the system is more likely to foster a kind of Senate-style collegial deliberation which could prove quite sluggish. Collegial bodies are not ideally suited to performing executive functions. Thus, the ExCab system is likely to dissolve into something else, with the formal processes, if used, becoming ceremonial. The real decisions will be made in ad hoc fashion. Moreover, the ExCab staff will either be captured by someone with bureaucratic muscle—not necessarily the President—or become vestigial. Finally, an attempt to abolish the NSC (as opposed to amending the statute to broaden its mandate and membership or using it as Kennedy did) has no apparent political advantages and a lot of disadvantages.
My recommendation is an approach that combines aspects of a strong President with a strong NSC, which can be termed the “Executive President.” Tailored to an active Presidential leadership style, this approach assumes that the President emphasizes face-to-face dealings with subordinates and flexible procedures for thinking through issues, delegating responsibilities, and reaching decisions. He introduces some order into the process, however, and uses his White House staff to assist him with executive functions. His foreign affairs/national security staff are more than horse holders or idea people. They are able to run meetings, manage study processes, organize staff work, maintain contact with the bureaucracy, and demonstrate substantive competence, because the President uses them frequently in these roles.
In short, in addition to the President’s personal capacities, there is substantive and executive competence at the center, with the drawing of clean lines of authority.
This approach is consistent with what I sense is Governor Carter’s leadership style. It is also consistent with what I believe to be the realities facing the President in decision-making. Some order is needed, but not so much as to be inhibiting. Staff competence at the center is needed—the President cannot rely solely on staffs and agencies with divided loyalties—but not as much as to supplant the development of competence and a proper sense of accountability in the many executive agencies which must be involved in policy formulation and execution. Lines of authority and accountability must be drawn; free floating staffs, advisors without portfolios or clearly defined responsibilities, and collegial bodies without clear purpose and someone to run them create problems.
In no sense does choosing this course of action imply a retention of “the Kissinger system.” In fact, it isn’t such a retention. (The only exception that should clearly be considered is retention of the Verifica[Page 9]tion Panel of the NSC4 to continue supporting SALT.) It can and should be created and put into operation with new faces, new procedures, and new intentions.
- Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Box 113, National Security Council System, 9/15/76–1/77. No classification marking. L.E. Lynn, Jr. is presumed to be Laurence E. Lynn, Jr., who was a Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Lynn served in several government agencies prior to 1974 when he returned to academe, including the Department of the Interior; Department of Health, Education and Welfare; National Security Council; and Department of Defense.↩
- Reference to the National Security Act of 1947, P.L. 80–253.↩
- Allison and Szanton use this term to describe their proposal for reorganizing the Presidency. [Footnote is in the original. Lynn is referring to Graham Allison and Peter Szanton’s book, published in 1976, Remaking Foreign Policy: The Organizational Connection.]↩
- The Verification Panel, one of the NSC committees, was created to oversee arms control issues and options.↩