Friday, April 15, 2011

#18: In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served by Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler

385 pp, Simon and Schuster 2009

If I could summarize this book with two words, they would be absolutely absorbing. While the authors focus on the National Security Advisers from the 1950s on, some of the most effective portions of the text focus on the Presidents. The authors present the actions of the NSA in the context of both the world events which they were to analyze as well as the management styles of the president and the personal rivalries of the cabinet. While the anecdotes and "behind the scenes" items are worth the read in itself, the analysis of management styles of the presidents makes this book wonderful.

What emerges is a split between "hands on" Presidents (Nixon, Kennedy, Bush I), "delegators" (Reagan, Bush II) and those in between (LBJ,Clinton, Eisenhower). Nixon and Kissinger "demonstrate the policy power potential of the NSA position and the costs of a closed system." (93). Indeed, some of Kissinger's rivals in the cabinet did not even know what he was negotiating or who he was talking with. For example, as Nixon and Kissinger worked to open relations with China, Kissinger traveled to India with three different teams and three different sets of instructions:
--the first to talk to Indian officials, which was to divert attention from
--the second to work back channel communications with Pakistan, which was to divert attention from
--the third, which traveled to Beijing to meet with Zhou Enlai.

Kissinger emerges from these pages as the most powerful NSA while Condaleeza Rice emerges as perhaps the most ineffectual. The authors stress, and I agree, that this is more the fault of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld than Rice. One telling comment included from Cheney about Rumsfeld goes "When I look at Donald Rumsfeld, I see a great secretary of defense. When he looks at Dick Cheney, he sees a former assistant of Donald Rumsfeld." Rice was hamstrung from the start because of Cheney's ownership of the ear of President Bush. Rice was "Bush's enabler and enforcer...but was heavily constrained over how the other people in the administration did their jobs. (252). While not a sympathetic figure, you get the feeling that Rice was in over her head...and what might have happened if Rumsfeld was not such a self-serving egotist.

In the discussion of management, an "ad hoc" approach to foreign policy seems to be the most dangerous and most likely to cause difficulties. Clinton's 1st term and LBJ's work in Vietnam were ad hoc arrangements. GHW Bush came on the scene as one of the more qualified Presidents, with Brent Scowcroft, "perhaps the ideal NSA...the temperament of a team player...and, a person rare in Washington, willing to park his ego to ensure the process moved smoothly." (171) As a result, Bush I and his team emerge quite well from these pages. Clinton, on the other hand, emerges as someone not qualified for the job during his first term. He learned fast, thanks to his NSA Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

A key piece of analysis from the authors points to the "increasing domestic politicization of foreign affairs following the Cold War." (228) This in turn pushed Clinton and Christopher to make assistants "issue managers" who could speak to both the domestic and foreign repercussions of U.S. policy. All in all, especially for those interested in the inner workings of bureaucratic Washington, this book is highly recommended.

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